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Experience API or xAPI or Tin Can API?

What is API?  Application Programming Interface (API) is defined as “a set of subroutine definitions, protocols and tools for building application software.” In simpler terms, an API is essentially a language that enables different pieces of software to talk to each other. APIs also make it possible to move information from one program to another — for example, if you cut or copy something from Gmail, you can paste it into a Microsoft Word document.

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This is possible because parts of a program’s internal structure is exposed to the public, albeit in a limited manner. This enables applications to share data and take actions on one another’s behalf with a very limited sharing of their software code. So think of APIs as the infrastructure that enables communication between learning content, platforms and systems.

What about Experience API?  Experience API (xAPI) is a new specification for learning technology that functions as an integration mechanism that facilitates the collection of data about a wide range of learning experiences a person has accumulated, both online and offline. The data is captured in a consistent format from a person’s (or group’s) activities, taken from several technologies. Because xAPI uses a very simple but powerful “vocabulary,” many different systems are able to communicate securely. xAPIs vocabulary is capable of identifying grammatical concepts like the noun, action verb and the object in order to convey meaning.

For example, Mary Smith (noun) read (verb) “Developing Internal Communication Documents” (object). Why is this important? In current business environments, flexibility is very critical. Learning can take place informally at any time, and at any place. Learning is no longer solely conveyed in a formal, structured training space. In fact, the opposite is true. More learning happens informally via mentoring programs, watching a YouTube video, sharing knowledge on social networks, simulations, serious games, mobile learning or attending a conference.

Consequently, there’s a need to ensure that these new learning formats can be quantifiable, shareable and trackable. xAPI can recognize and communicate all these activities and, furthermore, when the activity needs to be recorded, xAPI allows you to collect and store these experiences (via secure statements in the form of a noun, verb, object) in a Learning Record Store (LRS).

How does the LRS fit into this picture? An LRS can be thought of as the heart of an xAPI ecosystem. It’s the means by which all the activity surrounding learning experiences, achievements and job performance (known as activity providers) are captured, packaged and stored. Anything you may want to do or any action you may want to take with this data will require and interact with an LRS. It’s the central store of the xAPI. This data is used by the LRS in dashboards, reports and learning analytics, and it can even make the data available to other systems, when necessary. An LRS is usually a standalone product, but it can also reside inside a learning management system (LMS).

Who developed xAPI? xAPI was developed by a private company called Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL). They took on this initiative because they believed the existing standard — Sharable Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM — was too limited in its information about an organization’s learning environment. In October 2010, ADL began the background work to begin creation of a “next generation” of the SCORM specification. An initiative by the name of Project Tin Can was set in place to move this goal forward.

In September 2011, an initial draft of the next generation of SCORM was released, named Tin Can API. In April 2013, when version 1.0.0 was released, the project name was changed to Experience API, or xAPI. However, the name Tin Can API seems to be used interchangeably with xAPI, even though xAPI is the proper name. The development of xAPI was necessitated, as noted, by SCORM’s inherent limitations in communicating with alternative eLearning formats. As the existing standard bearer, SCORM was able to collect data, but wasn’t able to combine it with all the other sources of information available today.

How does SCORM operate? It’s one of the two main players in eLearning, the other being xAPI. Not unlike xAPI, it’s defined as a collection of standards and specifications for web-based eLearning. However, SCORM consists of a very different standard of protocol for achieving a similar outcome.

SCORM was developed in 1999 to assist different departments of the US government in their effort to deliver online training. The main problem was that multiple inefficiencies were created by the many isolated technologies that were unable to cooperate between departments and content that was only usable on a single system. SCORM was established to address these very real concerns.

As its name implies, SCORM is focused on addressing content, making it easy (or easier) to reuse, share and repurpose content. This is what supports SCORM’s designation as an interoperable, portable and reusable program.

SCORM is now thought of as an old standard that, in many respects, has been replaced by xAPI, a new standard that, in its own way, was designed to overcome many of the limitations that SCORM has exhibited in today’s new world of learning possibilities.

What benefits has xAPI brought to the new learning environment?  This question is probably best addressed by revisiting some of the fundamentals of SCORM. First of all, SCORM has been around since 1999, and while it’s been through many iterations, the most commonly used version is SCORM 1.2 (the second version in its history). This reality indicates that although SCORM is still a relevant player in the industry, development for this product has stalled, creating a space for players to step into this void. In light of this, xAPI has done just that, acquiring a fairly wide adoption rate in a short amount of time.

This is not to argue that SCORM has lost all relevance in the market. It entirely depends on individual circumstances and what the eLearning program is set to achieve. If the goal of your company is to create and focus primarily on developing formal, structured online courses within an eLearning environment, then SCORM offers a functional and stable tool for those purposes. If, on the other hand, your organization is more focused on adapting to, and acknowledging the predominance of, the new realities of informal as well as formal learning, then moving toward xAPI’s more powerful and flexible vocabulary may be a better choice.

Informal, on-demand learning can occur everywhere, at any time, and is critical to current business models that place a high priority on the individual developing and structuring his or her own professional development. These opportunities can come about as a result of on-the-job activities such as coaching, mentoring, networking, social network sharing and other performance support resources. So these experiences also need to be translated into a form that’s quantifiable, shareable and trackable. Earlier on, we discussed the value of the LRS and how it works with xAPI. Essentially, all these different experiences are collected by xAPI and aggregated in a LRS.

SCORM’s major limitation is its inability to deal with and share this wider range of information/learning activity. SCORM’s finite set of variables has difficulty describing this form of real world activity, which is why xAPI is its rightful successor. This is due to its ability to communicate by allowing unlimited variable statement identification (i.e. its noun/verb/object recognition).

So, getting back to the benefits of xAPI in this learning environment, it’s equipped to enable the collection of information from a variety of platforms and environments that were previously blocked from measurement and, therefore, relevance.

For example, environments such as:

The ability to track and account for all the alternative learning content is clearly of top priority for all organizations seeking to embrace a more comprehensive learning approach. Only in this way can you assess more definitively the impact of certain content and, in so doing, make the necessary adjustments to better suit your workforce’s learning needs. These actions tie your learning and development (L&D) training to job performance, which continues to be a very big challenge for many organizations.

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