An Introduction to xAPI and Why you Should Care


Suppose you decided to learn a new skill online- say, a computer language. One way would be to sign up for an online class, delivered via a series of online sessions, followed by an assessment. Alternatively, you could start by seeing a few introductory videos on youtube, download and read an eBook, and simultaneously start doing projects and frequenting a well –known web forum to get advice from experts.

Perhaps the second way is how a lot of us learn these days. Unfortunately, most eLearning programs are not equipped to track, let alone assess this multi-source, multi-style type of learning. Not equipped, unless they happen to be one of the few that have implemented xAPI.

A brief history
In the early days of eLearning, each LMS and content production company followed its own standard, so that there was very little interoperability, leave alone standardization between LMS, content, etc. This changed with the introduction of the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM in 1999 for the US Department of Defense, but soon spread into the business world as well. SCORM 1.2 in particular became the first real set of technical specifications that governed how eLearning content should be created, shared, and tracked, and was adopted around the world so that pretty soon, if the content wasn’t SCORM 1.2 compliant, it didn’t sell well. The other notable eLearning standard back then was AICC, which mostly dealt with technical specifications for content for the aviation industry.

While SCORM worked well for years, it was always intended to govern the type of linear eLearning that is sequential, module based and desktop-based. However, as computing became more mobile, first with laptops and then with tablets and smartphones powered by fast internet bandwidth, it quickly became apparent that SCORM had basic limitations. Furthermore, learning itself had started changing. People preferred shorter videos lengths, more focused topics, and also preferred to learn from a variety of sources, from free audiobooks and youtube to full-length research paper PDFs available online. After a while, SCORM was hopelessly out of place. However, for want of a better method, it continued to be the industry standard for commercial eLearning.

What is xAPI
xAPI, or “Experience” API is a new set of technical specifications that expand the basic intent of SCORM viz. to create purpose and device-centric specifications. xAPI takes into account the modern learner’s method and limitations when it comes to learning.

At its core, xAPI is a log of every learning activity called “statements” which are compiled in a record register known as a “Learning Record Store”, or LRS. The LRS layer sits below the LMS layer in the system and feeds data to it for display within the LMS. Therefore, the feedback is much more rich and informative. A learning manager can now create multiple learning paths to attain a learning objective- one path could be a full length module and quiz, while another could be a collection of existing youtube videos and a few podcasts. A third might be remotely attending a TedX-style lecture or webcast with Q&A formats and participation in forums and assignments to fulfil the requirement. There is literally no limit to how many learning paths could be created. Most of all, it wouldn’t cost too much more than the conventional linear module to implement parallel learning paths, while the potential benefits are enormous, as it creates the possibility of actually customizing learning for users based on assessment of what works best for them.

Another way to think about it is as follows: SCORM (either 1.2 or 2004) is about getting eLearning content along with a record of participation and activity result IN to different learning management systems. xAPI is about getting content OUT of not just LMS, but a host of devices and software, from youtube to GPS sensors of smart watches to create feedback possibilities in the LMS like “Kim watched an astronomy video yesterday, and scored 90% in the astronomy test today. Last month she scored 70% on the previous test in astronomy”. The possibilities created by such granular information are self- evident. As you might have guessed, such feedback is only possible when a good analytics layer resides between the LMS and xAPI layers. Fortunately most modern LMS are now robust and ready for analytics, thus allowing the full potential of xAPI to be unleashed.

Making an Impact with xAPI
In the above section we mentioned what xAPI can help learning managers achieve. As we mentioned, if we can track what helps people succeed at their tasks then we can ease their journey towards achieving their and the organization’s goals. Functionally, this means a personalized or at least semi-personalized training plans can be created based on learning styles. ADL (the company behind xAPI) even claims that xAPI may help learning managers attain the holy grail of learning- tracking learning activity to an extent that learning can be correlated with success in the workplace. That however, remains to be seen. To begin with, a learning manager needs to ensure that learning objectives and the parameters of success are well defined (i.e. WHY should the learner learn that skill, and what defines that the skill has been learnt). That helps the manager define which activities need to be tracked by the analytics layer, and how the results should be visualized (dashboard design). This clarity of goals and approach go a long way to ensure maximum impact with xAPI.

SCORM will continue to be the standard for traditional module-based learning. xAPI was intended as a “SCORM 2.0”, but that may take a while as the world (and the many training managers in it) make the slow transition from classroom-style modules to more agile styles of learning. Meanwhile, xAPI will work hand-in-hand with SCORM to create better learning experiences which enthuse learners, generate better training results, and help translate the best experiences into better job performance in the workplace.

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