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L&D’s Most Frequently Asked LRS Questions, Answered

by | Mar 29, 2017

As the industry wakens up to the power and value of learning and people analytics, and organisations start to use xAPI to gather more qualitative data on their learners, it’s inevitable that interest in Learning Record Stores (LRSs) will also increase.

But as with the xAPI, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what an LRS actually is, and just how it fits into the existing learning ecosystem. So for a quick overview, we’re going to share the answers to 5 of our most frequently asked LRS questions…

5 FAQs About Learning Record Stores

(If you’re interested in finding out more about the xAPI, we recommend you download The Learning Technology Manager’s Guide to xAPI  – where you’ll also find more detailed responses to these FAQs.)

1. What is a Learning Record Store (LRS)?

Learning Record Stores (LRSs) – such as Learning Locker – are databases that verify that the input matches the xAPI specification, storing all valid data for retrieval by Activity Consumers, or by administrative users who wish to access the ‘raw’ xAPI data for  analysis.

You won’t actually need an LRS until you’ve got at least one system producing xAPI statements. But as soon as you start producing xAPI statements, you’ll need an LRS to store them. The good news is you don’t need to get this right first time.

LRSs are designed to be interoperable. You can run more than one at once and share data, or readily transfer data out from one to another, presuming that the data in the LRS is valid. There’s only really one fatal mistake you can make in getting started and that’s in the quality of the data you collect; garbage in, garbage out!

2. Why do I need an LRS?

For many organisations, getting to a single source of record to account for the learning activity that has occurred across all systems is a dream.  It’s not uncommon to see multiple Learning Management Systems (LMSs) or a host of 3rd party tools be in use across a company.

As soon as you have more than one LMS or more than one place in which learners learn, keeping track becomes a headache. And given that the current trend is towards learners learning anywhere and everywhere, that headache is about to turn into a migraine.

Typically, when you have to connect multiple systems together, you end up doing a fair amount of custom work to get them talking to each other.

Sales folks for software companies will tell you that their technology will integrate seamlessly because ‘it has an API’. But having just any API is not enough – unless it is a ‘standard’ API, you will still have to write custom integration methods to get systems talking.

There are many relevant standards to be considered. For example, Single Sign On has a whole raft of ‘standard’ approaches such as SAML or oAuth. But for sharing learning activity data, there is really only one viable API that has been standardised – xAPI.

When your systems use xAPI they communicate with each other via the Learning Record Store. All Activity Sources go in, all Activity Consumers come out. Not only does this cut down on the number of custom integrations you need to make, it also gives you a single source of record for all this activity – the Learning Record Store.

And because Learning Record Stores are interoperable with each other, you can switch out your LRS provider with a minimum of fuss. This is what makes an LRS so different from an LMS – there is a very specific set of rules that account for what an LRS must do. As long as your LRS adheres to these rules, you are safe.

3. How is an LRS different from a LMS?

It’s important to note that the term “LRS” is quite specific. Where “Learning Management System” (LMS) can be used to refer to a range of vastly different products, LRS refers to a distinct piece of software that adheres strictly to the xAPI specification for an LRS. There is essentially a recipe card for building an LRS; if it omits part of the spec or tweaks it in some non-standard way, it is not an LRS.

There are a number of fundamental differences between an LMS and an LRS that mean you won’t be getting rid of your LMS anytime soon, such as:

  • An LMS will manage access to content, giving you the ability to upload packages of learning content, assigning them to learners and then tracking their progress. An LRS will do none of that – most learners will never even be aware that the LRS is operating in the background, let alone log into it.
  • Your LMS will also probably deal with launching eLearning content packages. This is not part of the xAPI specification and doesn’t form part of any standard LRS.

Building an LRS is far from trivial. There are more than 3,500 tests for an LRS to pass before it can be considered a ‘conformant’ LRS.

Being conformant is important because one of the absolute key functions of the Learning Record Store is to check that data is valid according to the xAPI specification. And there are a lot of nuances in doing this: If your LRS does not do this to the letter, then you may be storing data that you cannot use again.

4. Should my LRS be part of my LMS?

No one wants to buy a new piece of infrastructure; it’s a difficult decision that will have time and costs associated with it. It’s attractive to think that an existing system can be upgraded to include the new functionality—for instance, adding an LRS component to your LMS.

Your LMS is likely to be useful as an Activity Provider – as a source of learning data. But, that doesn’t automatically make it a good solution as an LRS.

Right now it can be confusing to understand if your LMS is acting as an Activity Provider, a Learning Record Store or as a Consumer of xAPI data, when the brochure says ‘xAPI-conformant’.

Those are three very different roles – making data, storing data or using data. Few vendors make this distinction clear and it can be a warning sign that your vendor hasn’t fully addressed the concept of the xAPI if they can’t make this distinction. For this and other reasons that we explore below you will increasingly need to think about a standalone LRS.

Technically, an LRS will be make demands on Connectivity, Analytics and Scale, things that your LMS isn’t used to dealing with:

Connectivity: You don’t need to be interacting on the LRS to insert data. In fact, most users will never even see the LRS. They won’t have accounts; they won’t login. Most LMS setups require users to access content and resources through the LMS. But this is a huge barrier to measuring performance – we don’t login to the LMS to do our day-to-day work and this is where the xAPI can really excel. Many LMSs are also setup to charge based on the number of users submitting data to the system. With xAPI there is no limit to the number of users on which data can be collected; you may find yourself in for a big surprise when your next LMS invoice comes around!

 

Analysis: Although dashboards and analytics are not a part of the xAPI specification itself, it is very likely that most of your administrators interaction with data will result in some sort of visualisation. An LMS is fundamentally not built around data analysis; it is built around courses and content. It’s not enough to have your LMS “store” xAPI data. That’s just the start. You are going to need some really powerful analytics to start answering performance questions. And much of that data might not be the sort of results content driven LMS’s are accustomed to dealing in.

 

Scale: LRSs will need to store and process vast amounts of data. Where we used to get a handful of data points from a learner to the LMS, we’ve seen xAPI activities generate 1,000,000 statements in a day following use by a company at scale. This is an order of magnitude larger than the LMS generally deals with and dictates a different technology stack. Typically this means a NoSQL data store – something no mainstream LMS currently available is built upon.

This doesn’t mean the LMS isn’t required any more though. Because, as we explored earlier, the LRS won’t ‘launch’ content and it won’t deal with enrollments or permissions. The two are fundamentally different parts of a learning architecture.

5. How Much Does an LRS Cost?

Learning Record Stores are generally quite low-cost – in fact, we offer a free, Open Source version of our own LRS, Learning Locker. What you’re actually paying for in the main part is integration (with existing systems) and storage (of your xAPI data).

When we first start working with a new client we run through a checklist of questions to help us get the context for an LRS installation.

What follows here is a few highlights from that checklist that will give you some key questions you’ll want to think about when first procuring an LRS:

  • Will the LRS be hosted in the Cloud, or deployed on-premises?
    One of the first decisions you’ll need to make is whether you want to host your own LRS, or use an online service. An online service will be quicker to setup, probably cheaper short-term (unless your labour cost is zero), and will be tried and tested. However, you will need to be comfortable with data storage/ownership responsibilities and the medium-long term costs of continually paying for a service.
  • How much data will you create?
    Whilst cloud-based storage is generally very cheap, the technology required to run an LRS at scale (and process all of that data) does not run well on very basic equipment. For example, the SaaS version of Learning Locker actually runs on 12 virtual machines, at a minimum.
  • How is your data secured?
    You should be interested in how your xAPI data is secured whilst in-transit to the LRS and how it is secured at-rest in the database. There is literally no excuse to not use SSL whilst sending xAPI data to the LRS. And most cloud providers (including Learning Locker) will offer you encryption-at-rest.
  • How much data can be lost in a worst-case scenario?
    A well-used LRS will quickly become a key part of your infrastructure – your ‘source of record’ for all learning activity. When this is the case you can’t afford for it to go down, or worse, to lose data. The killer questions for redundancy and backup are always how much downtime can you cope with and how much data can you afford to lose?

Find out More

If you’re still not sure whether you need (xAPI and) an LRS, and how it would fit into your existing ecosystem, you may benefit from getting hands on.

Learning Locker, the LRS developed by HT2 Labs, is available as both Open Source (for on-premise installation) and Enterprise (for Hosted, Software-as-a-Service).  It is is one of the most popular Learning Record Stores available on the marketplace, and also picked up the MongoDB Open Source Innovation Award in 2016.

Get in touch to arrange a demo today.

About the Author

Dr Ben Betts

Dr Ben Betts

Chief Executive Officer

Ben leads the passionate team at HT2 Labs and is a globally-recognised thought-leader in Learning Technology with more than 15 years industry experience. His doctorate research broke new ground studying the impact of gamification on adult social learning. He has authored and contributed chapters for four books in the last two years, published peer-reviewed academic papers and presented at TEDx. His research today focusses on creating credible metrics for learning activities that are traditionally difficult to measure, like social interaction and sentiment analysis. When he's not in the office he can be found watching, and occasionally participating in, all forms of sport.

Read all posts by Ben

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