February 2016
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TD Magazine

What Is xAPI?

Friday, May 21, 2021

For a practical explanation of this new learning technology specification, look no further.


Think about all the ways that your learners acquire knowledge, skills, and abilities. They attend classes, take e-learning courses, practice, read books, talk with mentors, practice, troubleshoot their errors with experienced peers, share information on social media, practice some more, and finally master what they set out to learn.

Historically, the only part of this process that talent development professionals can track is whether learners showed up to class or passed their e-learning course. If you subscribe to the 70-20-10 model of learning, think of it this way: Most talent development teams cannot track learning by experience (70 percent) or learning from others like mentors or peers (20 percent) in any meaningful way. We're limited to measuring the formal learning experiences (10 percent) that are recorded in the learning management system.

But now, a new technology specification offers the ability to track up to 100 percent of learning experiences. How is this possible? Let us explain.

Intro to xAPI

xAPI is a simple, lightweight way to store and retrieve records about learners and share these data across platforms. These records (known as activity statements) can be captured in a consistent format from any number of sources (known as activity providers) and they are aggregated in a learning record store (LRS). The LRS is analogous to the SCORM database in an LMS.

The x in xAPI is short for "experience," and implies that these activity providers are not just limited to traditional AICC- and SCORM-based e-learning. With experience API or xAPI you can track classroom activities, usage of performance support tools, participation in online communities, mentoring discussions, performance assessment, and actual business results. The goal is to create a full picture of an individual's learning experience and how that relates to her performance.


API stands for application programming interface, a common method for software systems to interact and share data. xAPI activity statements can be generated by activity providers and sent to the LRS, or they can be sent from the LRS to other systems. Many current applications offer APIs to make their data available in other systems, and vice versa.

An xAPI activity statement records experiences in an "I did this" format. The format specifies the actor, verb, object: the actor (who did it), a verb (what was done), a direct object (what it was done to) and a variety of contextual data, including score, rating, language, and almost anything else you want to track.

Some learning experiences are tracked with a single activity statement. In other instances, dozens, if not hundreds, of activity statements can be generated during the course of a learning experience. Activity statements are up to the instructional designer and are driven by the need for granularity in reporting.

Where did xAPI come from?

In 2008, the Learning Education Training Systems Interoperability Federation set out to collect and investigate requirements for the "next generation of SCORM." It leveraged Advanced Distributed Learning's (ADL) community to submit requirements in the form of more than 100 whitepapers that would later become essential artifacts and sources of requirements for xAPI. Rustici Software, a pivotal partner in the development of xAPI, has archived these whitepapers for posterity.

In 2010, the ADL Initiative began investigating new standardized experience tracking capabilities that could support emerging devices and technologies used for learning and performance today and in the future. In 2011, ADL asked for help developing the practical successor to SCORM. Among the inspirations for the new project were activity streams, which laid the groundwork for the xAPI's "I did this" statement structure.

The name for the project was "Project Tin Can" (as the requirements were intended to be based on a two-way conversation with the community), but ADL later officially named the specification the Experience API.

How is xAPI different from SCORM?

SCORM is the standard by which e-learning courses hosted in an LMS communicate to the LMS. SCORM stores data about certain simple things of interest to the average instructional designer: course completion status, total learner time spent on the course or learning content, scores, and perhaps location. This is perfectly sufficient as long as all learning takes place within the LMS, but we all know that most learning happens elsewhere. SCORM doesn't track all those other ways in which we learn—offline, informally, in classrooms, or on the job, for example.

xAPI allows us to evaluate learner performance on the job—not just on a test—giving us valuable insight to the effectiveness of our performance improvement programs. These data are also put into the context of the learning activity, providing a more complete picture of the whole learning experience. When we have data this detailed, we can tailor learning activities to the unique needs of each individual.


How is the LRS different from the LMS?

It may seem as though the LRS will replace your LMS. However, it's quite likely that your LMS does more than simply record and store SCORM or AICC transactions in support of formal learning experiences. It probably manages users, enrollments, class sessions, facilitator assignments, documents, and discussion groups, as well as runs reports. For many organizations, these functions will still be required in an xAPI environment, so your LMS will still be useful. One or more LRSs, either embedded in the LMS or alongside it, will support your additional learning experience tracking.

What is the state of xAPI?

Our industry is collaborating to ensure the success of the xAPI specification. Several LRSs are commercially available to choose from, and LMS providers are adding an LRS to their suites, either natively or in partnership with LRS providers. Major courseware development tools have varying degrees of basic conformance with xAPI and can send statements to an LRS. Their capabilities are improving all the time. If your current course development tools don't create the activity statements you need, keep in mind that sending xAPI statements requires only simple JavaScript, so many developers are coding their own form of statements from scratch.

As the specification evolves, one of the key concepts to grasp is that of vocabulary. The ADL and related industry groups are working to define lists of verbs to use when creating activity statements in the hope that standardization will lead to increased interoperability across the industry. Competency frameworks around global topics are already beginning to emerge, including the MedBiquitous Competency Framework for the healthcare industry.

Should I use xAPI?

Yes. Many companies and consultants have already moved to implement xAPI in their organizations and for their clients. If you have something to track that cannot be handled by SCORM, xAPI is a viable option for you and it's not difficult to get started. For initial experimentation and testing, most commercial LRS products offer a free trial option, and ADL has an activity statement viewer that's freely available, too.

On the other hand, if SCORM tracking is sufficient for your needs right now, there is no rush to adopt xAPI. SCORM is not going away any time soon, a fact that LMS providers are taking into consideration as they prepare to support xAPI alongside SCORM and AICC.

Helpful Resources

This blog was originally published in February 2016 and has since been updated with new information and resources.

About the Author

Megan Torrance is the chief energy officer of TorranceLearning, an e-learning design and development firm outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has spent over two decades knee-deep in projects involving change management, instructional design, consulting, and systems deployment. Megan thrives on design excellence and elegant project management. And coffee. She and the TorranceLearning team have developed the LLAMA project management approach, blending Agile with excellent instructional design techniques. TorranceLearning projects have won IELA and Brandon Hall awards, and the 2014 xAPI Hyperdrive contest at DevLearn.

Publications include “A Quick Guide to LLAMA: Agile Project Management for Learning,” and “Agile and LLAMA for ISD Project Management,” a TD at Work. Megan has written for TD magazine several times, including the article, “What Is xAPI?” in the February 2016 issue. 

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