Getting Started with xAPI

Computer on a desk displaying the xAPI logo on its screen
July 28, 2020
12 minutes
Computer on a desk displaying the xAPI logo on its screen

In the past decade probably no other new technology in the elearning space has offered more potential for changing how and what we can do for our organizations than the Experience API, or xAPI for short.

Here at dominKnow, we’re big supporters of xAPI and we have clients that make great use of it already.

xAPI offers so many possibilities for the learning and development industry. But years after its debut it remains something many organizations and individual learning and development practitioners still don’t know a lot about.

Here are a few resources that can help you start to understand what xAPI is, what it isn’t and even some of the ways it can help you do more with the learning content you create.

From Tin Can to xAPI: How It All Got Started

Understanding what xAPI is requires understanding why it is. So let’s start with a bit of a history lesson.

On one of our Instructional Designers in Offices Drinking Coffee video and podcast episodes we spoke with Aaron Silvers, who was part of the original group that sparked the idea that grew into xAPI and then became its key evangelist during and after the development of the actual standard.

Aaron explained his own background, which really helped inform the xAPI standard. After working in the industry and learning about the SCORM standard he ended up working with Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL), the body that is responsible for and oversees the SCORM standard.

He left ADL in 2006 and after a couple of years began to recognize that SCORM couldn’t solve all the problems we might wish to solve. By the late 2000s he was part of a group pitching a new idea to ADL: a new standard to track things that SCORM can’t track, especially things like how people interact with learning content that is outside of a learning management system (LMS). That proposal lead to the project initially known as TinCan and which evolved into xAPI in its official release.

The core idea that drove the creation of xAPI was the need to get more granular reporting than what SCORM is able to provide. And to get that reporting from multiple sources beyond just LMSs including things like mobile devices and other web-based content and even from the real world of work.

Aaron continues to be an evangelist for xAPI and frequently helps organize xAPI Camps as part of the pre-conference offerings available at many of our industry’s conferences.

Check out the full archive of our #IDIODC session, The OG's of xAPI: With Special Guest Aaron Silvers here. Like all IDIODC epsiodes, there’s great stuff to be found in the chat as well as just what was happening oon screen.

How xAPI Works

From history, let’s move on to how xAPI works.

If you’re in the L&D industry, you mostly already know at least the basics of what SCORM does.

Here’s my simple explanation. SCORM is the language that allows an elearning course and an LMS to communicate. Once a SCORM package is launched within an LMS, the course sends data back to the LMS. If a learner leaves a course on page 13, that information is sent to and stored in the LMS. And when the learner returns, that data allows the LMS to re-open the course at Page 13 for the learner to continue. Similarly, when the learner completes the course then passes the test, that data is also sent to the LMS and stored there.

xAPI is also a language by which content can communicate with a data storage tool. Because xAPI is a different language than SCORM it requires a different type of storage tool, a Learning Records Store (LRS). Some LMS vendors offer an LRS, some don’t, and there are many independent LRS vendors offering their tools as standalone options with no connection to an LMS.

One of the things that’s really different about the language of xAPI is its grammar. The data that is sent from a piece of learning content to an LRS is called a statement, and statements are structured pretty much like a sentence. They have an Actor, a Verb and an Object. The Actor is who did something, the Verb is what they did and the Object is what they did it to.

And what’s cool about this approach is that you don’t have to be a programmer to understand xAPI statements, which is great since so many in our industry don’t come from a programming background.

I’ve put together some more thoughts on my initial experience learning about xAPI in a blog post here.

xAPI In The Real World

A recurring theme in discussions of xAPI is that it can help solve problems that SCORM can’t.

And here’s a great example of that.

Brent and I were joined on IDIODC by Duncan Welder from RISC last year, to talk about how their team was using xAPI along with spaced repetition to solve a training problem for field workers in the oil and gas industry.

As Duncan explains, this training audience doesn’t work in offices, they work on sites in the field out of their trucks.

They don’t have computers or even tablets, so they really can’t log into an LMS with any regularity. But most carry company-provided smartphones.

So the RISC team built a training solution that delivers microlearning modules on supervisor leadership via a link in a text message. Those that don’t have company-provided smartphones receive their links in an email message.

The learners use the link to open and complete each 5-7 minute module. The modules are interconnected to help use spaced repetition to reinforce the critical learning, and are provided roughly a week apart.

SCORM requires content to be launched within an LMS which wasn’t an option for this group of learners. So the completion data is sent as xAPI statements to an LRS which is connected to an LMS.

Duncan also shared some preliminary findings from the project. You can get all the details by checking out the full archive of the episode here, including the audience’s participation in the chat.

How Do You Begin To Do This For Your Own Organization?

As I said way up at the top of this post, dominKnow is a big supporter of xAPI.

After all, with dominKnow | ONE you can make web-based learning content that goes beyond just traditional elearning courses.

Content like a searchable knowledge base or content that serves as job aids shouldn’t reside in an LMS – it needs to be quickly accessible to your learning audience, to help them as quickly as possible. If it’s outside an LMS then SCORM isn’t going to be part of the equation at all.

That’s where xAPI really matches up so well with what dominKnow | ONE can do for your organization.

We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible to take advantage of xAPI in your published content.

With many elearning authoring tools, you have to add every xAPI statement yourself, often using Java Script.

In our approach, there’s no need to do this – we’ve set up most things a learner can do in a project to automatically send xAPI statements. A learner presses Play on a video – that’s all ready to send an xAPI statement. A learner chooses on option button on a page – the xAPI statement is ready to go, no work needed on your part.

You can choose which types of xAPI statements are relevant to your project, to filter them so your LRS only receives the statements that have value for you.

Plus you can go even further and create your own custom xAPI statements, for those cases where the already-available statement options don’t meet your need.

You can even send xAPI statements to an LRS from a SCORM package, so you can easily use xAPI to augment the reporting your LMS already provides.

If these options sound like they can help your organization, you can learn more by signing up for a free trial of dominKnow | ONE or reach out to us.

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