Kicking the Can

by Jim Hicks

The Experience API (xAPI) replaces the old SCORM 2.0 standard.  I made a point of diving into what this means for the learning industry while I was at mLearnCon 2013. I was pleasantly surprised: surprised by the technology, surprised by the frankness of those discussing what it means for the the learning industry's future and surprised by the players and attendees complaints about from where we have come. Let me give you some examples.

Technology Surprises

The core of the new standard are statements about learning experiences. Like a basic sentence, the statement contains a noun, also called actor (who did it), a verb (what they did) and an object (type of experience). These statements get stored in a learning record store (LRS) database. OK -- Now here are where the surprises come in to play. (1) An LRS does not need to sit in a learning management system (LMS). It can exist on its own. (2) As a learner, you do not need to be online to have your experience recorded. 

Future Surprises

Everyone involved in this new xAPI standard seems to be getting smarter. I heard no nonsense about metadata and wrappers and zip files and reusable learning objects (RLOs). Instead, the gatekeepers of this new standard were discussing what this means for the future of informal learning and performance support. Wow! Intelligent conversations from learning technology folks! While everyone speaking was very careful about tip-toeing around what this meant for the future of the LMS, it was obvious that with the LRS capable of existing on its own, an LMS is no longer necessary for storing learning results. So folks were already exhibiting stand-alone, cloud-based LRS databases with better analytics than anything I've seen from inside an LMS. Companies who have for years driven their course catalogs through eCommerce stores, or delivered their content via video, Flash-based tools or a wide-range of great custom solutions can rest assured that xAPI fits their model.

Complaints from the Past

I made a point of talking with attendees about their learning management systems (LMS). I was shocked! I did not realize how bad things had become. I could not find one person with a positive experience. What's worse, some discussed the fact that not only would their LMS not accept basic learning content, but the process for getting that deficient content onto their LMS servers required processes that took hours or even days. 

I was talking with one of the SCORM 2.0 gatekeepers and mentioned that I had never once needed to use the standard or its predecessors over the years of its existence. He mentioned he felt I was "lucky." I responded, "Really, do you think it was luck?" He just smiled. 

With the xAPI, the learning technology conversation has begun to mature.  If this technology gets implemented properly, we could be leapfrogging from a technologically immature industry to a highly-mobilized one that opens the doors to a wide range events and informal experiences being recorded and carried across an individual's career. Let me explain the future vision of the xAPI.

Kicking the Can into the Future

As early as high school, we start building and recording skills. Think SAT and ACT. Think Math skills level testing upon college entrance. We are building and recording learning experiences. Fast-forward to your professional career. I like reading software books, instructional design books. I teach myself new software and instructional design and delivery techniques through help and forums and conferences (social and informal learning). None of this gets recorded now.

What if it did? The xAPI can record this into an LRS! While at mLearnCon, I presented the technology that I've put together for mobile and informal learning. All of the effort to learn how to put that technology together over the past three years has gone unrecorded. What if the xAPI had recorded that effort, though? All of my experiences discussing instructional design and learning technologies with clients, the formal and the informal presentations, have gone unrecorded. What if they were sitting in an LRS right now?

Formal training is such a small window into our learning experience. Employers often need formal assessments, for hiring, promotion, etc. Right now, the relationship between the course and the assessment is usually quite close in time and proximity. We take a course, then we take the exam. We get a badge or a certificate. In the future, how about if smart tools track our competency levels and tell us when we are ready for an assessment. We read a book, attend a meeting, take an online module. An online competency tracker then tells us, based on our learning experiences, that it's time for the assessment. Our probability of success, based upon those experiences, is high. That is the promise of the xAPI.

New processes and technologies rely on productive workers with the right skills. Things that don't work need to get fixed quick, not with a long training development cycle, but with nimble, on the job fixes. Job aids and performance support are quick solutions. How do you measure impact, though? How do you get formal data into an otherwise informal process. That's where xAPI comes into play. What if in the future the supervisor can record performance problems at the point of work? What if the "fix" gets recorded in the LRS and measured through its data's analytics? This is the promise of xAPI.

How can the xAPI improve the relationship between employer and employee? We have learning experiences specific to our job, both formal and informal. What if we can have these recorded into our LRS statements and carry these from employer to employer, project to project throughout our careers. No one begrudges high-ROI training intended to increase company revenues. When the employer is also deemed to be contributing to the overall career of its employees, the perception of that employer's relationship with its employees gets raised several notches.


So hopefully this gives you an idea of how the new data exchange standard for the learning industry, called Experience API, has a vision that goes far beyond its predecessor's technology and goals. I was highly impressed by the savvy of the discussions at mLearnCon 2013. It's our duty to demand implementations that fully realize this vision. As we "kick the can" into the future, we need to demand more good surprises, not bad ones.



The Society of Actuaries (SOA) e-Learning program is both unique and successful from the perspectives of a wide variety of stakeholders -- from the board of directors to the candidate learners and their employers.  We value Jim's consulting, work and partnership in making highly regarded e-Learning at the SOA a reality!

- Judy Powills
Senior Director, Curriculum & Content Development, Society of Actuaries


Jim Hicks

Bloomington, IN
Chicago, IL
Milwaukee, WI