xAPI for Non-xAPI People: What Everyone Should Know About the xAPI

13 June 2016 by Ben Betts

If you’re a manager or director of learning technology services, getting an understanding of the xAPI is really important.  If you are going to make some connections between learning and business benefits, you’ll be tapping into the data that others give you, as well as that which you control. That means you’ve got to explain this to others!

Here’s a quick run through of just what the heck the xAPI is and why it’s important that you have at least a basic level of understanding of how it’s being used today.

What is the xAPI?

Fundamentally, xAPI is a specification: a document that, if you follow it, will give you a method for how you can communicate between one system and another.

We use it in learning specifically because the methodology it describes allows us to talk about things we do in learning – like a test having a result or a course having an instructor – things that only really occurs in learning experiences. That’s why we use the Experience API (xAPI) over and above any other API: it’s really relevant to what we do (an API, or Application Programming Interface, is a method that allows one computer system to talk to another. xAPI is a set of instructions to create a common API).

We do already have systems in place for this, the most commonly used is SCORM – which allows you to package up content to deploy to a  Learning Management System (LMS) and then track it.

There are similarities and you could even say xAPI is an evolution of the SCORM principles. But they are quite different. You wouldn’t necessarily replace SCORM with xAPI. SCORM allows you to specify a package of content and the sequence in which it must be navigated, and other things too.  But xAPI will do none of that – it is purely the communication layer – allowing us to understand what occurred on one system, in another system, in a human-readable way.

When we talk about about xAPI we talk about transferring data in the format of an Actor (Ben), a  Verb (watched), and an Object (the video). And within that we add the context of a lot more metadata; context about where Ben was, what the video was about, how the video fits into an overall learning objective and so on.

Using that format, you can understand what’s been done, anywhere – be it on an LMS, application, mobile device, even on a Point-of-Sale machine. In fact pretty much any device that can be connected to the Internet could be made to spit out xAPI data (in theory).

How is the xAPI Used?

There are three main ways that the xAPI is currently used:

  1. Connecting systems
  2. Analysis
  3. Performance Support

1. Connecting Systems

Most people still struggle to get result and completion data into a single source of record. As soon as you have more than one LMS or more than one place on which learners can learn this becomes a headache. And given that the current trend is towards learners learning anywhere and everywhere, it is about to turn into a migraine.

So the most common use case is pretty SCORM-like on the surface; we’ve got some learner undertaking a learning experience and we want to track it. xAPI can go further than SCORM because it can talk about any event (whereas SCORM is mainly about passing test or launching content). It can go further than the LMS because you don’t need to be on the LMS to be tracked by xAPI. This allows us to step out of the Learning Management System fortress and start connecting disparate systems together. For example, gathering data on sales training from training content on the LMS, whilst also gathering sales performance data from the CRM.

2. Analysis

Presuming we’ve got some level of connectivity between systems, the next thing folks want to do is work through experiments to figure out, for example, what piece of training actually impacts performance.

To do that, you need to track both the training that is viewed and consumed, and the performance data.  This is why xAPI should be of interest to people even outside of the L&D department: the L&D team will need access to this performance data if they are ever going to be able to test their hypothesis and to be able to design better learning.

Analysis in this style isn’t straightforward and it’s usually not immediately rewarding. You are stepping towards the world of scientific experiments; attempting to understand the relationship between two variables. And most scientific studies find absolutely no relationship whatsoever. Science is rigorous. Which also makes it ponderous.

If you are wondering why there aren’t hundreds of successful case studies from xAPI that show hows training impacts performance it is not because xAPI doesn’t work. xAPI is simple. It’s just the way we communicate. Actually finding a relationship between two variables in a controlled, repeatable manner is darn near impossible. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean you don’t have to try. Imagine using that as an excuse to the board in this age of analytics. “Yea, well I was going to prove the impact of my training, but it turns out it’s too hard“. That’s a sure fire way to get your budget cut…

3. Performance Support

Whilst you might not get many ‘holy grail’ answers from analysis you will probably get a whole heap of pointers on what works better. xAPI can help here. If you’ve connected your systems together and done the analysis to understand that when a person does X, they may need Y, you can trigger things to happen automatically.

Imagine sending a customised email with revision advise to a person failing an assessment 3 times in a row. Or sending the latest product video out to a sales person the day before they have a meeting on the new product. Or texting new installation advice out to your on-site engineer right as they turn up on-site. Commercial sites like IFTTT and Zapier have become huge working on just these principles. Now you can do it within the confines of your own organisation.

The idea of performing ‘just in time’ interventions whereby the system identifies that you need help right when you need it has been prevalent in the learning industry for a number of years now. With xAPI we’ve got a method to make it happen.

xAPI: Experience More

Connecting systems together, analysing what happens with those systems, and looking to support on-the-job performance are just three reasons why people are using xAPI today – and there are doubtless many others too.

The xAPI itself is just a document, a specification: there is no technology to download or install to mean you’ve ‘got’ xAPI. People are implementing parts of that document to suit their unique organisational needs and requirements. Once you start using xAPI, you really do enter a whole new realm of possibilities. So, what’s first on your agenda?

Find out more about how to get started and the benefits some early adopters are already experiencing: Download our free Learning Technology Manager’s Guide to API.

Ben Betts
Chief Executive Officer

Ben serves as CEO for Learning Pool. Previously, Ben served as Chief Product Officer for Learning Pool where he worked to help define and develop Learning Pool’s next generation of workplace digital learning platforms, with a focus on Learning Experience Platforms and the Learning Analytics space.

Before Learning Pool, Ben helped to build HT2 Labs from humble beginnings into a globally recognized innovator in workplace digital learning.  Learning Pool completed an acquisition of HT2 Labs in June 2019.

Ben’s expertise is based in research, having previously completed his PhD researching the impact of gamification on adult social learning, Ben has authored and contributed chapters for many books, has two peer-reviewed academic papers and has presented at conferences around the world, including TEDx.

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