Where does learning occur?

Less and less corporate training takes place in physical classrooms; a shrinking proportion of eLearning takes place in formalized settings, such as a synchronous meeting in a virtual classroom. So, where does learning take place?

The eLearning industry is increasingly recognizing that learning is mobile, informal, and spontaneous; it can be independent as well as collaborative—in short, learning takes place anywhere and everywhere. In this unpredictable environment, how can managers capture progress or even track participation, and how do they know what learners know?

Traditionally, a learning management system (LMS) has been the place where most learning occurred, via formal frameworks, such as online courses that learners completed asynchronously or synchronous virtual classroom meetings and webinars. The LMS also is the tool that has historically tracked learner participation, recorded test scores, and maintained a record of each learner’s progress. But the LMS misses a lot of relevant activity.

If it’s not recorded in the LMS, did learning really occur?

The LMS generally only tracks and records learning that takes place within the LMS or in the same browser-based environment. This risks leaving out a lot of important learning:

  • If colleagues share content on a curated web page, discuss an article they’ve both read, and decide to change the way they approach a common problem because of that informal learning… the LMS has no idea.
  • If the instructor in a virtual classroom posts a list of recommended articles, and some students read them, the LMS record will not reflect that extra learning.
  • If an eLearning developer creates a mobile app that quizzes sales personnel on the features of new products, learners spend time using the app, and their sales performance improves as a result… again, the LMS misses that success.
  • If learners use a simulator to practice their responses to a common event, and their performance in real-life situations improves, injuries are reduced, and significant cost savings are realized, the LMS—and therefore the manager—has no way to note the correlation between the training and improved results.
  • If learners attend a conference or (gasp!) read an actual book—or even an eBook—the LMS has no way to record that learning.

Much of what people learn—both in and away from the workplace or classroom—comes about through informal learning; many adults actively seek to learn new information and skills. But learners might feel that these efforts are wasted, especially if they are asked to complete formal, inside-the-LMS learning on topics they’ve already mastered through their informal or “off-the-grid” activities.

xAPI offers a solution

The xAPI standard, which allows for tracking and recording of learning activity over a broad spectrum of devices and environments, offers a solution. Managers can get a complete picture of each learner’s eLearning activity by tracking it via xAPI-enabled devices.

Using xAPI (short for “Experience API”) and compatible devices and apps, an eLearning “ecosystem” can capture activity on any enabled device that has an occasional network connection, even if the learning activity occurs when there is no Internet or network connectivity. Equipment like a driving-school simulator or a CPR dummy can generate xAPI statements and, when connected to a network, send those statements to a database called a learning record store (LRS), according to “Why should I implement the [Experience] API?” In fact, managers can use apps to capture any type of learning, even offline, old-fashioned learning like reading a book or attending a conference (in person). How? Compatible apps could allow learners to scan a barcode on a book or capture attendance at a conference session, then create xAPI statements to record that learning and enter it into an LRS.

The xAPI approach reflects the reality of today’s eLearning universe, where learning happens everywhere. There’s no need to give up on the more formal learning that still occurs within an LMS; developers can integrate xAPI with most LMSs, making it possible to capture that learning. Thus an xAPI-based eLearning program supports traditional and formal eLearning frameworks, but eLearning developers—and learners—are not limited to those frameworks.

Correlation between learning and activity

Managers, eLearning developers, and learners all “know” that informal learning occurs, is relevant, and helps learners improve their skills and job performance. But LMSs do not offer a way to measure the connection between learning and performance, or even to conclusively show that learning—whether formal learning captured in the LMS or informal learning—is being applied.

To determine whether there is any correlation between learning and performance, managers need data on both. Here’s where xAPI once again offers a solution: It can use “activity streams” to capture non-learning activities as well as learning activity. An activity stream is a collection of activities that the learner performs on a single website, such as reading an article, watching a video, liking a post, or writing a comment.

By creating statements that describe this activity, xAPI can capture social media interactions and informal learning; it can also capture actions that reflect a learner’s job performance or knowledge. For example, a learner studies a technical concept, shares advice with colleagues on a learning network, writes a series of blog posts, publishes a white paper—and becomes recognized within her learning community as an expert.

The learner’s manager might need to know this when considering promoting the learner; the learner might like to parlay that expertise into a raise, a leadership position, or even a new job. Fortunately for both, xAPI makes this possible.

The xAPI statements about each learner’s activities are stored in an LRS. An employer might track each learner’s activities and progress and store that information, along with information on all other employees in the organization, in a single LRS. All of that data, whether it reflects online or offline activity, learning or work, is available for number-crunching and analysis. Managers can see whether there is any correlation between learning activities and job performance; they can aggregate data to identify activities and eLearning that correlates with high performance; they can use the data to identify experts within an organization.

But learners might also want ownership and use of their own learning data. That’s becoming more feasible: An xAPI ecosystem can support multiple LRSs. Each learner can set up a “personal” LRS that contains data about his or her own learning activities, social media activities, and work performance activities.

Non-academic credentials are emerging that will offer learners ways to document skills and knowledge they acquire informally or through formal eLearning. As xAPI matures, and various types of digital credentials demonstrate their value, it will become easier to know what people know. An individual will be able to create a personal LRS, build a digital résumé that showcases digital credentials, and demonstrate mastery of relevant skills—to managers, colleagues, and potential employers. This can be especially valuable to people who do freelance or contract work, a growing segment of the workforce.

Much of this potential is still just that: potential. But with the larger and more varied data that an xAPI-based eLearning ecosystem generates, managers might be able to find that elusive connection between learning and improved performance, and identify learning paths that seem to point learners toward future success.