What Is the Experience API?

The Experience API addresses the limitations people find with e-learning technologies that are focused only on tracking the learner through a specific course, rather than through diverse learning experiences.

By Dr. Kristy Murray, Director, ADL Initiative, and Aaron E. Silvers, Community Manager for ADL and a contractor with Problem Solutions

After 15 years of e-learning shaped largely by a technology known as the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM for short, 2012 has been a year of learning technology radically affected by a technology commonly referred to as “Tin Can” (http://tincan.adlnet.gov). This technology is generating a lot of buzz, and there are a number of presentations, articles, and Websites dedicated to informing developers and implementers of systems that support it. But most instructional designers and trainers haven’t yet had an opportunity to really understand what it is and how it will affect their work. This article aims to help training professionals understand the motivation behind the development of the Application Programming Interface (API), which is called the Experience API and commonly known as “Tin Can,” and some of the uses for which it is designed.

Training & Learning Architecture (TLA)

The Experience API is the first technology being developed under ADL’s Training & Learning Architecture (TLA). The TLA is an umbrella term encompassing all technologies designed to create a rich environment for online training and learning. This is a research and development effort funded through Broad Agency Announcements to investigate and build out specific parts of the TLA.

While there might be more pillars in this architecture still to be imagined, right now there are four:

  1. Experience Tracking
  2. Learner Profiles
  3. Content Brokering
  4. Competency Infrastructure

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.

What About SCORM?

The TLA does not “replace” SCORM. While SCORM has limitations that have led ADL to conduct research moving us toward the TLA, SCORM is not dead! There are advantages to SCORM development, and the TLA will incorporate SCORM content but add richer and more personalized learning experiences.

I Want My Data!

Most learning management systems (LMSs) store and report data about what a learner does with content launched and tracked in that system. In general, LMSs work well for individuals and organizations. However, data provided by most LMSs is limited and does not provide valuable information about the learner’s performance (other than scores), and most LMSs do not provide custom reports or push/pull data across systems. If a person needs to send his or her data to another system, or if a manager wants to put together a custom report that directly ties what an employee learns to personalized or organizational performance analytics, there’s no interoperable way to do this in today’s SCORM environment.

Training in a Virtual World or Simulation

Most virtual worlds don’t work well in a Web browser (if at all). As a result, tracking to your typical LMS just isn’t possible. What’s more, with a model that only supports a single learner and data that only describes an individual, capturing important aspects about how teams perform in virtual environments is difficult, if not impossible.

Similar drawbacks apply to most simulations. Whether you’re talking about practice environments for SAP enterprise software or full-scale aviation simulators, most lack Web-browser interfaces. That means a facilitator or instructor cannot track what a learner is doing, provide data-driven guidance in the simulation, or pull a score into a reporting system that your LMS or other tool can capture. Simulations tend to share large amounts of data, which is difficult to do interoperably with SCORM, as is continuing the user experience after a session with a simulator or virtual world.

Learning Is a Social Activity

Learning is social, yet most LMSs don’t allow for user-generated content or content hosted by a third-party, let alone track content that isn’t already registered in an LMS. With these restrictions, even when people find exactly what they need as they direct their own learning (or get suggestions from their peers), the actual “learning” they’re doing is invisible to learning systems, and, thus, to the organization.

Anytime/Anywhere Mobility from Mobile Devices

Mobile applications, Augmented Reality glasses, tablets…these are all great platforms for education and training. In our current learning environments, the rigid data model and in-browser JavaScript communication requirements make it almost impossible to support emerging mobile technologies. The TLA will allow for truly anytime and anywhere learning—whether you’re using your desktop, laptop, or your favorite mobile device.

How Soon Is Now?

The Experience API is advancing rapidly. Released as a Version 0.9 as an open specification effort in April 2012, Version 0.95 was released in September 2012, with several enhancements and clarifications making it easier for people to use.

Version 1.0 of the Experience API is expected for release in April 2013, which then will move to a standards organization.

Even with the spec still prone to change, dozens of systems and authoring tool vendors are implementing the Experience API (a list is available here: http://www.adlnet.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Poltrack_NGS_iFest2012.pdf). Just to contrast: While work began on SCORM officially in 1997, it wasn’t until 2004 that Version 1.2 began to find widespread adoption. There are many ways to work with the Experience API. Any of the tools and service providers linked above will provide specific examples of the technology.

To find out more about the Experience API—whether it’s the nuts and bolts that specifically drive the technology or the origins of the BAA that spawned the project—check out http://tincan.adlnet.gov. ADL also provides Office Hours every Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern through December 2012. Members of ADL’s technical team will be available to answer questions and walk through your project with you. You can join the Office Hours here: http://www2.gotomeeting.com/join/416857738.

Dr. Kristy Murray is director of the ADL Initiative. Aaron E. Silvers is supporting ADL as community manager and contractor with Problem Solutions.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.