LRS Conformance: A Call to Action for Industry and Academia

Written By

Nick Washburn

May 18, 2017

On April 12, 2017, the LRS Conformance Test Suite for the Experience API (xAPI) was released, marking a seminal moment for the future of learning technology. The formality of xAPI is here, and here begin the new responsibilities for all xAPI practitioners. If you are a learning and development (L&D) newbie, or if you are new to xAPI, I have written several Learning Solutions Magazine articles that cover the value of xAPI and include some useful case studies. Searching “xAPI” on the LSMag website also provides results with information about xAPI.

The governing body for the Experience API and learning record store (LRS) specifications is a US government organization called the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative. The ADL Initiative believes that the transition of xAPI technology from government into industry and academia is critical. The ADL released the xAPI specification on April 26, 2013, with adoption pledged by over 30 vendors. Riptide Software represents one of those vendors, and we are listed as one of the Working Group Contributors who created xAPI. ADL has stressed that it would not own the xAPI specification once it was completed and would let the market and community drive the process. In 2016, ADL began facilitating this work through the Data Interoperability Standards Consortium (DISC), which is the market community organization helping to inform ADL. Riptide is also an active member of DISC.

Learning evaluation data and data interoperability are not new concepts. Educators want to evaluate the effectiveness of material by understanding where the learner is struggling and excelling. In face-to-face learning, the teacher uses techniques to understand how the learner may be thinking. By getting all the interaction data from digital learning, we have the first start in such evaluation. Again, this is not a new concept, and there have been people working on this for a long time; their work has accumulated to today. The ADL is also the governing body for the SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), which was launched in 2001 and widely adopted around the globe by governments, academia, and industry. The AICC (Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee) specification that slightly predates SCORM is very similar, has adoption, and was transitioned in 2014 to ADL as the governing body. These were created to provide comprehensive learning competency and interaction data, but they were not really created for today’s interconnected world. 

What exactly is the LRS Conformance Test Suite?

You may be thinking of LRS conformance in the same way that we think of script-based languages such as HTML5 and XML conformance; these are W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) initiatives and have tools for you to check the syntax of your code. xAPI Validators, ongoing DISC xAPI Profiles work, and xAPI resources and tools that make it easier to design, develop, and enable content with xAPI will continue to be important. But the LRS Conformance Test is the other necessary form of technology conformance.

Think of the LRS Conformance Test as similar to how a web browser must support the HTML5 specifications. A browser technology needs to be conformant to the HTML5 specification in order to allow people to make content that will work on their web browser. If HTML5 content does not work on a web browser, it is because of a problem with either the content or the browser (or sometimes both). An LRS must support the xAPI specifications exactly for the same types of reasons. If something does not work on an LRS, it is either the xAPI code or the LRS (or sometimes both). Understand that an LRS is not a “thing,” it is a specification. When an LRS is being built into a “thing,” there are a variety of technology ingredients that may be used. The specification does not mandate the technology that you must use for an LRS; it describes the features and success criteria that an LRS must and should have. This allows for innovations and openness in technology for the vendor and xAPI practitioner market community.

The HTML5 specifications have not throttled innovation for HTML5; conformance has enabled it to thrive. The xAPI LRS conformance requirements go to a lower technology database level to the actual learning record store implementation. They currently cover 1,389 specific tests that an LRS must pass. The LRS Conformance Test is about providing summative, formative, objective, and subjective evaluation data to those learning organizations that would like to have that kind of detailed data—and really should have been getting that sort of data since 2001. It is also about data interoperability, providing more accurate reporting, and more.

What’s next after conformance?

What I understand from communication with ADL and DISC is that conformance is the first step now, and certification is next and coming soon. LRS conformance offers an automated way to check your technology’s adherence to the specification (as stated above). Certifications will put a “human in the loop” to certify that both LRS and xAPI use are correct. Proper use of xAPI is intended to help you future-proof your approach as well as get what you need in actionable learning-activity data now. Certification for xAPI designers and developers on how to apply xAPI code to digital activities is also being worked on by DISC and ADL. The goal is that an ecosystem will develop around certification and use of xAPI, as it has for so many other technologies. So, what we will have very soon is the ability for learning professionals to be certified in xAPI as well as certification for xAPI products. Right now we have LRS conformance for LRS products. 

Why is the LRS Conformance Test so vital to the success of xAPI?

Conformance speaks directly to the implementation of xAPI technology and the interoperability, storage, and reporting of the data. Hindsight being 20/20, if we look to the past, the adoption of SCORM/AICC at this lower technology level was not successful. Let me elaborate. Practitioners who originally tackled the relatively complex and time-consuming process of adding SCORM and AICC to their digital learning could not get the content to run on most LMS technologies that claimed to conform to the same specifications. They couldn’t get it to report. So, even today, using SCORM and/or AICC does not provide the intended value. Success criteria are supposed to be determined from evaluation data, and we have just not been able to get adequate evaluation data. Today, most business enterprise functions quantify their very existence with data. The training function is in the Stone Age compared to the rest of the enterprise when it comes to understanding data personas and learner profiles of their “customer” (the learner). I would like to reiterate that the learner is your customer.

You do not have to understand all the technical details and the business rules of xAPI. You do, however, need to be invested in the stewardship of this technology if you want it to perform in the way it was intended. Simply put, you have an open community driving this effort that is committed to ensuring that everyone is truthful about their xAPI/LRS technology. Organizations adopting xAPI have the option to “build or buy” when it comes to an LRS, and this also helps industry professionals who are involved in technology procurement to begin to establish criteria for use of xAPI within their ecosystem.

In closing, if you are considering an LMS or LRS vendor who claims to have an LRS, you should also verify they are conformant or have a verifiable date and goal and are working towards conformance. Please add LRS conformance, and when available, add certification to your xAPI/LRS vendor and technology evaluation criteria. This is a call to action for the community of all industries and academia to do our part so that we can keep xAPI capable of performing in the way it is intended.

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