xAPI is not magic: VI - xAPI makes your LMSs obsolete

By jPablo Caballero | January 17, 2017

You hear that, to work with xAPI, you need a type of ‘server’ called an ‘LRS’, where all the tracking data are stored. Then, what about your LMS? do you need it? The answer, as usual, is ‘it depends’.

Since the xAPI specification introduces a new type of system called LRS (Learning Record Store) that has a central and prominent role in the xAPI ecosystem, some are quick to draw the conclusion that LMSs are irrelevant and obsolete, and therefore no longer needed. You might see sentences like “You don’t need an LMS any more. You need an LRS. Everything goes to the LRS”.

The xAPI specification does say that “The xAPI is dependent on an LRS to function”. So it is true that the LRS is necessary. But this does not imply in any way that LMSs have to go away!

The main function of the LRS is to store data (after verifying that it conforms to the xAPI spec). Most of these data are likely to be xAPI statements, but it is also possible to store other types of documents. Also, the LRS needs to provide (controlled) access to the data. Furthermore, LRS vendors usually add other useful capabilities and functionalities to their LRSs that are not part of the xAPI specification, such as data analysis and visualization, reporting, etc.

Now think about what an LMS does. There are tons of features in an LMS that have nothing to do with what an LRS does, such as user management, content management, enrollments, forums, chat, calendar, and about a zillion more things.

So, if you want to start using xAPI, does that mean that you can throw your LMS away? Do you need to use an LMS if you did not have one to begin with? It all depends on what you need to do, not on the fact that part of your strategy uses xAPI. If you still need to manage users, content, enrollments, and many other things, then… you should keep your LMS (or start using one).

In other words, if you are using an LMS, xAPI and LRSs do not automatically make your LMS obsolete. They are two types of systems, two different sets of functionalities. What you need to use depends on what you need to do.

Furthermore, the requirements that the xAPI spec lays out for LRSs are just that: functionality requirements. As such, they can be implemented as a separate, independent system, or as part of another existing system. So, LRSs can be stand-alone systems, but they also can be integrated with the LMS. Some LMS vendors are incorporating LRS functionality in their products. These two types of systems do not compete with each other, one is not a substitute for the other.

xAPI was created because it was clear that there was a need to reach where the LMS can't reach. A set of xAPI-enabled systems allows you to set up and track learning experiences (and other types of experiences) outside the LMS. A Boeing-747 simulator for training pilots is not a training experience that fits into the vision of LMS+SCORM. But it could very well fit into a training environment powered by xAPI. Tons of data about the behavior of an emergency response team (either in a training or real situation) can be tracked thanks to xAPI, which is something that cannot be done with an LMS. But -again- the fact that you can create new training environments with xAPI doesn't imply that your LMS-based training has to go away! Maybe you need to create some traditional eLearning that is perfectly fine served from the LMS. There are still large amounts of SCORM-based traninig modules that are running in LMSs are still relevant (even more so in regulated sectors).

One point that we've seen cause confusion when people think of LRS as something that somewhat replaces the LMS is about the content: where does the LRS store the content, how does the LRS launch it? There should not be confusion about this:

  • An LRS does not store the learning content
  • An LRS never launches content

Maybe it's unfortunate that both types of systems have 3-letter acronyms, and they only differ in the middle letter, and the first letter stands for the same word… maybe that's why some people get confused and think that maybe they're kind of like the same thing, but not really.

Lastly, it's worth to mention a term that you might have heard in relation to xAPI and LMSs: CMI5.

As the CMI5 project page indicates:

cmi5 is a "profile" for using the xAPI specification with traditional learning management (LMS) systems.

The use of this profile ensures interoperability between learning content and the LMS.

We are not going to talk about CMI5 here, but it's important to highlight that there is a lot of interest around CMI5, and rightly so, because many people see a need to use xAPI with LMSs.

So, there you have one more argument against the idea that ‘xAPI and LRSs obsolete LMSs’: many people are interested in using them together, and there's a project in the industry to help with that.