Megan Torrance is CEO—chief energy officer—at TorranceLearning, a full-stack learning services firm. TorranceLearning also provides professional development for the learning and development industry, including the free xAPI Learning Cohort, which they ran before handing the baton to the Learning Guild.
Megan is an evangelist for xAPI and has over 25 years of consulting, instructional design, and project management experience. She’s also the author of Agile for Instructional Designers: Iterative Project Management to Achieve Results and Making Sense of xAPI.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Celisa Steele talks with Megan about all things xAPI: what it is, what it promises above and beyond SCORM, and real-world examples of what it looks like in action. They also talk about cmi5 and why most learning business professionals should care about it (but not too much), what can be done with data and analytics, human learning versus adult learning, and much more.
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[00:00] – Intro
What is xAPI?
[01:32] – Would you explain what xAPI is and how it got its start?
The “x” stands for “experience,” which means it’s not just about learning. It’s about learning and performing all sorts of experiences. “API” stands for “application programming interface,” which is an agreement between two systems on how they share data.
What’s interesting about xAPI is that it’s not just an agreement between two systems, or one-to-one, but rather an agreement of an entire industry on how to talk about learning and performance experiences.
SCORM is also an open API that’s been agreed on by an entire industry, but it’s more limited. It’s used to talk about e-learning experiences launched from an LMS, one at a time, and it works while the user is logged into the e-learning, and it’s on the same server as the learning management system.
xAPI opens up the contexts beyond what SCORM covers. xAPI was created by the same organization, the Advanced Distributed Learning Group, that brought us SCORM, so the two are highly aligned.
The Real Value of xAPI
[02:58] – When you think about the real value of or potential for xAPI, what comes to mind?
SCORM did amazing things for our industry that many other industries don’t have. It gave us a single, assessable, free specification that is used globally by companies, academic institutions, associations, militaries, and governments to talk about and exchange data about what we do.
SCORM means you can put your content in any LMS on the planet and then swap out services providers and authoring platforms, and it all just works. Nobody has to think much about SCORM, which means there are almost no barriers to entry. There’s a very fluid vendor market.
xAPI has all that same promise of that interoperable global marketplace for content, people, platforms but also gives us a lot richer data set and a lot more flexibility than SCORM did.Megan Torrance
We can use the richer data set provided by xAPI for analytics, workflow triggers, gating and locking content, personalization, and remembering information learners provide across courses.
The richness of xAPI makes it harder to agree on a shared set of ways to talk this data than it was with SCORM because SCORM is relatively shallow. xAPI lets you say almost anything about any kind of learning or performance experience.
SCORM vs. xAPI: Core Differences
[05:43] – Will you explain the core structure of xAPI?
Megan likes to contrast SCORM and xAPI. She thinks of SCORM as a vocabulary. You can talk about some relatively consistent but shallow pieces of data across everything: your launch date, completion date, current status, score on the test (but only one test), and how you answered the questions (only if you use the fancier SCORM 2004).
xAPI is more like a sentence. You have an actor, which is generally a person but can be a group or a thing. You also have a verb—and that verb is really important. The verbs generally exist in a profile that dictates which ones you are going to use and how to use them. For example, there’s a profile for things that look like e-learning, and one for things that look like video, and these profiles provide the appropriate verbs you’ll use. Whenever you’re looking at a thing that looks like a conference, these are the verbs you’re going to use. Then you have objects or activities, so what you did it on or in.
xAPI gets very interesting in the results and context data. You can tag things about your experience, rate it, even put in a free-text entry related to the equipment you were on, who your instructor was, etc. This is possible with an xAPI statement, which then allows you to use any of those data elements to extract meaning, insight, and data later on.
The Current State of xAPI
[08:10] – How would you describe the acceptance of and implementation of xAPI today?
It depends on the day. There are days when it is slower than anybody wants it to be. The community of people doing this has been at it for a very long time (Megan herself since 2012). It’s slower than anybody wants it, in part because it is an open specification.
The magic of xAPI isn’t the technology. The technology is relatively boring. The magic of xAPI is the agreement of an entire global community to talk about learning and performance experiences in the same way.Megan Torrance
Part of why xAPI implementation is going slower than anybody wants is because it’s being developed by committees. Those committees bring a well-rounded perspective, but it’s also a shockingly slow way to move.
xAPI needs to be “geek-free” in order to be able to get traction in the marketplace, and that’s starting to happen. At a very basic level, in most e-learning authoring packages, before you hit Publish, you can click a button if you want to publish to xAPI. For most packages, you’ll get some pretty dry stuff, but it requires zero programming, which is important.
There are tools that
It’s when tools that aren’t e-learning tools use xAPI that Megan gets excited. Mobile reminder tools, chatbots, video-streaming, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR), and survey tools can use xAPI, and that’s exciting because we didn’t previously have their data in the mix in a learning management system because all SCORM wasn’t relevant.
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What is cmi5?
[12:12] – What is cmi5?
cmi5 covers the SCORM-like stuff in xAPI. cmi5 is the data profile within xAPI that says how e-learning courses and learning management systems will track what they used to track in SCORM. It includes things like attempt, launch, initialize, page views, questions and answers, etc. It also has rules like complete, incomplete, and pass.
The bottom line is that you want cmi5 to be there, and you don’t want to have to think about it too much.
What xAPI Means for Learning Businesses
[14:39] – What does xAPI mean for learning businesses? What should they be doing to further their understanding of xAPI?
If you have developers on your team, point them at the xAPI specification. There are lots of resources for coding.
For the rest of us, having a basic working understanding of xAPI is sufficient. One way to get such an understanding is through the xAPI Learning Cohort, which is a 12-week, free, virtual, learning-by-doing experience, which Megan and her team founded. As fall 2022, it’s being supported by the Learning Guild. It includes a Slack community, and participants can form projects and try it out for themselves. You can also join someone else’s project to watch.
Real Examples of xAPI
[16:55] – Can you share some examples/case studies of what xAPI looks like in the wild?
Megan describes a project that was a multi-part learning experience. There was a self-assessment and three e-learning courses. There was a face-to-face course, a mobile performance support app, and coaching guides for managers. It had all the ingredients for a great training. But their LMS didn’t track all of it, so they used xAPI to track details about what people were doing and how they were engaging.
They were also using xAPI for some utilitarian purposes that SCORM doesn’t support, such as gating and locking content. They also used xAPI to keep track of information learners provided at the beginning of the course (a personalization tidbit, self-assessment results, etc.) and to use it later on in the experience.
Megan has also worked on a project for a medical association that involves very complex question types and case-based assessments. They’re using xAPI to get detailed insight into how learners answer complex question types. It’s really interesting from an educational provider perspective to be able to do some things that are much more than you could otherwise do in SCORM.
By doing these projects in xAPI, each of these organizations can bring in other vendors and pieces of the learning experience, and they all speak the same data language rather than building in a proprietary system that doesn’t share its data out and doesn’t easily ingest other data.
xAPI Data Strategy
[20:58] – A lot of data is generated in learning experiences, which speaks to the need to have some idea of what you want to do with the data. How are you going to use the data to improve the product in the future or to improve or personalize the experience for the learner currently?
Megan and her team look at data strategy and thing about what what you’re going to want and what data you’ll need to do that. You need a certain amount of data just to run your organization. Beyond that, they started asking what questions learners have. They then asked, “Who cares about the answers?”
There were some things that the learners wanted to know about their own performance, but, at scale, nobody else really cared about as much. There are some things that the client or provider organizations needed or that the learning team cared about, but nobody else did. Being able to parse out who wants to know what was really insightful and helped them prioritize needs.
They then looked at what data was required to answer those questions. Only then did they look at how to instrument the learning experience to capture that data.
Megan is also a huge fan (where you can and where it’s ethical to do so) of having data that you might explore. You might find new questions based on what you see there. She recommends an iterative approach. Once you answer your first questions, then you can create better questions because you know what you really want to look at.
[24:06] – How do you describe your learning philosophy?
Learning is what people do all the time.
People say, “I’m a lifelong learner.” I’m like, “Well, aren’t we all?” Like we all learn something, and we’re all inventors. I mean, it’s part of what it is to be human at some level. But some of it’s formal. Some of it’s informal.Megan Torrance
Megan is interested in connecting with older people to see how they learn.
In order to learn, you have to confess that you don’t know something, and that can be intimidating, particularly if you’re learning something within your own industry. Learning something outside your field can be less intimidating because you don’t have credibility to lose or anything to prove.
The Key Ingredients of Effective Learning
[26:20] – What are the key ingredients in effective adult learning? What is critical for effective learning?
When Megan looks at the list of adult learning principles, she thinks they apply to kids too. What kids consider relevant is different than what adults might consider relevant, but relevancy is still a factor for both.
When talking about adult workplace learning, relevance is key. She’s a believer of relevant practice and action planning as part of learning experiences. When Megan creates professional development courses, all the activities are the learners’ own work—not a fake case. She has them bring their own cases and situations. When learners work on something real, they create their own first step and cheat sheet for afterwards.
She’s also a big fan of personalization and adaptation. Even in an instructor-led situation, if you can mix up the activities so that people can choose from options an activity that’s meaningful to them, that’s huge.
Celisa adds that when she looks at some of Knowles’s principles, she doesn’t know why they are considered “adult” versus just “human”—so human learning principles.
Lifelong Learning Habits
[29:10] – How do you approach your own development and lifelong learning? What specific habits, sources, or practices do you engage in to develop professionally and personally?
Megan signs up for a lot of newsletters. She doesn’t read them all, but she does scan the headlines. She’s getting into the practice of carving out enough time to attend conferences that aren’t directly related to her industry but adjacent. She’s been interested lately in reading about data and statistics. She also likes to take notes because it helps her contextualize information and cement it in her brain in a different way.
It’s her belief and a running joke at TorranceLearning that instructional designers ruin everything. People in the learning profession see things differently in the world and are constantly evaluating, scanning, and picking up good ideas.
The Future of Learning
[31:44] – When you think about the future of learning, what excites you? Are there trends or developments that you have your eye on?
Megan acknowledges she may have a biased lens because of her personal interests, but she’s really interested in data and statistics. But what’s interesting about the data-driven trend in the learning industry is that often most functions of most large organizations have better data than the learning function has.
Higher education tends to have better data about what’s going on from a student perspective. It’s very powerful to think about how we might use data and statistics to start informing how we design, tailor, and personalize workplace learning.
One of the downsides of SCORM is that because it’s been so limited, our industry has a kind of learned helplessness. We don’t know what we don’t have, and we have never had it, depending on the platforms we use. Bringing meaningful data, statistics, and analytics into our space is really exciting.
The xAPI Learning Cohort
[33:24] – Is there anything else that comes to mind that you want to have a chance to say?
One of the things Megan loves about the xAPI Learning Cohort is that it was created to be inclusive and welcoming. She invites everyone reading to join for no other reason than to take the instructional designer’s lens.
TorranceLearning ran the cohort for 14 semesters, and now the Learning Guild is taking on oversight. They’re going to hone it as a learning experience and think carefully about how to onboard new people into that community and make them feel comfortable.
They’re also spending time making sure that the speaker base and the people that are lifted up in that space are also diverse as possible. This is intentional and comes from a desire to reflect back all the industry has to offer.
[35:28] – Wrap-up
Megan Torrance is CEO at TorranceLearning and founder of the xAPI Learning Cohort. She’s the author of Agile for Instructional Designers: Iterative Project Management to Achieve Results and Making Sense of xAPI.
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