xAPI Takes the Stage at iFEST 2018

xAPI: Cornerstone of the Learning Ecosystem

The 2018 iFEST wrapped up August 29th leaving attendees excited about the changes underway in Federal and Military learning technology. The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL) paired with the National Training and Simulation Association in Alexandria, Virginia to host the conference focused on the Future Learning Ecosystem. While there were lots of surprises at the show, the emergence of xAPI and use of Learning Records Stores (LRS) as a cornerstone to the Future Learning Ecosystem was not a surprise.ADL Logo

Even before the show began, the ADL hosted a 24-hour hackathon where participants were provided an xAPI dataset, as well as data from other components of the Total Learning Architecture. These components are all currently in production and available for implementation today. Participating developers and data scientists worked together to find new ways to analyze and visualize this data to help identify performance gaps.

The IEEE Standards Association also got in on the pre-conference activities with a half-day meeting to discuss Learning Engineering as an emerging discipline and xAPI as an IEEE Standard. Yet AnalyticsShelly Blake-Plock facilitated the meeting and Avron Barr announced the inaugural International Conference on Learning Engineering slated for May 21-23, 2019 at George Mason University. Each of the Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC) special interest groups had the opportunity to provide a report of their activities. Two hot topics that that emerged were: 1) Learning Data Privacy and 2) Competency Frameworks/certification. Both conversations carried on through the rest of the conference. If you are interested in learning more, there is a Learning Engineering summit hosted by the IEEE ICICLE on October 23 in conjunction with the eLearning Guild’s DevLearn Conference. There will also be a special session at ITSEC on forming an ICICLE Chapter for Military Training.

ADL Director Dr. Sae Schatz along with the ADL’s Director of Innovation, Dr. JJ Vogel-Walcutt set the stage with opening comments about the conference. JJ introduced the focus of the conference as future learning ecosystem evolving in military, academia and industry. Sae said we should not limit our focus to distributed learning and simply focus on Advanced Learning.  Fred Drummond, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Education and Training, began his keynote with the message, “We are always looking for outcomes.” Mr. Drummond discussed the need for innovation to ensure combat readiness in a time when technology changes more quickly than traditional government and military processes can accommodate. He went on to discuss the DoD’s Licensing and Credentialing polices to help service members transition to civilian-life after military service. The DoD is making it a priority to cross-reference skills gained through military training and experience to degrees, certifications, and licenses in the private sector. This will further set the stage on how credentials can be managed across the industries and the military.

After Mr. Drummond’s Military Keynote, Dr. Bror Saxberg, Vice President of Learning Science with the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, gave an Industry Keynote focusing on the need to apply learning science and technology to help personalize educational experiences for learners. He emphasized that there are instructional strategies which render consistent improvement in a lab setting. He went on to say, “Start with how learning actually works… your mileage may vary in the real world, but I’d rather start there than with something like learning styles that has no evidence at all.” While discussing technology, Dr. Saxberg continued to emphasize that the learner must remain the center of our focus stating that current educational models are inefficient. It is the role of the Learning Engineer to systematically evaluate how students learn and put that understanding into practice.

TJ Seabrook-Rustici-xAPI-cmi5
Rustici Software CEO TJ Seabrook

Continuing the theme of Learning Engineering after the keynotes, Avron Barr from the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee led a panel discussion on Learning Engineering.  Dr. Michelle Barrett, VP of Research, Technology, Data Science and Analytics at ACT discussed using learning science to quantify the effectiveness of college entrance exams, as well as guiding the selection of learning resources for students. Rustici Software CEO, TJ Seabrooks, took the lead on a number of questions around the management of data sensitivity and privacy when considering the data needed for deep learning analysis. TJ made it a point to separate cyber security – the protection of data from theft of misuse – and the concept of data ownership, which includes the relationship between a learner and the data collector. Dr. Saxberg added that to build the discipline of Learning Engineering two things must happen. First, that we need to build teams of learning scientists versus identifying ‘unicorns’ that individually bring skills to the table and, second, that on-ramps need to be identified so professionals in other disciplines can more easily transition into learning.

On the xAPI front, there were a number of great discussions in and out of sessions highlighting use of the specification.  During the “Breaking Down Stovepipes of Talent Management” panel discussion, Paul Jesukiewicz with the Office of Personnel Management said that the DoD is not going to continue trying to implement a single LMS across all forces. This has been attempted unsuccessfully on more than one occasion. Instead, the Learning Records Store becomes the hub for data collection and consolidation, in turn sharing leader data via xAPI from various LMSs used across the services in addition to other learning tools.

Nick Washburn, Chief Product Officer at 5th Logic, provided real world examples of linking multiple LRSs for marksman training within the DoD to provide real-time performance support and to track competency. One of the concerns overcome with REAPER project was data security. Nick’s response was that xAPI is a data format and data server (LRS) specification. Issues around cyber security and personally identifiable information aren’t inherent to xAPI. Learner performance information – regardless of the data format – must be considered in the larger context of all data security and privacy within an organization. Our focus, as an industry, should be the organizational outcomes that are important to us and developing a data strategy to help improve those outcomes.

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Megan Bowe, of DISC, with her poster narrative on creation of an xAPI profile server.

One hindrance to the adoption of xAPI to this point has been its flexibility. There are a number of initiatives to help standardize xAPI data across tools and disciplines. Andy Johnson, Specifications and Strategy Manager for the ADL, led a session on the way ahead for xAPI. Andy highlighted the ADL’s LRS compliance test as a way to verify the interoperability of learning record stores stating, “The beauty of LRS conformance is the ease in sharing data between disparate systems.” Andy also spoke about the progress on xAPI profiles. Megan Bowe with the Data Interoperability Standards Consortium (DISC) was awarded best poster narrative for her presentation on creation of a profile server to help validate and standardize xAPI statements by specific profile.

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Art Werkenthin, President of RISC Inc., presents on cmi5.

The maturity of profiles was showcased by two sessions on cmi5. Art Werkenthin, President of RISC Inc., provided an overview of cmi5 and the benefits of cmi5 over SCORMGeorge Vilches with JCA Solutions went a step further with a full technical process for converting SCORM 1.2 and SCORM 2004 courseware to cmi5. To make life esier, George posted a SCORM to cmi5 wrapper available on GitHub. Profiles for video, AR/VR, and competency assessment/tracking are all currently underway. Once finalized, these profiles will define the rules for different learner interactions to improve interoperability between systems. Learning tools and systems will be able to validate their conformance to these profiles by testing against the Profile Server.

This will allow learning professionals to source tools confident that they will receive consistent xAPI data for analysis and reporting. TJ Seabrooks went on to provide a presentation on Putting the DODI into Practice where he discussed the transition of standards from SCORM to xAPI to cmi5.

The conference closed with an update on Federal purchasing and the hinderance of FedRamp requirements for cloud software providers. This purchasing space, along with the data privacy and profile conformance, will certainly remain hot topics through discussions at DevLearn and ITSEC. Make sure you join xAPI Camp on Tuesday, October 23 and stop by the xAPI Central area at the eLearning Guild’s DevLearn conference October 24 – 26 to talk all things xAPI. Stop by to chat with our team in Booth 127!

Duncan Welder IV
Director of Client Services RISC, Inc
Mr. Welder holds a Master’s of Education from Texas A&M University in Educational Technology and has more than 25 years experience in implementation of Learning Management Systems, both domestically and abroad. Mr. Welder has been recognized for his application of Learning Management Systems to manage regulatory-compliance in industries ranging from petrochemicals to finance and has provided presentations to professional organizations including the Gulf Coast Process Technology Alliance, the Northwest Process Technology Alliance and the American Society of Training and Development.
Mr. Welder’s career is founded in traditional instructional design and computer-based training development. He is a certified Development Dimensions International facilitator, a Kirkpatrick Certified Evaluator and facilitator of the Ohio State University curriculum development program. In addition to working in industry, Mr. Welder has held adjunct faculty positions at Bowling Green State University, Ohio and the College of the Mainland, Texas. Mr. Welder has been published in both Training Magazine as well as US Business Review.