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How xAPI makes personalized learning possible

Personalized learning at work means connecting the right employee with the right learning resource, at the right time. Sounds simple, right?

But we all know that there's a looong way between theory and practice. How can L&D professionals travel this distance without losing focus over any of the three parts of personalized learning? First and foremost, they need data; big data. Then, they need some tools to help them make meaning of all data and deliver custom learning materials.

Again, it sounds simple. Learners log into an LMS, do their learning, and the analytics and reporting tools do a decent job of gathering, sorting, and analyzing learning data for each employee.

But this only covers for approximately 10% of all learning that happens at work. What about all on-the-job experiences, and social interaction with peers and managers, that happen organically at any given time? These do stand for up to 90% of workplace learning, as the 70:20:10 model suggests.

The solution comes with xAPI.

xAPI / Experience API / TinCan API

Three names for the exact same thing? Isn't that a bit confusing? Perhaps the story behind these three names will cast some light over this API:

Once upon a time, before Facebook was a thing, and people didn't lose their minds over some change of an app logo, Learning and Development professionals were happy working with SCORM — Shareable Content Object Reference Model — a set of technical standards for e-learning software products. This meant that any course created with a SCORM-compliant LMS could be accessed by any SCORM-compliant LMS.

But with the advancement of search engines, the know-it-all internet, combined with a growth in a mobile devices ownership, external demands for workplace training grew as well. Soon, SCORM found itself in the need of a modern successor.

This successor was developed by Rustici Software upon the demand of Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), under the code-name Project Tin Can. The name was inspired by the children's game where one whispers in a tin can connected to another one through a rope, and the other player can hear the whisper. It was all about having a conversation.

Once the project was finished and the L&D industry was presented with the new e-learning set of standards, Tin Can received the official name of Experience API. Or shortly, xAPI. This name draws the attention over the fact that experiences in learning can be tracked and analyzed as well, not just the formal activities with which we were used.

No matter how you choose to call it — xAPI, Experience API, or Tin Can API — remember that it's the same thing, and it works the same. I for one will stick to xAPI.

How does xAPI work?

Basically, learning experiences are recorded as activity statements in a Learning Record Store (LRS).

Learning experiences come in a variety of shapes and sizes:

  • attending a formal course;
  • taking a formal test and being assessed based on theoretical knowledge;
  • having a conversation / meeting with a colleague or a manager about the learned subject;
  • performing a task;
  • searching online for support or watching a YouTube video about how to better perform that task;
  • receiving / giving feedback related to that task;
  • performing an improved version of the said task.

Each of these learning experiences — and more — are then transformed into actor - action - object activity statements:

  • The actor is usually the learner: I did this.
  • The action is a verb: I did this.
  • The object is the acquired piece of knowledge: I did this.

All these activity statements then go to the LRS, which can exist within an LMS, or on its own. This pretty much means that learning doesn't have to happen in a browser with an internet connection. It can happen anytime, anywhere, through any device, and xAPI will make sure to track all learning experiences.

Getting the ultimate personalized learning experience with xAPI

xAPI makes it easier to connect real performance with any learning experience. It gives L&D professionals more control over the learning content, with no concern over the loss of any data during platform transition (when learning starts with a course within an LMS, continues through a mobile app, then a conversation, followed by a quiz on a tablet, for instance).

From this to delivering a personalized learning experience is only a small step.

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