xAPI is everywhere. There are sessions about it at every conference. At the upcoming Learning Solutions Conference, there’s a whole xAPI Camp devoted to it. There is even a gnome dedicated to spreading the word of xAPI. And yet, it continues to be confusing. I found out what xAPI was a year ago and still didn’t have a clear picture on it. To clarify what it can actually do for you (and how to get started with it) I talked to three experts on the topics:
- Tim Dickinson, Director of Strategy at Watershed Learning Record Store
- Anthony Altieri, Instructional Developer for the Internet of Things (IDI.o.T) and xAPI Evangelist.
- Andy Whitaker, behind the column “Ask Andy” at Rustici Software
So here we go:
What is xAPI Exactly?
Let’s get this out the way: everyone I talked to wanted to emphasize that xAPI is not SCORM.
Whitaker said, “The biggest misconception is that it’s the next generation of SCORM. It’s a misconception that our organization and folks involved in the early marketing are to blame for.” He explained that since they were both specifications, and SCORM was already used, people thought xAPI would be easier to understand if it was associated with SCORM.
The reality is that they are two different specifications that do different things. They can be used separately, or side-by-side, depending on the user’s needs. But they are not involved in one another in any way, nor are they required for one another.
Dickinson said, “It’s a misconception that you have to have either SCORM or xAPI, that you can’t have both. You can use both and slowly build out and scale xAPI usage over time.”
So what is xAPI, then? If you want to be technical and simple, it’s a specification that uniformly and consistently tracks data in multiple environments and brings that data to a central depository, often called a Learning Record Store (LRS).
But doesn’t SCORM also track data? Yes, but not in the same way, nor as deeply. The differences between SCORM and xAPI is this:
- SCORM is a wrapper, but xAPI is not
- The way they track data. SCORM records that “state” while xAPI records individual interactions. Altieri explained, “In SCORM, when a student first takes the course they haven’t started it yet – when they launch the course, it states as incomplete. xAPI is event-driven. It doesn’t record the state, it records the event. So we can recreate the student experiences. We know what they did and when they did it. SCORM just records that change in state. But it doesn’t say how or tell me any information about how the event happened.”
- xAPI can collect data across multiple environments, but SCORM does not. As Whitaker puts it: “Each system might track those systems in a proprietary way, but xAPI tracks data in all of them. As an L&D person, if you wanted to bring that in and look at it in a meaningful way it would be super hard to do that. xAPI facilitates the ability to generate the data in a consistent way and format and bring it into the LRS to glean some interesting information.”
To put it in a bigger context, xAPI is a solution for L&D departments who conduct learning in multiple environments (for example, some companies might use SharePoint, LinkedIn Learning, and the LMS) and wish to collect useful data from all of those environments to further the goals of their organization.
xAPI is Easier Than You Think (And Not Expensive!)
Everyone I talked to was concerned that people feel xAPI is difficult or expensive to implement in their technology, especially for those who have employees familiar with coding. The code for xAPI is open-source. Whitaker told us, “Anyone can implement it. They don’t have to have a commercial contract to implement it. It’s free to use. There’s no permission from anyone.”
Altieri said, “It’s very simple code. xAPI is four lines of code, that’s it. It’s dead simple.” He even has a class available that’s less than two hours.
That being said, many companies don’t feel comfortable coding their own technology and simply purchase third party technologies to use in training. In this case, the easiest way to obtain xAPI is to simply make technology choices based on whether those systems are fully xAPI-compliant. There are no extra fees associated with enabling it in technology which is already compliant.
There are also many companies, like Watershed, who offer affordable souped-up LRS software with add-ons that allow you to process and visualize data.
All three experts also recommended starting small. Dickinson said, “You can start small and start with one thing and do it well. You can really jump in and start with a focused approach and go out from there.”
One example of a simple first use-case Whitaker gave is making decisions about content providers to invest in for your workers. “If you want to try out some different services, such as a content provider you’ve never tried before, xAPI could do a good job of giving visibility into which of these services is more accessed by your employees. Which services do people gravitate towards?”
xAPI is More Useful Than You Think
Early-adopters are still experimenting with xAPI and exploring what it can do for them. But there are a few ways that it consistently meets the needs of organizations.
Strategically Align Training With Organizational Goals
Whitaker explains that most organizations who are attracted to the idea of xAPI are those that think about L&D as a strategic part of their business. “You have to believe that if you invest in L&D you’ll see the ROI and the best way to see the ROI is to collect data and make decisions based on that data.”
The deeper data that xAPI provides is key to justifying training for companies who see it as an investment in their workplace. Whether it’s better customer satisfaction or more effective performance, data is necessary to show the payoffs of your training. And if your learners interact with multiple environments, it’s basically impossible to process that data in an effective, consistent way. xAPI changes that by collecting consistent data in every environment and depositing it all in the LRS.
Altieri explained, “With xAPI, I can look at what help files have been accessed the most over the past year. Then I can create training on that. Then look at how the numbers of access has changed to see the impact of the training. It can divorce the content from the LMS entirely.”
Whitaker added, “Organizations that see L&D as a way to handle compliance are probably less likely to make decisions on their technology purchases based on compliance with xAPI.”
Better Understand Learner Interactions
The deep data that xAPI provides offers a very close look to what users are doing on the LMS, down to individual learner actions. As a result, it can be used to implement learner-first experiences. Dickinson told me about how a Watershed client used xAPI to collect data related to learner engagement. This helps them create learning that better meets learner needs. For example, xAPI can determine how many users stop playing a video early, allowing L&D to conclude that the video was too boring, or too long, or too irrelevant.
While the end-user’s experience of xAPI is invisible, it can be used to tailor learning experiences to individual learners via adaptive learning. The deeper data can be used to set up a responsive LMS that serves content based on how users interacted with previous content. For example, users that gravitate towards video learning may be served a video-oriented version of a course that suits a particular course requirement.
Create a More Connected Learning Ecosystem
Every learning environment your learners interact in that are xAPI enabled will be able to contribute data to your LRS. Even better, this data will be collected in a consistent and useful way across environments.
Without xAPI, the learning environments are disconnected and unable to give you a big picture of what learning looks like at your organization. With it, many environments can be part of a connected and complete ecosystem for learners.
Data Collection in Unusual Environments
People are still exploring the full capabilities of xAPI data collection. Altieri has been experimenting with a computer-enabled forklift that uses xAPI to prevent employees from using the forklift unless they’re up to date on their forklift training. The xAPI can also track forklift usage, such as how fast the forklift is going and if it’s where it’s supposed to be.
Altieri shared, “At the end of the year, the training looks at the xAPI statements and sees how the driver performed and tailor the content towards the mistakes that person made. For example, adding a module on speeding. You can bring the real world into your training.”
Adding the computer to the forklift, he said, is not an expensive procedure and can save a lot of time retraining high-performing workers who already drive safely.
OVERCOMING BARRIERS TO USING XAPI
There are a few barriers to implementing xAPI: some psychological, some organizational, and one software-based.
- A misconception that xAPI is difficult or expensive
- A lack of examples and use-cases
- The company simply doesn’t see L&D as a strategic part of meeting organizational goals
- The learning environments used within the company are not all fully xAPI enabled (even some LMSs which claim to have xAPI are in fact only partially compliant
Hopefully this article helps you overcome the first two barriers, but the second two are not always in the control of the L&D team. All the experts hoped that this will be changing in the near future. As Whitaker said to me, “When you start looking at different modalities and the ways learning will be delivered in the future, SCORM doesn’t apply anymore and xAPI provides a way to collect data on those things.”
Are there any xAPI questions we didn’t answer? Comment below and we’ll track ‘em down!
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The four steps you need to get started with xAPI quickly and easily, including some ideas for your first data-collection goals.