Getting Started with xAPI: Take a Hike with an Expert

All fired up about xAPI? Maybe you just got back from a conference, read a blog post, or checked out some demos, and you’re eager to dive in. I hear you. It’s like having a new, shiny piece of equipment, and you’re just itching to find a reason to use it.

“If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” —Various vague citations

Someone offered to make me a gold-painted xAPI hammer in those early years of the Experience API and the Tin Can Project. Everything I saw that didn’t fall into strictly SCORM-based metrics was a bright, shiny xAPI project to be had.

I quickly found that selling my dream to an organization—or to a client—was an entirely different story. New technology? Pre-version 1.0 status? Is this just a fad? I spent a lot of time evangelizing. That was when I realized that a more practical approach to implementation was going to be required. Fortunately, years of organizational communication and change management experience offered some approaches. When you’re making a bold and innovative move in your organization, there are two routes you can take: a big, visible project, or a small and stealthy one.

With the “go big or go home” approach, you pick a large, visible, mission-critical project. This project will have lots of ready resources, leadership attention when you need it, and a splashy success story when it succeeds. This kind of project is like hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail: It’s a big, time-consuming enterprise. You need special equipment, skills training, physical conditioning, a support system, and the ability to put the rest of your life on hold for six months. It’s a big deal when you make it. You might run into some experienced hikers with advice every now and then, but most of your hike will be spent alone. It’s exhausting. Many people fail to complete it on their first attempt.

Or you can take a “day hike” approach. A day hike project is small, quick, and inexpensive. It requires only a few special skills and not a lot of equipment. You don’t have to go too far from home to get started. There are guides, but you may not need one. You can easily find friends to join you. Win or lose, it’s not a huge accomplishment or failure, but you’re still able to get out, learn something new, and maybe flex some new muscles. At the end, a nap, a shower, a Facebook update, and you’re ready for your next hike.

Take a day hike

Day hikes are good training for big excursions. In this post, we’ll focus on what it takes to do one of these smaller projects to get started with xAPI, while attempting to keep the hiking metaphors to an acceptable minimum level. Here are four suggestions for setting out on the trail.

1. Pick the right project

A day hike should be small enough—in size or impact—to fail. For example: A large health system’s first xAPI project focuses on time management strategy because that doesn’t involve medical delivery systems and the private health information stored there. A food industry company is looking for small wins with supervisory skills, not on the manufacturing floor where additional systems and teams—and food safety—are involved. A multinational organization chooses to focus on the learning experience insights available from xAPI rather than the performance-focused gains in field safety, where mistakes cost lives. A manufacturing company’s L&D team examines the experience in a gamified eLearning course before striking out on a larger effort.

I have a small number of criteria when starting an xAPI project. There are other factors to consider, but this is what I start with:

  • SCORM is not the (best) answer
  • The project’s sponsor is on board and knows what she or he is getting into
  • Failure is an option

In each case, the project sponsor sees the larger benefit in the enhanced learning and performance data from a full-on xAPI solution, but the goal is to see what works and what can be gained in an insulated, incubator project. The learning and development project team will learn in the process and gain actual data to make a business case for a larger project later.

2. Choose what questions you want to answer

In some ways, this can be looked at like an experiment using the scientific method:

  • Choose your question. Why are you doing this in the first place?
  • Form your hypothesis. What do you think will happen? How will you know it will happen? What data will you need to collect to be sure?
  • Create an experiment (your project). How will you set up your learning experience to gather the data you need? What is your control group?

3. Decide what statements to send and how

Warning: I’m going to oversimplify things here. The nature of your project will influence this decision, but you’ll need to choose an activity provider to send you your xAPI learning record statements. These statements are the transactions that document what is happening in the learning experience or on the job performance, and they are what you’ll be pulling from later on when you report on the learning. Here are some ideas:

  • Use eLearning development tools. Captivate, Storyline, Lectora, Claro, Flow, and others can publish for xAPI. Your activity provider could be an eLearning course, or you can build something creative into the development tool and just use it for the xAPI statements it will send.
  • Use a bookmarklet. An xAPI bookmarklet is a button stored as a bookmark in a web browser that users can click to record their presence on a page and take some brief notes to store for later. Tin Can API, TorranceLearning, and others have open-source bookmarklets you can copy, edit, and use as your own.
  • Use Zapier, along with this open-source code from TorranceLearning, to send xAPI statements as a Zapier action when a trigger is met.
  • Sign up for a free account at xapiapps, where there are a lot of nifty things to try for free (under 50 users).
  • Write some code (or find a co-conspirator). Nothing says you can’t do it from scratch. Implementing the xAPI specification is not that difficult for the average front-end software developer.

4. Set up a learning record store

The LRS will receive your transactions and report on them. Most of the major LRS products offer a free trial of their Software as a Service-hosted solution, so the setup is fairly easy and won’t bother most IT departments. Other LRS providers offer open-source LRS options that you host yourself. If you’re in an organization that doesn’t use web-based software (usually for security reasons) or you want to install and host your own, now is the time (if you haven’t already) to bring IT along for the ride.

Free-trial or inexpensive LRS options include:

The dictates of a magazine article are such that I have presented these ideas in a linear order. The reality is that you will need to make several of these decisions together as your project develops, in much the same way that the types of trails you hike will influence your footwear selection and vice versa.

Easy starts

Looking for an easy-access trailhead to start your hike? There are lots of resources out there to help you get started, including the xAPI Learning Cohort and xAPI Party.

The xAPI Learning Cohort is a free, vendor-neutral, 12-week learning-by-doing, project-based, team learning experience. It’s an opportunity for those who are new to xAPI and those who are looking to experiment with it to learn from one another and from the work itself. Participants form teams based on shared interests and work together on an xAPI project. Cohorts are run in the spring and fall each year. Learn more.

The xAPI Party is a free, vendor-neutral mini-conference that wraps up each Learning Cohort. The xAPI Party showcases demos and lessons learned from the Cohort teams along with some “what is” and “how to” sessions. The next xAPI Party is May 11, with options for both live and virtual attendance.

Happy trails!

From the editor: Want more help with xAPI?

At FocusOn Learning 2017 Conference & Expo in San Diego, you will find several sessions dealing with uses of xAPI, including:

Registration for FocusOn Learning 2017 is in progress. Register by Friday, May 5, and save $100 off your registration, plus other discounts for which you may qualify!

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