What the Experience API Is—and Why You Should Care

BY Celisa Steele


You probably know it better as Tin Can, the popular name that’s stuck and been embraced by Rustici Software (the developers of the API), although Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) prefers calling it the Experience API, or even xAPI.

If selecting a first or replacement learning platform is in your future, be sure to check out our Learning Business Platform Directory.

No matter what we call it, though, it’s the first step in a comprehensive vision for the future of technology-enabled learning.

Part of the Training and Learning Architecture (TLA)

Established in 1997 by President Clinton and overseen by the Department of Defense (DoD), ADL developed the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), the most widely recognized set of standards for e-learning which have been broadly adopted, even outside of the government.

The primary appeal of SCORM is that it assures some degree of interoperability—SCORM content can be delivered using any SCORM-conformant learning management system (LMS) using the same version of SCORM.

But SCORM is 15 years old at this point. How we live and learn has changed. Google and Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn didn’t exist when SCORM was born, not to mention game-changers specific to online education, like Coursera, edX, and Udacity.

Training and Learning Architecture (TLA)

Source: http://www.adlnet.gov/introducing-the-training-and-learning-architecture-tla

The Training and Learning Architecture (TLA) is ADL’s answer to what the next generation of SCORM looks like. TLA focuses on four interrelated areas:

  1. Experience tracking
  2. Learning profiles
  3. Content brokering
  4. Competency infrastructure

In a Training magazine article, Dr. Kristy Murray, director of the ADL Initiative, and Aaron E. Silvers, community manager for ADL explain the four areas of the TLA:

Learner Profiles will be powered by technologies that describe information about a learner: their preferences, competencies, and experiences.

Content Brokering will focus on technologies that describe, discover, and deliver content.

Competency Infrastructure will provide authoritative, machine-readable definitions of learning objectives, competencies, tasks, standards, and conditions.

Experience Tracking is the part that currently is being developed: the Experience API. Its design addresses the limitations people find with e-learning technologies currently used in organizations that are focused only on tracking the learner through a specific course, rather than through diverse learning experiences.

The Shortcomings of SCORM

As Murray and Silvers suggest in their description of experience tracking, Tin Can is meant to address what have become major shortcomings of SCORM.

  • SCORM doesn’t track informal or self-directed learning, and we know that an estimated 90 percent of learning is either self-managed or informal.
  • Because SCORM uses JavaScript in a Web browser to talk to an LMS, it can’t launch and track native mobile apps and has required a steady Internet connection (versus working when access to network infrastructure is intermittent).
  • SCORM focuses on the individual learner in isolation and doesn’t accommodate team-based exercises, collaboration, and instructor intervention.
  • SCORM looks at scores (usually a single score) and completions in courses, but doesn’t provide a good way to capture multiple scores (pre- and post-test, say) or detailed test data or to assess learners after the course is complete (but the learning presumably, hopefully, continues).

There are other limitations of the current incarnation of SCORM, but this list alone declares the need for Tin Can.

The Tin Can API is built around simple subject-verb-object statements that will allow a learning record store (LRS) to collect data about a wide variety of real-world learning activities. So, yes, the API will support familiar-to-SCORM statements like “Celisa completed the Intro to Tin Can course,” but also “Celisa asked the Leading Learning group members on LinkedIn what they’re doing about Tin Can,” or “Celisa wrote a blog post on Tin Can.”

With SCORM, an LMS is limited to delivering and tracking content it knows about. As Rustici Software points out, that SCORM limitation goes away with Tin Can: “With Tin Can, the latest Khan Academy video can become a trackable learning event as soon as it is released.”

Another key innovation of Tin Can is that it decouples “the content and the asserter of a learning experience.” Rustici Software explains:

In SCORM, the “thing reporting a result about a learning experience” always had to be the experience itself. You had a SCO [shareable content object] that was both a piece of educational content and a communicator of data about the learning experience. Content had to be smart. Content had to be intentionally converted to enable SCORM functionality. Tin Can removes the requirement that the communicator of data be the educational experience itself.

(By the way, Rustici Software’s “Layers of the Tin Can Onion” is an accessible overview of what Tin Can makes possible, and I recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the API.)

What It Means for You

This post is timely—version 1.0 of Tin Can is due out April 26.

That doesn’t mean that SCORM is dead as of next Friday—ADL emphasizes Tin Can is not a replacement for SCORM, but the evolution of SCORM. Plus, while some organizations have implemented early versions of the API, it will take years for broad adoption among technology developers (LMS and content authoring companies).

But, clearly, Tin Can touches on many critical issues that organizations in the business of lifelong learning grapple with today—informal and self-directed learning, social learning, mobile access.

What’s more, Tin Can provides the possibility of “personal data lockers” that pull information from all the relevant LRSes and aggregate it so learners, rather than a siloed LMS maintained by an organization, have access to their learning records. Given late baby boomers averaged 11.3 job changes between the ages 18 and 46, personal data lockers look really appealing, and figuring out how your association or organization interacts with these lockers will be an important question to sort out.

So keep an eye on the Tin Can API. Ask your current learning technology partners about their plans for Tin Can, and, if you’re looking to add any new learning technology, raise Tin Can in your conversations with those vendors. I’m not arguing these companies need to have a development timeline in place yet—but you want to know they’re staying abreast and have a plan for evolving their technology to help you deal with your critical issues.

  1. Becki Fleischer says:

    I first heard about the Tin Can API almost 2 years ago and I’m very excited to see the development thus far. Thanks so much for condensing so much good information into a very helpful post. One part of this post hits on “personal data lockers”, which I think, when coupled with tools like LinkedIn, are the wave of the ‘resume’ future. I’m curious if you have any information about who is working on “personal data lockers”. I’ve read about Mozilla Badges….is this the same idea?

  2. Hi, Becki–thanks for taking time to comment. I too find personal data lockers particularly interesting–and relevant for the work we do.

    Yes, in my view, Mozilla’s Open Badges project is an example of a kind personal data locker–the badges are the data but the infrastructure supporting them is a personal data locker.

    You might be interested in reading http://www.hackeducation.com/2012/03/04/thinking-strategically-about-badges. There’s a section in that post called “Badges as Personal Data Lockers?” The author (Audrey Watters) makes the point that LinkedIn recommendations are closed, not open–if you close your LinkedIn account, you can export your connections but not your recommendations.

    Anyhow, it’ll be interesting to see how personal data lockers in general evolve over time, as well as Mozilla’s Open Badges specifically.

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