Hosting a free, virtual, social, and project-based 12-week learning experience for hundreds of people twice a year has taught TorranceLearning many valuable lessons. The xAPI learning cohort team is reflecting on these lessons as we ramp up for the eighth cohort, starting September 5, and we want to share what we’ve learned about social online learning.

Introduction and history

The Experience API (xAPI) provides a means to track learning and performance across systems. Not only can xAPI data come from content in a learning management system (LMS), it can come from mobile applications, web pages, video players, and even offline activities. As a powerful, interoperable technology, xAPI can be intimidating, even with the wealth of tools that let non-developers use xAPI.

That’s how the learning cohorts got started. In 2012, the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative started to offer xAPI design cohorts where anyone interested could work together to design and develop xAPI projects. As interest and participation grew, they could no longer support these cohorts.

After participating in one of the 2015 cohorts, TorranceLearning was sold on the power of xAPI and the value of online learning cohorts. In the fall of 2015, we ran a small closed cohort to make sure we knew what we were committed to, then announced the first public xAPI learning cohort for February 2016. Since that time, we’ve run two cohorts a year, generally January–April and September–December.

Each xAPI learning cohort is a 12-week program, free and open to all, regardless of experience level. The cohort has three main elements:

  • A webcast every Thursday: The first half focuses on a specific topic within xAPI, with one or more guest speakers presenting and taking questions; the second half is devoted to cohort business. The last two weeks of cohort webcasts are devoted entirely to team project demonstrations.
  • A Slack workspace for collaboration: Slack is an online discussion tool organized by channels. Some channels are devoted to general topics, and any team can make its own channel for projects. A lot of each team’s coordination gets done through Slack, but we also encourage teams to schedule a weekly synchronous meeting. Sometimes teams are local and meet in person; more frequently they’re geographically dispersed and meet online in their choice of conference tool.
  • An email list: We send a weekly mailing to all participants with links to resources including all the recordings of the weekly sessions. Many of our participants view this as the most valuable part of cohort for a few reasons: It can be hard to catch the weekly webcast, particularly for international participants. For new participants, email can be a less intimidating way to engage. Some participants who have been involved multiple times just want to watch a few of the sessions to update their knowledge.

After each cohort concludes, TorranceLearning hosts an xAPI party at its office in Chelsea, Michigan. This is a full-day get-together with three tracks of presentations, one of which is webcast via Adobe Connect, allowing both in-person and virtual attendance.

With that background, let’s look at the lessons we’ve learned.

Support people early and often

There’s an almost four-month gap between our spring and fall cohorts. People sign up throughout the summer for the fall cohort, and get an immediate confirmation. Even though our Slack workspace is pretty quiet through the summer, we’ve found it’s important to get new members into Slack quickly; otherwise people are concerned that they’re missing out.

So we’ve automated both the Slack invitation and the mailing list welcome, so people get their Slack invite right after they confirm. The next morning, they get an automatic mailing list welcome message that includes additional resources. We’ve found that this helps people feel connected and gets them started, even without a daily investment of our time through the quiet months.

Last year, we also began sending out “pre-work.” In the three weeks preceding the cohort launch, we send the entire mailing list a few carefully curated resources. While these are optional, reading a few articles and blog posts and watching a few videos helps new members feel more comfortable with xAPI and more ready to dive in the first week. Most importantly, the pre-work keeps people connected to the community and gets them excited about the first webcast.

Help everyone play nicely

Online communication can be tricky. Without body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, sometimes it’s hard to decipher the intent of a comment. When remote teams with a wide range of experience level (both with xAPI and online communication tools) communicate, the potential for these pitfalls is even bigger. Further, some newer participants want a lot of help, while others want to figure out most things themselves; some veterans are eager to help, while others have time constraints or different perspectives on group projects. All these factors can result in miscommunication, frustration, and hurt feelings.

While some individuals will raise concerns publicly or privately, we’ve found that it’s vital to have a moderator watching every public channel within the Slack workspace. This individual can direct message anyone who may be having issues communicating helpfully and also check in with anyone who might be offended or turned off from participating in the discussion. With experience, the moderator can often catch things before there’s any issue, redirecting individuals toward more constructive ways of participating. Issues still arise, and everyone in the cohort is responsible for creating a positive environment, but having an active moderator helps.

Let them self-organize, but provide ideas and structure

In the first couple of xAPI learning cohorts, TorranceLearning did a lot of matchmaking. We helped group people with the right mix of interests and abilities and matched them up with an appropriate project. With the growth of the cohort—a few recent cohorts have had 750–800 people—this is no longer possible.

Instead, we throw out some ideas of things we think deserve more examination and are suitable for a project. Usually these are simply broad ideas like “internet of things” or “virtual reality,” but as participants ask questions, we can help them with refinement and scope. We also lay out a general timeline for the 10 weeks until project demos, suggesting the kinds of activities they should be engaged in at different points of the cohort.

It’s normal for not every group to finish a project to the point of sharing it in a cohort; life and work intervene. Sometimes projects continue from cohort to cohort. Despite all this, our approach has produced a vibrant set of projects each cohort; and the nine project presentations from spring 2019’s cohort set a record, both in overall number and in percentage of groups presenting.

Sometimes they just need a little push

Many existing tools make xAPI much easier to work with without technical skills, but getting started is still intimidating. And teams often choose to “push the envelope,” voluntarily eschewing those tools or working in project areas where tools don’t exist yet. Other factors already discussed, like the limitations of online communications and other priorities, can also hamper groups.

With weekly check-ins to the cohort as a whole, we stay engaged with each group’s project and can get back to the group if they’ve gone quiet or seem to be struggling. Often, reaching out to a group with encouragement or a little technical help, or matching them up with a cohort veteran who can help is enough to get a group back into action.

Finish with some fun

Even though it’s legitimately a conference, we call the concluding event of each cohort the “xAPI party” because it’s also time for some fun! This is an opportunity to celebrate what groups have accomplished in the preceding 12 weeks. The day is full of great professional learning but is also a fantastic opportunity to show some humor, as well as network and socialize.

At the May 2019 xAPI party, we unveiled The Statement—the official unofficial mixed drink of xAPI. Working with local cocktail artist NickDrinks, we developed a cocktail that represents the components and modularity of an xAPI statement with room for additional “extensions.” Like an xAPI statement, every Statement contains unique details but also follows a consistent structure. Attendees loved the new cocktail!

Join the cohort

We’ve learned a lot hosting xAPI Learning cohorts, and we’re looking forward to many more! The next cohort starts Thursday, September 5; sign up any time. The next xAPI party will happen on Friday, December 13—online and at TorranceLearning in Chelsea, Michigan. You don’t have to participate in the cohort to attend the party; many of us get involved by first attending a party.

You can learn more about xAPI at DevLearn 2019 Conference & Expo, October 23–25 in Las Vegas. Megan Torrance of TorranceLearning is presenting “Intro to xAPI: What Do Instructional Designers Need to Know”; other sessions and full-day workshops will also address xAPI. Register today!