Is xAPI Ready? If So, Where Are Our Flying Cars?

As a technology-driven industry, those of us in the eLearning field get to participate in the adoption of many new and potentially disruptive technologies. Moving to an xAPI-based infrastructure is one of these opportunities. April 2018 marks the fifth anniversary of xAPI’s release. A question posed by many is: After five years, is xAPI ready? Excited early adopters risk setting expectations as wildly futuristic as the flying cars envisioned in the 1960s TV cartoon The Jetsons. For those who have not yet taken the plunge, in this article we’ll take a grounded approach to answering some common questions and misperceptions that surround xAPI and its adoption as part of an eLearning ecosystem.

Is xAPI ready?      

Is the Experience API—xAPI—ready to shift the market? Thousands of people have participated in xAPI Camps, xAPI Learning Cohorts, the xAPI MOOC, and other formally offered learning experiences; many more have taken a self-directed approach to their learning. Hundreds of organizations, large and small, are using xAPI to some extent.

Dozens of vendors offer support for the specification, and a conformance test for the learning record store (LRS) has established a baseline for interoperability. Most importantly, the Department of Defense specifications that originally required SCORM have been updated to include xAPI. Many RFPs/RFIs in both government and commercial spaces request that xAPI be part of the targeted solution. Companies are investing in technology to provide the market for xAPI—and the market is asking for it.

Individuals and organizations base the decision to adopt any new technology on a number of factors, including:

  • Perceived need: Existence of a problem to be solved or an unacceptable gap to fill
  • Perceived benefits: Weighed against investment costs and risks
  • Alternatives: Availability of attractive competing options
  • Track record: Evidence that peers and opinion leaders are successfully using the technology
  • Network effects: Extent to which they will benefit from joining a larger group that has also made a particular investment decision

Each of these evaluations requires that good information about the innovation be available. Early adopters of any new technology risk over-enthusiasm and over-simplification in their eagerness. Those with competing concepts strengthen their offerings, encouraging all to greater innovation. Among those resistant to change, sowing doubt is a viable short-term strategy, though it encourages the adopters to clarify and crystalize their messaging. Deciding whether to adopt xAPI is a choice each organization must make; Learning Solutions aims to provide the information needed to make the best choice.

Does xAPI meet a definite need?

Unlike other transformative innovations, such as virtual reality or chatbots, xAPI isn’t a delivery mechanism. It’s the unifying specification that would enable all of these innovations to share data. Using xAPI enables L&D leaders to look much deeper into the landscape of learning and performance and potentially assess organizational impact by offering a look at training activity and on-the-job performance by topic or domain, rather than by tool or vendor. This means that all safety training and activity or all leadership development activity can be assessed at once—rather than looking at chat activity separately from activity that occurs in the workflow or within the LMS.

An xAPI-based ecosystem promises more complete data on learning activity and its impact. A recent study by LinkedIn indicates that only eight percent of CEOs see the business impact of L&D programs, and only four percent perceive a clear ROI. Yet, 90 percent of these leaders see L&D as the means to close skills gaps.

Another study by the Chief Learning Officer Business Intelligence Board found that only about a quarter of L&D professionals are measuring training ROI, while 22 percent do not plan to do so. Using xAPI presents a huge opportunity to better serve our organizations’ needs as L&D professionals, since many of our existing tools don’t provide the data needed to measure the impact of learning activity.

What is xAPI? Does it replace SCORM?

As an open specification for recording, storing, and retrieving information about learning activities and on-the-job performance, xAPI doesn’t, in and of itself, “do” anything. Rather, it is an agreement about how to communicate about how people learn and work.

One way that xAPI is similar to SCORM is that SCORM is the open specification by which eLearning courses communicate with their learning management systems (LMSs). The SCORM specification has allowed the eLearning industry to grow into a rich and interchangeable marketplace, benefitting both vendors and organizational customers. However, it has been apparent for some time that SCORM was insufficient to record the ways in which people learn and work. The “Project Tin Can,” which ultimately created xAPI, was an initiative to develop a new, more robust specification.

But to say that xAPI is the next-generation SCORM is like saying that my smartphone is the next generation of the telephone affixed to the wall in the house where I grew up. That phone, with its long squiggly cord and attached handset, made phone calls. Those calls went through only when the sender and receiver were attached to their respective devices simultaneously. If the line failed, the call was lost.

In contrast, my smartphone makes calls, takes photos, plays games, counts my steps, lets me chat with my friends in real time or asynchronously, plays my music, navigates me to new destinations, shares my location with loved ones, and can even take my blood oxygen reading with astonishing accuracy. I can download new apps to add functionality to my phone that was never imagined when the phone was built.

So in one sense, yes, my smartphone is the next generation telephone. In many respects, though, my smartphone is completely different—extensible and ever-evolving. The same is true of xAPI and SCORM.

Do I need to use xAPI?

To continue the phone metaphor, if all you need to do is make phone calls to people who are available when you need to talk with them, a telephone works just fine. If SCORM provides the functionality you need, there’s no need to replace it. But SCORM probably doesn’t work if you need to record:

  • Activities other than eLearning
  • More information about the learning than a test score, answer choices, time spent, bookmark, score, and completion status
  • Activity occurring outside the LMS or offline
  • Activities of multiple people at once
  • Results from multiple learning experiences
  • Business results alongside learning data

In short, SCORM probably doesn’t work if you are trying to understand the connection between learning and performance.

Is xAPI secure?

As stated above, xAPI provides the syntax and structure by which we send data. Like all internet services, the method by which data is sent needs to meet the security needs of the industry and the individual organization sending and receiving that data. To decrease barriers to entry, the xAPI specification purposely excludes specific security requirements, recognizing that each implementation might require a very different security approach.

According to the White House chief information officer, as of 2016, any government service (which includes xAPI applications and services) is required to use HTTPS for all communication. HTTPS is the same level of security used to encrypt online banking and financial transactions, and it is widely accepted as the minimum level of security used in commercial xAPI applications.

What about privacy? Learning technologies need to follow the same rules for data privacy that every other system in an organization needs to follow, whether using xAPI or not.

Does xAPI provide too much data?

Thinking of the syntax of xAPI as a sort of grammar can be helpful: When we all follow the same basic rules of grammar, we can send and receive all sorts of messages. Each receiver of information—each learning record store—can accept messages from any learning record provider, even ones that haven’t been invented yet, as long as the provider follows the rules of grammar and provides proper authentication.

In contrast, SCORM specifies both the language and what is to be talked about. Messages outside of SCORM’s useful—but limited—vocabulary are rejected as invalid. Because of this inflexibility, SCORM is a lot easier to use and report on.

While offering more varied communication, xAPI also presents (at least) three challenges:

  • It behooves us to follow the “grammar rules”—both the specification itself and the common verbs and contexts that are outlined in profiles. Just as in human speech, while it might be perfectly appropriate to make up new words, when it’s necessary to communicate with others, you need to be ready to define those novel words.
  • We need excellent data management tools to extract data and help us construct meaning from it. Most LRS providers offer flexible tools for data visualization, but humans must derive insights from the data.
  • xAPI specifies the way that statements are crafted but not the technology that creates them nor the technology that stores them. Just like other “big data” endeavors, system performance depends on following best practices for data architecture.

So what does xAPI actually do?

Both xAPI and SCORM specify how data is captured, stored, and retrieved; they don’t actually do anything with the data. When we can capture, store, and retrieve more information about the learning and performance experience, we can use that data to draw insights that allow us to:

  • Learn more about the learning experience—not just eLearning
  • Learn more about performance
  • Correlate learning with performance
  • Offer more targeted training
  • Better support performance
  • Use data to learn with others
  • Compare performance and learning across learners
  • Deliver and track training outside of the LMS

An organization can do all of this without adopting xAPI. The technology exists to do all of these things, and they are all being done right now. These solutions, which are either vendor-provided or custom-built software, might solve today’s problems quite well. However, they are  closed systems that may resist additions or platform changes in the future because they lack interoperability.

Who “owns” xAPI?

An open-source initiative, xAPI is shepherded by the US federal government’s Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative, just as SCORM was. The xAPI adopters community, currently spearheaded by the ICICLE initiative, actively solicits participation in the ongoing development of the specification and its use. Open source, community-owned initiatives offer  a lot of room for innovation. At the same time, development of the specification among a group of interested participants means that things may move a bit more slowly than standalone or proprietary efforts. Thus, many organizations will choose to work with services and product vendors who have done the heavy lifting to make xAPI use as “geek-free” as possible. For those organizations, this is a good way to go, though it entails a greater cost than (free) participation in the xAPI community of developers.

Is xAPI ready?


It’s up to individuals and organizations to decide if and when to adopt xAPI and what that first project initiative looks like. If you’re just at the beginning of your exploration, you’re in luck—many resources and opportunities to learn are available, from articles and case studies shared here on Learning Solutions to xAPI Central at DevLearn 2018 Conference & Expo.

Learn more and get involved:

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