The evolution of xAPI with Andrew Downes

This is the second podcast in our series on xAPI. Andrew Downes from Watershed LRS talks about the evolution of xAPI.

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It's Robin Petterd here, the host of the Learning While Working podcast. In this podcast, I've got Andrew Downs from Watershed LRS back, to talk a little bit about the history of xAPI, which is sort of also about the reasons why it's now really coming of time, as well.

He also talks how learning management systems in xAPI fit together and a little bit around non-LMS approaches, as well. It was really great to have Andrew back on the podcast. He's incredibly knowledgeable about the potentials and the technical challenges and possibilities of xAPI, as well.
Andrew, welcome back to the Learning While Working podcast. It's great to have you back today.

Thank you. Thanks for having me back.

Just to continue on with our conversation we were having in the last podcast, what do you think is the potential of xAPI?

Yeah. I think xAPI has had a really interesting history and so I just wanted to take some time just to talk through that a little bit and talk and also look forwards a little bit into the future.
You know, for anyone that's not familiar with xAPI, xAPI is this learning standard. You might be familiar with SCORM and xAPI is a long way from the successes of SCORM, but in another way it's very different from SCORM. It's a very different kind of beast. But really xAPI is a standard way of transferring data between two learning technology systems, normally involving what's called a Learning Record Store, which is a place where learning records are stored, or records of learning.
So, that's what xAPI is. It's quite simple. It's a technical standard. But, it unlocks a lot of things it's been able to move data between systems, easily and relatively cheaply. Means that you can have these integrations between products. You can have products working together. It means that you can get your data all in one place and you can much, much more easily evaluate the effectiveness of learning and use data to improve the learning resources, learning experiences that you are providing. Relatively simple and technical standard, but also, potentially, really impactful to learning development and transformational, in fact.
And, you know, sometimes, hear people saying, "You know, xAPI hasn't really taken off. You know, it's not really growing. People aren't doing it," those sorts of things. And actually I think, given the age of this the specification looking at the development of, you know, previous eLearning standards, it does take some time for these things to take off. But since, probably the ... just kind of the summer, autumn of last year, we've really seen the tide turning. We've seen a lot more interested customers in our product, Watershed LRS, and we've seen a lot more interest from vendors who maybe have previously dragged their feet.
So, I want to kind of go through that history and where we've come from and where we're going. So xAPI was kind of a richly conceived as TinCan API and it was released in 2000 ... April of 2013. And really, even before that release, were early-adopters, tinkerers, experimenting with xAPI. I remember back in 2012, I built a wrapper for Adobe Captivate 5.5 Flash packages that would kind of intercept the SCORM calls and would send on xAPI statements. That was now four years ago. Five years ago, in fact. So xAPI's been around for awhile now. But it was really kind of tinkerers, like me, technical people, in those days, who just wanted to experiment, just wanted to try things out.
That kind of back in 2012, even through to 2014 that most of the adopters were kind of innovative individuals who wanted to try out his new technology, who saw the potential of xAPI and perhaps were building prototypes, were experimenting with the code. We actually did see a surprisingly high level of adoption amongst authoring tool vendors, early on. I think the main reason for that is Rustici Software SCORM driver product had xAPI support and any authoring tool using SCORM driver, it made it a lot easier for them to implement xAPI tracking on the same level as what they were already tracking with SCORM. We call that SCORM parity. Doing what was possible with SCORM but doing it with xAPI and not necessarily going further than that.
So we saw this adoption and also we saw more innovative and newer products that just didn't fit the SCORM model. We started to see some of them adopting, from kind of 2015, onwards through to, you know, the summer of 2016, as I mentioned. We start to see more organisations running xAPI pilot projects. So, not just individual people tinkering with a specification, but actually organisations maybe spending a little bit of money, just to get a feel for the technology, running a pilot project just to kind of see how xAPI might work in their organisation.
organisation did see some organisations that maybe had some kind of more specific needs for xAPI. I mentioned MedStar, in the, on the last podcast. MedStar is a medical organisation. Learning evaluation's particularly important to them and they need to get that learning right and so they were keen to, you know, implement xAPI in a real life project much earlier on, and other organisations like that.
We did still see more traditional vendors, particularly, LMS vendors, really still dragging their feet because their customers weren't asking for it and the SCORM way of doing things really fit their business model. They didn't really see a need to change and so often they were dragging their feet with implementing. Which is understandable. Customers aren't asking for something and they are asking for something else, something that they're going to put the resources where customers are asking for it.
But I think as the case studies of those organisations that were doing real xAPI projects, as those case studies started to be published, more and more organisations started to see the real possibilities of xAPI and what could be done. And, again, as more and more products started to adopt xAPI it greased the wheels, made it easier for organisations to get started.
And, you know, from the summer of 2016 we've really seen the tide turning at Watershed. Our salespeople have commented that they're using the term "the tide turning" and they've commented that where previously they've had to go into an organisation and really convince the organisation of the value of learning evaluation, the value of xAPI, now they're seeing people coming to them. These are people who have got their projects all worked out. They know what they want to do. They're coming to buy a Learning Record Store rather than coming to come just have a chat and maybe need convincing that perhaps they need a Learning Record Store. So, we've seen that real big difference in our sales. And we're seeing organisations running real xAPI projects. It's not pilots anymore these are, you know, perhaps, organisations across the organisation or across a whole, you know, territory maybe like a particular organisation, the U.S. operations, for example, might be implementing xAPI.
And we're also starting to see vendors who previously had dragged their feet, are actually starting to work on xAPI products functionality and most LMSs I'm aware of now, aren't just saying, you know, "We're putting off xAPI to see what happens." Most of them are saying, "Actually now we're working on xAPI and we're putting things in place."
We have customers who implemented integrations with LMSs that maybe don't have xAPI support off the shelf, but they've done some custom integrations to get data out of those LMSs. So, we're really seeing that kind of tide turning, particularly since, I don't know what was special about summer, autumn of 2016, but that's kind of the time where we really saw a marked difference in how people are approaching xAPI.
So, looking forward into 2018, I'm really expecting xAPI to become mainstream by the end of 2018, with most organisations having embraced xAPI. There's always going to be those organisations they're still doing classroom training that haven't really embraced online learning yet. And, for those are organisations I'm sure that they're gonna be the later ones to implement xAPI, as well. But, I think, you know, we are seeing more and more organisations, and, as I say I think xAPI certainly by the end of 2018 really will have become mainstream. And, we're seeing significant growth already.

That's a great part of history of xAPI and TinCan Entry. It's really interesting what we've seen in the last little while in the switch where, essentially were getting a LMS request or quote from someone who's working with learning technology already. They want xAPI functionality. They want a Learning Record Store. People who are new to eLearning and doing a learning element selection don't request it. But, then, when they hear what it is, they say, "Yes, actually we do want that."
Let's try and flesh through a little bit about how you see it and the LMS being into xAPI ecosystem because I recently heard an L&D person sort of sit there and say, "Oh, the reason that xAPI hasn't been adopted is because we're expecting our LMSs to be our central repository of that data." And, in the back of my mind I was sitting there thinking, "Actually, they become one source of your data. In the future, your Learning Record Store is actually your central place."

Right. And, that is a conversation we're having with a few of our customers where they are used to having the LMS as the central source of data and so they're looking to bring all the data together in Watershed and then push it on to the LMS, which is a perfectly fine model if you want to take that approach. But, actually, if you are collecting all the data in Watershed, our point is, if you've got all the data in one place already, why not make that the central repository of the data where you've got all the reporting and all of the analytics in there, as well.
And perhaps you want to push completion dates to back to the LMS, that's great. But maybe you don't need to push all of the detail to the LMS. Because the LMS doesn't necessarily need to know all of the intricacies of what the learner did. It's just more interested in the high level ticking of the compliance boxes, for example and the records of what people have done. And, what the organisations that we have seen implementing xAPI across their ecosystem, you know, very much the LMS is one source of the data. Perhaps the data about eLearning course completions and data about classroom attendance might be in the LMS.
And that comes through into Watershed and then other records come from other systems, perhaps the learning experience platforms I mentioned in the last podcast. The, you know, the Degreed and Pathgathers of the world, they might have data coming from those, as well. And, I think people, from particularly large organisations do have these more complex learning ecosystems, where the LMS is just one component in that ecosystem.

It's also the whole movement away from using LMS and just a couple of large organisations in Australia that literally sat there and done a whole how huge first generation LMS is going to be compliance-based and then they'll go on searching for other learning technologies sometimes it's those second-generation more social LMSs to do more with, as well. The xAPI is known to be associated with this whole notion of non-LMS, as well. And it, more they work with xAPI, it's more about actually this freedom for learners as well as L&D people, about where they go when learning happens rather than the binary around no LMS or a LMS.

Right. And that's split of compliance and then learning for the sake of learning, that's something that I've seen in a few places, as well. Where people are saying, "We need to do the compliance stuff. We've got a system that's good at compliance. So, we kind of have that there. But from a learning perspective we want to be supporting people and actually learning and getting better at their jobs."
I mean, you hope that the compliance training is also helping people get better at their jobs. But, there is a little bit of a different focus there. From our perspective, I wouldn't necessarily say that xAPI is just about that, that more kind of learning-focus rather just about compliance-focused content or experiences.
We've actually released some new features, just very recently. Back on Pi Day, on March the 14th, we released our pie-chart report card and that is particularly good at visualising compliance data, because you can show a pie-chart where you can say, very easily see, this percentage of people are compliant. This percentage of people are compliant, but their compliance is expiring soon, so better watch out. And, this percent of people actually aren't compliant and they need to do the training, kind of right away. And we have like red, yellow, green slices of the pie to indicate that compliance.
So, xAPI can absolutely be a great way of tracking compliance. Whether that's compliance data in the LMS or, you know, maybe you're also tracking compliance in terms of number of incidents or whatever the particular compliance training is about, you might have data outside the LMS that is also relevant from a compliance point-of-view that you can then bring together with that learning data.

Yeah. And I think that's one of the things that's really exciting is being able to get that other data rather than just learning data, in as well. So that's a really nice example of what a few people are talking about in Australia, where, essentially, their compliance processes and requirements are getting integrated into the forms and systems, that's being forwarded back out using xAPIs.
A bit of a wrap-up question, Andrew. If all of sudden you could wave your magic wand and have your perfect xAPI project sitting in front of you, what would that look like, in 2018?

Oh, that's an interesting question. So what's really interesting, actually working with Watershed and working with different clients is that how different all of the projects are. So, I think, I'm not sure I can answer that question, as to what is my perfect project.
Now, I think I mentioned this on the last podcast, where some clients that are looking at content utilisation across learning happening all over the place. Other clients looking at particular learning programme and they're evaluating the effectiveness of that learning programme. Both of those are kind of valid and interesting projects.
We're seeing other clients now who are producing, like, a lot of eLearning content across their organisation. They're using, you know, the various different authoring tools to create this content and they're looking to use xAPI to capture data and evaluate the effectiveness of each course, be able to track how people are interacting with that course. And, were different people in the organisation interested in different courses? And, so there's kind of a good complexity around those different people looking at different bits of data. I think that's pretty interesting.
Other clients doing things with mobile applications and you know, there's lots and lots of interesting things and different clients are doing. So, I think, to say what would be my perfect project? It would probably be another project that's doing something completely different to what all our other clients have done before. Just to add to that variety.
There's lots of different ways that xAPI can be used and, you know, lots of different ways that you can ... angles that you can evaluate and analyse that learning data.

In terms of that flexibility, what do you think been's the most unusual way you've seen it been used?

Oh, then, again, that's a hard question, just because of the variety and the ... we keep seeing different ways that people are using xAPI. You know, there are some kind of off-the-wall prototype examples.
I mentioned xAPI GO in the last podcast. During which as some of the vendors there have done things that are a little bit off the wall, just as proof of concept demos. And, so I've seen people tracking the observation of people doing jumping-jacks as a kind of way of mirroring, tracking job observations.
We've seen a board game where you have to operate on a person without making a buzzer go off. You might be familiar with that game where you have these tweezers and you have to pull things out without touching the edges, otherwise, you know, the buzzer goes off. And, we've seen that tracked with xAPI.
There's all kinds of weird and wonderful things that people are tracking as demos and proofs of concept. In terms of real examples, I don't know what the most ... I mean, there are lots of medical examples where people are doing things with medical simulation dummies and things like that which are, you know, really interesting.

Actually, that's interesting, Andrew. Thank you.
I'm just starting to mind-map and work on a blog post which was a last in a series of digital thinking 101 for L&D people, about the Internet of Things and the potential around learning and these actually just triggered a whole lot of things and possible examples I could use and I'll hunt out that one around the game, as well.
But this is also the thing that xAPIs just so flexible as a data-collection reporting standard that just has so much potential for so many different things.

Yeah. I often compare, xAPI to USB as a standard. So, USB is this thing that lets you connect electronic devices together. And so if you think of all the different devices that you USB, you know the possibilities really are endless.

Thank you, Andrew, for joining me again today on the Learning While Working podcast. It was great to have you back and do that crash course on the history of xAPI and talk more about some of those examples, as well.
Thank you so much.

Thanks for having me.