Getting Started With xAPI

Resources To Help You Begin Your xAPI Journey
Summary: Don’t know much about xAPI? 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.

Resources To Help You Begin Your xAPI Journey

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. In one of our "Instructional Designers in Offices Drinking Coffee" video and podcast [1] 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 Tin Can 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. 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 [2]." Like all IDIODC episodes, there’s great stuff to be found in the chat as well what is happening on 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 reopen the course on 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 is 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 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 [3], 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, we are 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.

With many eLearning authoring tools, you have to add every xAPI statement yourself, often using JavaScript. 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 the Option button on a page, and the xAPI statement is ready to go, no work needed on your part.


[1] Helping our Peers Create Better eLearning Content & Learning Experiences

[2] The OG’s of xAPI: With Special Guest Aaron Silvers

[3] Using xAPI to Support and Track Spaced Repetition: With Special Guest Duncan Welder 

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