Marc My Words: The xAPI Breakthrough

I admit it. I’m not a hard-core techie. I tend to look at what technology can do rather than how it works. So I’m not going to explain the intricacies of xAPI technology, but I am excited about what it all means. Actually, the xAPI itself is not a technology. It is a specification for building tracking mechanisms into applications and systems, referred to as “activity providers.” That said, there are technology products that support the xAPI, including learning record stores (LRSs) where xAPI tracking data is stored, “connectors” that xAPI-enable many commonly used systems, and a growing number of innovative products for adaptive and experiential learning.

SCORM limitations

To understand the potential of the xAPI (formerly known as “Project Tin Can”), you have to go back to SCORM. You remember SCORM, don’t you? Never liked the acronym; sounded a little too much like a skin rash (oh, I have an outbreak of scorm on my arm!). But I digress. Sharable Content Object Reference Model, aka SCORM, enabled interoperability across learning management systems when it came to launching and tracking eLearning courses. It was widely adopted and helped fuel the boom in eLearning. This was a good thing.

However, in order for it all to work, everyone had to agree on a set of SCORM standards to follow. Content providers, LMS companies, and authoring tool vendors all had to buy in. And, for the most part, they did. So as long as your course was SCORM compliant, all was fine.

That is, as long as you were building “traditional” eLearning courseware. Yes, SCORM could track user interactions, but only the interactions it was designed to track. Get too creative with your design or your evaluation measures, and SCORM can’t handle them. In some ways, the capabilities of SCORM defined the design of your course. As courses became more innovative, and as new informal learning strategies entered the arena, SCORM didn’t work as well. And, as we expand what we do beyond the course, this matters.

Beyond SCORM

Let’s look at the learning and performance ecosystem model (Figure 1). SCORM supports only structured learning. What about the other components, especially performance support, collaboration, knowledge management, and access to experts?

Figure 1: The learning and performance ecosystem (graphic © Steve Foreman and Marc Rosenberg—used by permission)

What if you wanted to track learning via any of these strategies? Or wanted to track a special project or work assignment as a learning experience? What if you wanted to get a complete picture of an employee’s skills, knowledge, and capabilities, as well as his or her accomplishments, in addition to test scores? What if you wanted to see what an employee has learned on the job in addition to what was learned in class?

That’s where the xAPI comes in. It provides a way to track almost any learning activity using a simple rubric (Figure 2).

Figure 2: xAPI syntax

So, for example:

  • David completed a special project.
  • Susan compiled a research report.
  • Josh created a new procedure.
  • Louise reviewed a technical manual.
  • My team finalized a new manufacturing process.

You get the idea.

So the other ways we learn—through resources, knowledge sharing, experience, etc.—are tracked by the xAPI and fed into a learning record store (LRS). With a little work, traditional LMS/SCORM training data can also feed into the LRS, providing a much more robust picture of employee learning and abilities. Training records begin to look more like résumés, and the focus shifts from test scores to accomplishments.

Figure 3: xAPI activity providers and the learning record store (source: Steve Foreman; used with permission)

Training does not lose its importance in all of this, but we now recognize that it cannot drive high performance by itself. Maybe if people were in training all the time, it could do the job, but most people get about two weeks of training a year if they’re lucky. The rest of the time, they learn in the field from experience and one another. The xAPI can help track that and make that type of informal workplace learning significantly more meaningful.

So don’t be concerned if you don’t “get” xAPI technology. Don’t let it put you off. If you look into it, even just a little, you will “get” its value.

Thanks to Steve Foreman for his important contributions to this article.

Want more?

If you’d like to learn what happened at the xAPI Camps held earlier this year, be sure to read Michael Hruska’s spotlight, “Experience API (xAPI): One Camp at a Time,” which will appear tomorrow (April 13, 2016) in Learning Solutions Magazine. xAPI Camps are meetings of xAPI adopters sharing their stories around solution, product, and technology development. These xAPI Camps have been held as pre-conference events at eLearning Guild conferences this year and last, and more are planned.

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