Most L&D professionals are likely familiar with the acronym API. But for those of you who are new to it, it stands for Application Programming Interface.
An API is software, or snippets of code, that enables the communication between two or more other pieces of software, systems, programs, or apps. Let’s take a look at the role of an API, specifically xAPI, in L&D.
What is xAPI (Tin Can API)? #
xAPI, also known as Experience API or Tin Can API, is a specification that facilitates the collection, tracking, and sharing of learning and performance data across systems.
For instance, an L&D ecosystem might include several components, like a Learning Management System (LMS), Content Management System (CMS), Learning Analytics Platform (LAP), or other learning system.
xAPI describes learning activities and allows for interoperability between different learning tools and applications.
L&D teams use it when building solutions to communicate learning activity within and between learning systems. xAPI then allows users to securely write and read those learning experience data to a Learning Record Store (LRS).
Let’s simplify the concept of an API through a real-life “application.”
Let’s say you make a reservation at a restaurant and are seated at your table. The server takes your order and communicates it to the kitchen staff, who prepares your order and passes it back to the server, who then serves it to you. The server communicates the tab to the cashier, who prepares your bill and passes it to the server, who presents your bill to you and receives payment.
In this simplistic example, you would never receive service without the intervention of the server. That’s the role that an API plays in an interconnected program/app-based system. For instance, when you make room reservations at a hotel via a travel agent’s website, it is an API (between your travel agent’s website and the hotel’s database) that interfaces between the two service providers to deliver your service.
Back in 2008, realizing the interoperability limitations of existing learning system standards, such as SCORM (the Shareable Content Object Reference Model), Learning Education Training Systems Interoperability (LETSI) reached out to the L&D community for suggestions on how to fix those shortcomings. The result was SCORM 2.0.
But in 2010, after putting out a call for vendors to develop a set of next-gen eLearning standards, the governing body of SCORM, Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), tasked a company—Rustici Software—with that responsibility. The effort was dubbed Project Tin Can.
What is the difference between API and xAPI? #
Before APIs became mainstream, learning solution developers used significant amounts of time and effort writing countless lines of code to perform even the simplest of tasks. For instance, to access a list of third-party courses from within their company-approved LMS, L&D teams would design, build, test, and integrate their own customized solutions into the learning platform. Along with time and effort, this process was costly and repetitive.
The advent of APIs simplified the process of interfacing two or more learning system components—whether internally or externally. API-based solutions are now like a Q&A session. The LMS asks a “question” of the API: May I have your latest course list, please? The API passes that question to the third-party website. The website shares the information with the API, which returns it as an “answer” to the LMS.
xAPI does everything that the traditional API does. As a “standalone” component within the broader LMS solution, however, xAPI is just a set of data standards. It governs how the “question” must be asked and how it must be “answered.” Having xAPI lay down these rules simplifies the Q&A process for eLearning solution designers and developers.
But xAPI goes a lot further than its predecessor API standards in that it empowers eLearning solutions and developers to create far better experiential learning interactions. At the heart of xAPI is the database that catalogs and captures large caches of data produced by xAPI statements.
This database, called a Learning Record Store (LRS), has been specifically designed to capture more granular data about each learning interaction than previous standards such as SCORM.
Additionally, xAPI leverages its LRS to go beyond traditional APIs to also give eLearning solution developers insight into informal learning activities that might take place outside of the corporate LMS.
How is xAPI different from SCORM? #
Since xAPI evolved out of a review of SCORM, one may be forgiven for asking: What is xAPI, if not a replacement of SCORM? The answer? It is not a SCORM replacement! While the same government overseer—Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL)—played a pivotal role in creating both standards, the two aren’t the same. Nor are they direct substitutes for each other.
SCORM is one of several standards used for packaging and loading learning content into an LMS. Learners can launch the target content on the LMS, and then SCORM helps to track the learner’s interactions with that content on the LMS. xAPI removes those “tracking boundaries.”
By tracking and capturing learning experiences beyond the LMS, the LRS empowers L&D solution providers to use xAPI to gain a better insight into a broader set of learning interactions and experiences. That’s something that SCORM can’t do.
What is xAPI used for? #
In theory, xAPI can be used to monitor, track, and report on learning experiences that happen beyond the corporate LMS. eLearning developers can use it, for instance, to get insight into learner experiences that occur informally on platforms like YouTube, LinkedIn, and other social learning platforms.
By standardizing how “questions” are asked and how “answers” are provided, xAPI can be used to more easily integrate disparate learning technologies within (and external to) an organization. For organizations looking for a deeper understanding of learning activity across the company, xAPI can be used to tap into the data contained in the LRS to provide insightful learning analytics and reporting capability.
Who’s Tin Can API (xAPI) for? #
So, in addition to tracking and monitoring LMS-based learning, what is xAPI useful for? Tin Can (xAPI) is invaluable for any L&D team that’s looking to leverage learning experience data beyond what they have access to via their in-house LMS platforms. It is also a powerful tool for eLearning designers and developers because it gives them insights into where and how learners are accessing and interacting with learning content. Social media? Learning platforms? External learning websites such as Coursera, Khan Academy, Udacity, etc.?
xAPI is also helpful to anyone looking to integrate their own (in-house) LMS with third-party products and vendors. For instance, an organization may leverage xAPI to allow its employees to check out, evaluate, and sign up for courses via a massive open online course (MOOC) provider.
How does the xAPI work? #
In its very simplest form, xAPI works by securely collecting, collating, compiling, and sharing information about various eLearning experiences that learners have had. Whether they’ve occurred via the corporate LMS or in external learning environments, xAPI’s LRS records these experiences, formats them in line with xAPI standard specifications, and then shares them with other learning apps, programs, and platforms.
Our understanding of what is xAPI and how it works hinges on the knowledge that these interactions with the LRS happen within the context of “xAPI statements.” The LRS may, for instance, store a statement (in prescribed xAPI syntax and standard) that says:
“Sally completed ‘Introduction to online marketing’ from Khan Academy on September 5th and received 87%.”
Other programs and platforms may then access the LRS and use various learning analytics tools and technologies to build a complex eLearning profile about Sally. HR managers may use that interaction to plan a career progression for her (e.g., advance her from back office to a front-line eMarketing role); L&D leaders may decide to create personalized learning paths for her (e.g., sponsor/recommend her for the Advanced Online Marketing course); and MOOC platforms may upsell her with other eLearning offerings—such as access to paid membership lists of their registered online marketing network of learners.
Benefits of using xAPI #
Because of its broader scope compared to other learning platform interoperability standards, xAPI provides many benefits above and beyond what those other standards offer.
Improved learning solutions #
xAPI leverages the power of LRS to provide broader-based insight from non-LMS learning experiences to learning solution developers. This results in the development of higher-quality learning solutions— ones that aren’t just focused on learner interaction with corporate LMS platforms.
System integrations #
xAPI facilitates inter-system communication. So, what is xAPI capable of doing that helps such communication?
Well, system integration is an especially complex and costly phase in developing eLearning solutions. xAPI reduces the complexity and time to integrate (xAPI) compliant modules, including the data migration process.
Better understanding of learning #
xAPI offers learning solution developers a wider lens into org-wide learning activities. This includes learning experiences occurring outside of the corporate learning ecosystem, such as those happening on social platforms. Tapping into that big-picture learning activity helps give learning leaders a better understanding of learning within the organization.
Data analytics #
Traditional learning platform interoperability standards typically capture, analyze, and report on platform-specific learner experiences. With xAPI, learning leaders can view powerful data-driven dashboards that report on a broader set of learning activities. This analysis not only aids in achieving better learning outcomes for the learner, but also helps solution developers personalize and improve their content.
Examples of xAPI #
While xAPI is primarily relevant to eLearning and other L&D applications, its use goes beyond simply tracking and monitoring learning interactions. Companies across a spectrum of industries, from healthcare providers to telecom giants and LMS platforms, use xAPI to improve operational metrics and employee performance.
Here are some real-world uses of xAPI.
AT&T’s compliance training enigma #
With more than 3,934 job roles and 234,000 employees to monitor for compliance, AT&T spends a considerable amount of time and funding on compliance training. The challenge, however, was that compliance training information and incident data were stored in disparate databases, each of which had unique data structures. This made manual analysis of compliance training and compliance reporting a nightmare.
The company worked with industry solution providers to create an LRS that aggregated data across multiple systems. It then produced powerful dashboards and other learner engagement metrics and reports to provide meaningful insight into the company’s compliance training. The results: over 160,380 course hours were saved across its workforce, and more than 670,526 hours were shaved off course production efforts.
LMS provider CM Group leverages xAPI #
Luminosity’s creators, CM Group, leverage the xAPI standard for their cloud-based LMS platform. This heavily SCORM-dependent vendor found SCORM’s specifications a tad restrictive when working with disconnected mobile devices. The vendor unleashed xAPI’s potential to its fullest, thereby simplifying and expediting the development of their cloud-based service offerings.
Thanks to the extensive features of xAPI, the platform is now able to track and monitor learner experiences on PDF content, monitor learning activity through analysis of web page views, report on classroom attendance, and garner analytics from YouTube content. In addition to more insightful reports and analysis, (xAPI) has also facilitated the introduction of more powerful features such as gamification into the platform.
MedStar Health #
MedStar Health, a major Washington D.C. / Maryland regional healthcare provider, wanted to improve its medical staff’s responses to critical heart failure incidents. The company uses a corporate LRS and created a multi-component blended learning program that included eLearning modules, the use of a defibrillator app, and in-person, hands-on simulation exercises.
Though highly effective in concept and execution, because of its multi-component nature, it was difficult to piece together staff learning interactions across each of those components. That’s where xAPI delivered value to the organization. It enabled operational and training leaders to pull together, access, and analyze data points, such as course completion, training app interactions, simulator-based data, and incident data, from disparate sources.
This invaluable insight allowed the organization to better focus their training efforts to improve staff response times when delivering life-saving interventions.
As you can see from the use cases and examples here, the power of xAPI reaches far beyond just packaging, loading, and tracking learning content on your corporate LMS. Once you understand how to leverage the power of your org’s LRS, the sky’s the limit to what xAPI can do for you.
Do you have your own ongoing or planned eLearning project? Contact ELM Learning today with your RFP and tap into the wealth of expertise.