What is xAPI and should you be using it to collect data?

Last week I had the pleasure of talking with Megan Torrance of TorranceLearning. I’ve seen her talk about xAPI at conferences and post about it on LinkedIn, but I wanted an opportunity to connect and learn more about what xAPI is and who should be using it (plus we learned that she grew up in the very small town in western New York where my father now lives!).

If you don’t feel like you’re getting the data you need from your learning programs, then this short conversation with Megan could change the way you decide to collect data.

Transcript of the Conversation with Megan Torrance

Brian Washburn: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning & development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, the Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning and your host for a Train Like You Listen, which is brought to you by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid-authoring tool for instructor-led training. It’s a little bit like instant pot for lesson planning. You go ahead and throw in a few ingredients, like how long your presentation is going to be, how many people will be there, what are your learning objectives, and then you wait 10 seconds and out pops a lesson plan with activities for your session.

So if you want more information about that, go to soapboxify.com. I am here today and I’m joined by Megan Torrance, who is the founder and CEO of TorranceLearning. Hi, Megan, thank you for joining us today. 

Megan Torrance: Hey there. Good to be here, Brian. Thanks.

Brian Washburn: And so we’re going to be talking about this topic of xAPI and measurement with learning initiatives, specifically e-learning.

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: And when we think of this topic and like we always do, we like to introduce ourselves with our six-word biographies before we jump into the hard questions. Although sometimes people think that that six-word biography is the hardest question. But when I think of this and xAPI, I think “I’m always looking to collect data“.

That would be, kind of, how I would introduce myself or sum myself up in six words. How about you, Megan? How would you sum up your whole career in six words?

Megan Torrance: (LAUGHING) Brian, you know me well enough to know my six words are, “I can’t do only six words”.

Brian Washburn: Fair enough. Fair enough. So why don’t we get into some more-than-six-word answers.

What Is xAPI?

Brian Washburn: And, you know, I’ve mentioned that we’re talking about xAPI and measurement, but for the benefit of people who are listening and who don’t really know what xAPI is, can you give us a brief explanation of what it is before we go any further?

Megan Torrance: Absolutely. So Brian, if what we– if we were to assume, right, if your audience knows e-learning, your audience has seen the acronym SCORM, and the beautiful thing about SCORM is we don’t have to think about it much, right?

We just kind of pick a SCORM option. At the end of building a course, we publish– we throw it in a learning management system. Magically, it works. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. I still don’t know how it happens, but it does. 

Megan Torrance: Exactly. Right. Most people have never seen SCORM, right. 

But here’s the thing about SCORM. I promise I’ll get to xAPI. The thing about SCORM is that it is ubiquitous. It is global. It is interoperable, with only minor little tweaks. It is testable. You can be fully compliant or not. It’s geek free. It is mature enough in the industry that it’s geek free.

It’s super shallow. Right? So SCORM is the way our e-learning courses talk to our learning management systems. You take that e-learning course outside of a learning management system and it doesn’t talk to anything. You put anything else, right– you mentioned instructor-led training when you’re talking about Soapbox, PDFs, videos, a live interaction with a pile of Legos. Whatever.

They don’t track anything with SCORM. So our LMS’s don’t see that data. And when we do track e-learning with SCORM, we get super shallow data. We get completion. Yay. Maybe questions scores, dates, time, right? How much– how long was that course open? We don’t know anything that happened on any of those screens.

So all of those limitations: only e-learning, only in the LMS, only well connected to the internet, only a limited vocabulary, xAPI resolves all of those situations. So we can track any kind of data we want out of any learning or performance experience, as long as we can digitize it. And it’s promise is that, as we keep advancing it and it keeps maturing just like SCORM did 20 years ago, it will be geek free and ubiquitous everywhere. 

How is xAPI Used in the Real World?

Brian Washburn: Okay. So you’ve kind of explained this concept. It helps us to find more than just who completed it, or how long they spent maybe on the course or whatever. But can you give us some examples of how xAPI is actually used in the real world? I mean, are people collecting weird stuff or are they collecting important stuff?

Megan Torrance: Yes.  

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING)

Megan Torrance: Yes, there is weird stuff and important stuff. But– so there’s two realms in which we can collect data here, right? One is– I call it the “deep naval gazing realm”. We can know, if we want, everything that happens inside that e-learning course.

You build a great little hint button on the top of the screen. How many people click the hint? You create a tabbed interaction. How many people clicked all 6 tabs? How many people clicked all 6 tabs in exactly 5.4 seconds, bing-bing-bing-bing-bing-bing, just so they could get to the next slide, right? How many people clicked and went back, right?

You can get all this, like, very granular information, which I find is most helpful in the development and early release of a course, right, that timeframe. 

Brian Washburn: Sure. 

Megan Torrance: After that, it’s too granular, right? It’s too detailed. But you can find some really useful stuff. We literally know in one of the courses that we created, the exact percentage of people who found the hint button on a particular screen.I can also tell you if using the hint helped them pass the test better. 

On the other end of the spectrum, right, I can now start using xAPI to correlate usage of learning  resources and practice experiences with business performance and the on-the-job behaviors we’re trying to get. And so, that’s the– when it’s out in the world, is it actually working? Those are the big questions that we haven’t been able to answer as an industry for a really long time. 

Brian Washburn: Which is the– it’s not even a kept secret. We, we really don’t, right? We– it’s, it’s one of those things where  we have access to data, but how do we correlate it to performance in the real world?

Are There Instances in Which xAPI Doesn’t Need to be Used?

Brian Washburn: Now, one thing about this is that people who either have, kind of, heard of the concept before, but weren’t super familiar with what it was or maybe are hearing about it for the first time, may be thinking to themselves now, “wow, I should be doing this with everything”.  And I think that’s really easy. I get caught up in, kind of, new concepts or new tools or things like that.

 Are there instances in which xAPI doesn’t need to be used?

Megan Torrance: Yes. Yes. Okay. Well, yes, for the caveat. And I have been accused of walking around the world with a golden xAPI hammer just looking for nails to hit– so absolutely. Somebody even threatened to make me one once. 

Brian Washburn: (Laughing)

Megan Torrance: They were afraid I was going to use it.

 So yes, if completion is really all you need, you don’t need xAPI. If your LMS has a read and sign capability for PDF, policy kind of stuff, and you really only need them to open it up and click a button that said, “yes, I read it”. Great. You don’t, you don’t have to over instrument. If SCORM works just fine, use SCORM. I will say though, you know, I have one project that we’re– all we are tracking is completion. Except we’re tracking completion offline, in remote computers that don’t have access. Right. So, xAPI also works without the internet, right? So you don’t need a live connection like you do with SCORM. And so we have, even for situations that just involve “yeah, all I care is that it’s completed”. Because the way we built the course, like you can’t get the “completed”, you know? Right. But, because we need it to work offline, we actually did need xAPI. 

Tips for Getting Started Using xAPI

Brian Washburn: So for those who are listening and thinking, okay, I get it, you know, for compliance courses, whatever completion fine, but maybe I should be using this.

Maybe I should actually start to be integrating this into projects going forward so that we can actually see what people are doing or where people are struggling or things like that. What might you say would be a few specific steps that someone can do to get started?

Megan Torrance: Okay. So to get started, A, you need a plan for data, but we don’t have time for a plan for data.

This bite-sized piece you promised. Bite-size good reminder, Megan. Right. “I can’t do only six words”. But you need to be able to send data and receive data, at its core. On the sending side, most of us already have that software. Most of the major authoring tools will send basic, sometimes it just looks like SCORM, but, basic xAPI data, just by changing your publish settings. Some of them will allow you to add JavaScript, to be able to, you know, JavaScript triggers, to be able to send better data. Some of them out of the box send better data. Domiknow does, Lectora does, SmartBuilder, right, out of the box sends better data.

You then need to receive your data. And for that you need a learning record store or an LRS. It’s different than a learning management system. It does a lot less than a learning management system, but it’s much more flexible on the data side. And all of the LRS providers offer free trial options. If you’re an e-learning developer and you already have a SCORM cloud account, you already have access to the SCORM cloud LRS. So you can be using that for you’re experimenting, you’re testing, your proof of concept, so that you can say, “hey boss”, or “hey clients, look what we can do”. And then you can get into that investment part cause you do need a little bit more hardware– pardon me, software.

Brian Washburn: And so those are a few of the baby steps that people can take and probably some research that needs to go into it. And there’s probably a much longer conversation then we can get to here. 

Get to Know Megan Torrance

Brian Washburn: And so I’m going to, kind of, stop us here, but before I go, I want to make sure that people get to know you a little bit better just because you can’t put your whole career into six words.

So, I have a few speed-round questions for you. Are you ready for the speed-round here?

Megan Torrance: I’m ready.

Brian Washburn: Alright. So the first question I have for you is what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Megan Torrance: Oh, “feel it, say it.” If you’re uncomfortable, own it, say it. If you’re about to do something unexpected, call it. It’s like calling “curb”, right?

I’m about to hit the curb everybody. Huge in my career.

Brian Washburn: That’s– well, that’s both career advice. That’s also probably good relationship advice too. So, um, what’s your favorite thing about being in the L&D field?

Megan Torrance: Oh, gosh. Okay. So my particular realm in the L&D field, right as a service provider, means that I get to learn a little bit about a lot of really random things. And it’s super fun. And so we have a running joke here at TorranceLearning, which is how far can you go into the week before somebody says, “oh yeah, we got a course on that”. So– literally it was the first day this week, which for us was Tuesday, a woman, her daughter bonked her head and we’re like, “oh, we have a concussion course”.

(CHUCKLING) It was like nine o’clock in the morning, we were done.

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLING) What’s the most random thing that you think that you’ve worked on? 

Megan Torrance: Oh man. Spray-dried cheese powder.

Brian Washburn: Oh, that is random. 

Megan Torrance: That is really random.

Brian Washburn: And when people are like, “so what do you do for work? And, “oh, I put together training”. “Like what?” “Spray-dried cheese powder.”. (CHUCKLING)

Megan Torrance: (CHUCKLING) We can’t live without it, right. 

Brian Washburn: That’s awesome. So what is something that other folks in the L&D field should be reading or listening to – books, podcasts, any recommendations?

Megan Torrance: Well, this podcast, of course.  

Brian Washburn: Of course.

Megan Torrance:  Your book, of course.

Brian Washburn: Of course.

Megan Torrance: You know, one thing, our team has just finished doing, we read– it was our first ever book club as a company-wide book club.

And we read So You Want To Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. And it has been really powerful. We have taken a two-and-a-half month, three month look through, talking about racial equity in the world, on our team, individually. It’s been really powerful.

Brian Washburn: I think that that’s such an important comment there, just because a lot of times people expect answers of other things just in L&D, right, in the L&D space. And so many guests have come on and said, we need to look beyond the L&D space to– just to be better at what we’re doing. Whether it is being able to talk the language of the business, whether it is, you know, finding what other fields do – marketing, advertising, people like that, or how do we become just better people at work like you’re saying.

Megan Torrance: Yeah.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. Absolutely. 

Megan Torrance: And I’ll, I’ll tell you, Brian, as L&D people, we have the opportunity to touch every other employee in the organization.

Brian Washburn: Absolutely. 

Megan Torrance: Like we have huge influence.

Brian Washburn: Yep. And then the final question I have here before we leave is do you have any shameless plugs for us?

Megan Torrance: Yes, of course! (CHUCKLING) So actually, in the theme of xAPI, we host every fall and every spring semester, a 12 week free learning experience for xAPI. It’s called the xAPI learning cohort.

You can find it at xapicohort.com.  And it’s a really neat learning experience. There’s a weekly web session, so there’s an arc of a curriculum and there is a very rich Slack group with questions and resources and stuff. But there are project teams that form up and any given cohort will have probably 8 to 12 project teams that are actually making a prototype, start to finish, in 12 weeks. Or start to almost-finished, or something productive, in 12 weeks. So it’s a super learning-by-doing, but you can also learn-by-lurking and just kind of paying attention to what’s going on and being on the list. We get hundreds, like 600 people a semester to sign up and our next one starts September 2nd. 

Brian Washburn: Ok.

Megan Torrance: So, all the sessions are recorded if you can’t make it. This is like the lowest commitment to learning possible. But if you do go all in, you could spend 4 to 6 hours a week. It’s pretty cool. 

Brian Washburn: And for those who are listening and thinking, “oh, xAPI, it sounds interesting. I don’t know what she’s talking about, with some of the stuff, even as you broke it down more easily.” It sounds like this can be an opportunity just to, to figure out what it is and how we can use it.

Megan Torrance: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really cool because we start week-one with what is xAPI? How do I send data? How do I receive data? How do I structure my data? What do I do with my data? Like, there’s a whole arc. The same time you get to watch. Like we’ve had projects use xAPI with e-learning, xAPI with Alexa, xAPI with Zoom, xAPI with custom software, xAPI with Unity, all sorts of different levels.

And you do not need to be a developer to get engaged.

Brian Washburn:  I love it. Thank you. Megan Torrance is the founder and CEO of TorranceLearning. Megan, thank you so much for giving me some time.

Megan Torrance: Absolutely. I enjoyed it. 

Brian Washburn: Alright, have a great rest of your week. 

Megan Torrance: Thanks. You too, bye-bye.

Brian Washburn: And thank you everyone else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which can be found on Spotify, Apple, iHeart radio, or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a rating. That’s how other people will find out about us as well. Until next time, happy training everyone.

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