What would you do if you knew? xAPI Musings

By Jim Harris (Learning Designer, University of Northhampton)

Photo by @ktoddstorch

According to Hagar, S. “What is understood need not be discussed”(1), but if we want to improve, and improve our organisation beyond what is already known, habitual, and traditional, we need support in finding ways of moving from single to double loop learning(2) (described 1:17 minutes into this video.)

I’m guessing you’re here (reading this) because, somehow or other, xAPI is a part of your world now. Whether you’re a curious initiate, a code monkey, a management influencer, thought leader, pedagog or andragog, or a dedicated follower of (technology) fashion, xAPI has had an effect on you. Maybe you’re going from an idea that is just starting to germinate, to a project initiated and with backing from those who have moved from discussion to action. Maybe you’re at a point of proving value to those who aren’t quite behind the project yet, showing an idea that is working. Maybe only now that your project is producing results do you have the headspace to start thinking about the next change that will shift your xAPI project into a new direction.

The problem for us, as it ever was, is how do you start discussions which trigger the inklings of understanding amongst those from whom you need support? Those with the skills and sense of common purpose to help you start working towards what you believe xAPI can do for your organization?

This isn’t about how to move people from their C.A.V.E. mentality – Colleagues Against Virtually Everything(3) – for that, you’re gonna need to take advice from the professional cheese movers(4) on that one!

I’m a Learning Designer (formally eLearning Development Manager) at the University of Northampton. I support staff in curriculum redesign from the aspect of constructive alignment(5), diversification of assessment to demonstrate competencies of differing levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy encompassing digital fluency and technologies(6). My work often has me walking down and then back up liminal staircases(7). I do this with academic staff who’ve spent a lifetime of learning to use technology by sitting next to Nellie, and designing our modules, courses and programmes to embed principles of Ashoka Changemaker and graduate employability within our Teaching, Learning and Assessment to provide our learners with the opportunity to be global agents for positive social change (see more here).

Focusing on developing capacity and embracing Learning Analytics to support strategic agendas for improved student/learner experience can be overwhelming. From service improvement, to adaptive pedagogies, performance feedback to learners as well as building opportunities to develop as independent learners and so much more, It can feel that discussions on how Learning Analytics would be used in an organisation might start feeling a bit like “People are not wearing enough hats.”“We need a Learning Analytics solution.” or “Do you think Learning Analytics could help?” are common kickoff comments, and discussions ensue — sometimes long, sometimes short, and from well-informed to open-minded inquisition. Sometimes you are discussing a magic bullet to retention issues or a method for initiating “double-secret probation”(8) monitoring. Jisc has developed their Code of Practice for Learning Analytics whilst the Open University has created their Ethical use of Student Data for Learning Analytics policy to prevent such folly. But what if the mere mention of Learning Analytics returns concern, confusion, or cross talk? I’ve experienced much the same when talking to people about xAPI, akin to the fictitious marriage between James and Royce – a Confused Reception(9) – poorly translated into action, and misunderstanding of the fundamental philosophies of the use of Learning Analytics.

Now, full disclosure here – I’m no data scientist, I’m not much of a researcher (yet), and much like the fire that burns inside of me fuelled by all things xAPI, my interest and enthusiasm for Learning Analytics is not what it is or how it works (although these are interesting), but what their use will allow us to do. I’m a terrible car mechanic, and I pay someone for their expertise to make it go, and whilst I understand the principles of the components of a car, I can drive it badly, drive it well, but most importantly, I know that it is a means to open up the freedom of travel to me.

I managed to bag a place at the 7th Learning Analytics Network meeting after being told about it at the xAPI Camp in April, 2016. Whilst at the meeting, I heard a phrase in the context of starting discussions with people about Learning Analytics: “What would you do if you knew?

Much the same with xAPI, the shift away from what it is, and towards “If we adopted it, what would it show that we don’t already know?” The shift from knowledge to understanding cannot be demonstrated in pure terms. It can only be externalised. We all have a dizzying array of systems and solutions, cultures and conventions, focused on formal learning. Meanwhile we’re recognising opportunity to support learning designs for the 21st Century: MOOCs – see Audrey Watters Beyond the MOOC, blended learning – join Diana Laurillard for Blended Learning Essentials, flipped classrooms– see Eric Mazur in Harvard Magazine: Twilight of the Lecture, CoPs(10)..

We have the means to fully realise our concerns as Learning Organisations, and they should be just that. A learning organisation is one that learns; that eats it’s own dogfood. Managing the risk of “doing nothing if it knew” – this isn’t about doing what everyone else is doing. The MOOC and Gamification bandwagons both have their confused receptions as well as moments that really empower an opportunity for change. Thus, it’s about how you plan to support improvement for the ones you work with, and to drive improvement in those that you work for. As Aaron Silvers once said to people in the learning and development field, “Our product is improvement”. If you understand how Learning Analytics could work in your context, but those around you don’t, keep the conversations going, ask for support from the community around xAPI – practitioners, designers, coders, managers, vendors alike.

In our Learning Design at University of Northampton, we look to start with the end in mind.What do we expect the learner to be able to demonstrate and how can we scaffold their path to mastery? So when starting the discussions about both xAPI and Learning Analytics, do the same – whilst those discussions are happening, learning is happening (if you can track those meetings, discussions and posts in xAPI statements – do it, use it, report on it and add them into the growing dog food bowl).

Get Up, and Make it Work(12) for you.



1 VAN HALEN, HAGAR S. (1998) “Live: Right Here, Right Now“Warner Bros. Records

2 ARGYRIS, C. (May 1991). “Teaching smart people how to learn“. Harvard Business Review 69 (3): 99–109.

3 POERTNER B. (September 30, 1990). “Is latest criticism worthwhile talk or just worthless?“. Orlando Sentinel.

4 JOHNSON, S. (1998). Who moved my cheese?: an amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life. New York, Putnam.

5 Biggs, J.B. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Open University Press/Society for Research into Higher Education

6 https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/blooms-digital-taxonomy-verbs Global Digital Citizen Foundation – based on http://edorigami.wikispaces.com/bloom%27s+digital+taxonomy , http://www.fresnostate.edu/academics/oie/documents/assesments/Blooms%20Level.pdf , and www.cte.cornell.edu/documents/Assessment%20-%20Blooms%20Taxonomy%20Action%20Verbs.pdf

7 Land, R., Cousin, G., Meyer, J.H.F. and Davies, P. (2005) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (3): implications for course design and evaluation, In: C. Rust (ed.), Improving Student Learning – diversity and inclusivity, Proceedings of the 12th Improving Student Learning Conference. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), pp 53-64.

8 LANDIS, J. (1978) National Lampoon’s Animal House (contains strong language) Universal Pictures

9 GIREL, M. (2008) What Went Wrong? And What is Left? James and Royce in 1900 French Philosophy PhD (Draft) Equipe “Experience Et Connaissance”(Execo)

10 LAVE, J., WENGER, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42374-0.; first published in 1990 as Institute for Research on Learning report

12 VAN HALEN, HAGAR S. (1985) “5150” Warner Bros. Records

Jim-JISC Jim Harris is a digital spanner, spanning almost 20 years in eLearning Development, but 30 years as a code monkey (10 PRINT “Hello xAPIQuarterly”; 20 GOTO 10) with an interest in finding improvements to provide opportunity for improvement. Working as a Learning Designer, he is focussed on supporting academics embrace and embed Technology-Enhanced Learning for cultural and pedagogical shifts to support the blended learning approach to Teaching and Learning at the University of Northampton as we move to the no-lecture room Waterside Campus in 2018. Feel free to follow @jimdharris and DM to start the conversation.

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