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Jul 2017

Change your life with data: an introduction to xAPI

Blog posts

Ben Betts

Ben Betts

CEO at HT2 Labs

Back in 2014 Kineo joined the Learning Locker Open Source LRS Project – and strengthened the relationship by becoming a Learning Locker Partner in 2016.

At the time it was clear that businesses were increasingly turning to the xAPI to get a better understanding of both how their workforces engage with their training, and the long-term performance gains that are being achieved.  However, nine months on and we’re still finding that there is a lack of understanding over what xAPI actually is, and how it can be used.

What is xAPI?

Before we get into why you might use xAPI, it’s important to note that all xAPI is, when it comes down to it, is a document. In fact the xAPI is that most dull of documents; a specification document. Fortunately, learning technologists sleep soundly in their beds at night only because geeky men and women stand ready to make specification documents on their behalf.

This document, the xAPI specification, was created by a consortium of learning experts led by the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL). While the document was being formed, its prototype name was ‘project Tin Can’, but these days it is known by its official name, the Experience API, or xAPI for short. 

At its heart the xAPI specification details a method for communicating learning and working experiences, using data, in a common format. The aim is to create a lightweight language and format that we can all learn to work with, to make our systems and our data inter-operable.

There are of course lots of ‘APIs’ in the world. Your organisation will use many. The xAPI builds upon common API formats and extends them to allow us to talk about things we do in learning - like querying for assessment results or understanding who was a learner’s tutor. Because xAPI has been built by learning people, for learning people, it represents the future language of our industry. 

How does xAPI actually work? 

The xAPI details a series of methods for communicating the activity of a user to a central database, a Learning Record Store (LRS). It is not dependent on an LMS, or any particular system architecture, save for the fact that you’ll need an LRS to store data.

In creating the xAPI, its authors couldn’t readily put any system out of scope - we could be just as easily learning on a phone, or a TV, or in real-life. As such, the most compelling initial use cases for implementing the xAPI come when you are trying to tie a number of systems together. You’re going to have to create some sort of protocol and shared language between those systems, so you may as well follow a well-defined template to do that. The xAPI specification is that template.

The way that xAPI communicates most typically is known as a ‘statement’ of activity. This is the concept of an actor (a person, for example), performing an action (completing) in relation to an activity (a course). That means that every action you take on an xAPI-enabled system could be capable of outputting a ‘triplet’ of activity that both a Learning Record Store, and a person viewing that Learning Record Store, could understand.

There are many use cases for xAPI but it is most common to see the specification used in connecting systems together, performing data analysis and facilitating performance support.

Why do I need xAPI?

The industry already has systems in place for tracking learning - SCORM being the most common - allowing you to package up courses to deploy on an LMS and track who has launched, completed or passed that course.

But 2017 is the 20th anniversary of SCORM and digital learning has evolved. We’re no longer all about logging in to the LMS to launch learning content. Now we learn from micro-content located in a variety of places. We use mobile phones, simulations, games and more. We’re also increasingly cognisant of the impact of ‘informal’ learning experiences; stuff that happens outside of the sphere of L&D’s control.

xAPI gives us a looser framework that allows us to communicate between any two systems, not just between learning content and the LMS. Using an LRS with the xAPI is an easy way to connect multiple systems together using an already standard approach that retains data in a way many organisations are still required to gather.

How much does xAPI cost?

The xAPI specification is freely available open source as is much of the technology you need to get started.  Until recently the xAPI has remained a fairly geeky world. You’d need to do some real research on the specification, understand the concept and do a bit of coding to get things going.

All that is changing as the industry matures. Whilst you will still need to invest a bit of time and resource in getting started, a lot of companies have jumped at the chance to make getting started much easier, Kineo included.

Just as most organisations have an LMS of some sort to manage learners and content content, xAPI needs an LRS to actually do the storing, sorting and sharing of data. You can use tools like Learning Locker’s open source edition for free, but you’ll need a degree of technical skill to accomplish that. 

To use xAPI in a production capacity in the workplace you are going to incur some costs that will need to be budgeted for are around the storage and manipulation of the data.  If you’re looking to procure your first LRS, you’ll need to consider things such as:

Will the LRS be hosted in the cloud, or deployed on-premises?How much data will you create?How is your data secured?Are there any location restrictions?How much data can be lost in a worst-case scenario?

Megan Torrance shared some great advice on getting started with the xAPI without breaking the bank as part of our Introduction to xAPI MOOC last year.

Who’s already using xAPI?

Thousands of organisations from all areas of industry are already using - and benefitting from - xAPI. At HT2 Labs, we’re working with clients from across the globe to help them make learning more measureable through the use of xAPI and learning analytics.

For example:

  • Villeroy & Boch - who were able to use the data collected by xAPI to prove the link between training and performance throughout their retail stores (and won Best Social Learning - Silver at the 2016 Learning Awards)
  • InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) - who were able to demonstrate remarkable insight into the impact a social learning experience has had on the organisation using xAPI data (and won a cheeky Silver at the 2016 Learning Awards to prove it)
  • City & Guilds has used the system in-house, to connect an ecosystem of tools for their TechBac™ project, and powered an awesome dashboard that alerts tutors to students who may be falling behind. It would be remiss of me not to mention the ‘Best in Show’ award this project picked up at DevLearn in 2015!

Want to know more about why you need the xAPI? See our webinar recording to hear how xAPI can change your L&D life

Ben Betts

Ben Betts

CEO at HT2 Labs

Ben leads the passionate team at HT2 Labs and is a globally-recognised thought-leader in learning technology with more than 15 years' industry experience. His doctorate research broke new ground studying the impact of gamification on adult social learning. He has written and contributed chapters for four books, published peer-reviewed academic papers and presented at TEDx.