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xAPI in Focus: An Interview with Connections Forum’s Aaron Silvers and Megan Bowe

Interest in the Experience API (xAPI) has been growing steadily since its release as a specification in 2013 and there’s already an established community around its use and development.

At Learning Pool (formerly HT2 Labs), we’re privileged to have been good friends with two of those most foremost on the scene – Aaron Silvers and Megan Bowe of the Connections Forum – from the start thanks to our mutual appreciation of the use of data in learning and open communities of practice. We most recently met with them at the LSCon xAPI Camp in Florida, and will shortly be joining them in London for the Jisc xAPI Camp (on April 22).

Since the turn of the year, we’ve noticed a definite increase in the level of interest and use of the xAPI specification across both corporates and educational facilities alike, so we decided to ask them why they thought this was, what they think the future holds and how interested individuals and organisations could get involved…

Tell us a bit about the concept of the xAPI Camps, and why you set them up in the first place

Aaron Silvers [AS]: In early 2014, several friends (including Learning Pool’s CPO Ben Betts) joined Megan and I for our Up to All of Us gathering in North Carolina, and it was there that we conceived of a different kind of format for an xAPI-focused gathering – a format that provided enough structure and dependable expectations of outcomes to appeal to masses whilst making abundant unstructured time available to encourage emergent, social interactions that catered to every participant’s needs, interests and goals. It took a few failed attempts to get it off the ground, but a year later, we had our first xAPI Camp at the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Technology.

Megan Bowe [MB]: We did a careful study of other open source efforts, other online communities and other events and we recognized that in order to get a wider audience to wrap their heads around xAPI and encourage folks to try working with it, we had to remove a lot of obstacles to make it easy for stakeholders in organizations who may have a passing interest in xAPI to come find out for themselves – which meant making xAPI expertise more locally available, and affordable for folks to attend. Thanks to the organizations that host xAPI Camps and the companies that sponsor them, we’ve been able to run several xAPI Camps around the US, in Canada and now in the UK.

What do you most enjoy about your role(s) in the xAPI community?

MB: In my role as a Partner in Making Better, I really enjoy the fact that I work on projects that matter, with people who really want to make a constructive impact on themselves, their co-workers, their customers, their communities.

I love consulting because it gives me a chance to really learn about what we’re doing, what works, what could use improvement. From a community perspective, I’m very happy that the work Aaron and I have done with the xAPI community is not done, and that we have a mandate to continue our mission. The fact that we’re now at the start of an international consortium that is setup to grow xAPI in ways we care deeply about — and that this vision has a sizable market demand, internationally… I enjoy that I figured out my calling, listened to it and it’s taking us here.

xAPI has been gaining traction since the turn of the year in our opinion – do you guys see this too? If so, why do you think this is?

MB: Absolutely. As a consultancy, MakingBetter is present at the start for organizations interested in doing the kinds of things xAPI helps with. As a business, we’re starting to see more and more phone calls turn into statements of work, and with the demands on the consortium, we’re now starting to talk about ways in which we’ll have to grow our practice at the same time as we grow the consortium.

100% of our client work involves data strategy at some point, and for most (but not all) of our clients, they’re electing to use xAPI. I think over the past year, we’ve worked hard, collaborating with many vendors and stakeholders, to raise awareness of what people are actually doing with xAPI. So, between the Quarterly, the videos and presentations from xAPI Camps and other publishing that’s to come, there’s a plethora of credible information that just wasn’t there even a year ago.

AS: As consultants, we’re getting more business; and we hear from many vendors working with xAPI that they’re getting more business (and hiring people to help deal with the demand). There’s another factor to look at, too. We’re beginning to see ADL setting an expectation that “industry” needs to take on some of the responsibilities of maintaining and growing xAPI as this has scaled far beyond an applied research and development project.

Ultimately, I think xAPI is taking off now because it’s an idea that increasingly meeting the demands of the times we’re living and working in. Individuals, as well as organizations, want to take control of their data rather than only trust that benevolent entities will manage their data with their best interests.

Has adoption been slow in your opinion, or is that an unfair criticism?

AS: I think it’s an unfair criticism. I know some vendors feel this way, but I have to wonder if they’re seeing it as xAPI’s adoption is slow, or if they’re seeing it as their particular offering around xAPI is not finding faster adoption? From a consulting side, we’re certainly not seeing a slow adoption.

In terms of the attention and the draw of the events, we’re doing more xAPI Camps just to meet with demand (including a newly announced xAPI Camp in Chicago, September 2016). And as far as the consortium that’s coming together goes, we are vigorously meeting the challenging market demand for software certification of xAPI by the end of 2016. Anyone in business wants to have had more business last year, already. In the case of xAPI adoption, I honestly don’t understand how adoption could be faster given only three years since its release as 1.0.

What’s the most innovative use of the xAPI that you’ve come across so far?

AS: You know, it’s impossible to answer this question. You’ll post this interview online and three weeks later, we’ll see something even more incredible.

Off the top of my head, things that caught my attention in the last two months include Aquafadas’ InDesign extensions for xAPI out of France, the personal data locker approach championed by xAPI Inside out of Germany, the level of granular control Claro gives designers in terms of what and how things are tracked in content experiences, Kirsty Kitto’s work on data pathways is very important and the work taken on by Jisc in their Open Learning Architecture is breathtaking in its approach and scale.

There’s just so much happening, in another three months people reading this will have already moved on with me to other brighter and shinier innovations with xAPI.

Where should the conversation go in the next 12 months?

AS: The conversation for the next 8 months is all about software certification for xAPI (if you’re in IT or you’re a vendor) and Vocabularies, Recipes and Profiles if you’re designing experiences and want to use xAPI. After that, there’s going to be a large focus on the role JSON-LD may play in the evolution of xAPI and what it means to be a professional that uses with xAPI.

I think by this time next year, not only will there be work happening around the impact of JSON-LD on xAPI (for the geeks) but we’ll also see actual work efforts happening around professional certifications for, potentially, multiple roles that work with xAPI from the perspective of creating experiences that generate data and the perspective of working with that data.

There’s a body of knowledge to be developed, maybe a code of ethics to be established… I believe we’ll see that begin within the next year.

We’ve started hearing about Data Interoperability, a new non-profit organization to help steer the xAPI into the future. What is Data Interoperability all about and what is your involvement?

MB: The Data Interoperability Standards Consortium is a group of people, technology companies, and organizations dedicated to extending data interoperability.

Data Interoperability (for short) is a non-profit group and while xAPI is the first specification this group will work on, the intent is wider. Our mission is to create a data environment where systems can be successfully designed, built, and grown on common expectations of data. This enables increased interoperability, data ownership, and advancements in analytics.

Working towards this mission, there are three main groups who will be the focus: tool providers, professionals who build and design systems, and individual data owners.

AS: Megan and I established the non-profit organization late last year (2015) and established our Board of Directors in February. Megan and I were elected unanimously as Vice-President and President, respectively and Eric Nehrlich (Google) was elected – also unanimously – as our Treasurer.

We’re starting with these mandates:

  • Operations and Maintenance of the xAPI specification, keeping it open source
  • Managing the Evolution and Extension of the xAPI specification and supporting technologies
  • Support of working groups, like xAPI Conformance Testing
  • Recognition of special interest groups to inform the evolution of xAPI, like data formats (JSON-LD, low energy Bluetooth, etc)
  • Certifying xAPI technologies and practitioners
  • Stewarding additional specifications around data interoperability
  • Define and advance specifications and best practices for data interoperability and data ownership

And finally, with the London Camp just around the corner, why should people look to get involved in the community?

AS: The energy has never been greater around the xAPI community – the growth of the community, the diversity of the skill sets contributing to it and the backgrounds of those involved is amazing and it’s only going to get better.

There’s a freshness and youth to working with xAPI, and with the transition of more and more responsibility for its growth being distributed around both community and industry, it’s never going to be as easy to make a dent as it is right now. There are folks now anywhere in the world who can connect you and your ideas and challenges with people who can make a real difference for you.

To the earlier point about removing the barriers to entry for xAPI – there’s events happening all over the US and now around the world so that you can connect with the community, with expertise and with great tools – and do so where you’re at. Maybe you have very limited knowledge of xAPI – maybe you don’t code at all and you’re working on your MBA after work hours but want to get into workforce analytics. Maybe you are in higher ed or K-12 education and you want to wrap your head around how to do authentic, formative assessment – This community has never been as strong as it is right now!

Get Involved

As Aaron says, there is already a massive community of practice of those already using xAPI – with events and online discussions taking place all over the world, so no matter what your experience level,  there’s a conversation that you’ll be able to join that will help you understand how to take things to the next level.

For those of you already working with the xAPI, there there are just a handful of tickets left for the Jisc xAPI Camp, London. To get further details and reserve your place visit the Connections Forum website.  You can also request to join the xAPI Camp group on LinkedIn.

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