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Think xAPI is Next-Generation SCORM? Think Again

Is xAPI actually next-generation SCORM? Learn why they're not the same - and why that's a good thing - with xAPI expert Anthony Altieri on the Talented Learning blog

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Occasionally, we invite learning community experts to share their advice with our readers. Today we feature a post by Anthony Altieri Founder of Omnes Solutions. Anthony is an independent xAPI evangelist and Instructional Developer for the Internet of Things.


 

If you’re an elearning professional, you’ve probably seen or heard the term xAPI countless times. But are you still fuzzy about where SCORM ends and xAPI begins? And why you should care, anyway?

After years of educating people about xAPI (aka Experience Application Programming Interface), I find that it is still one of the least-understood concepts in the digital learning world. So I’m on a mission to clear the air.

I want everyone to recognize xAPI as a solid and surprisingly simple foundation for next-generation learning experience measurement. But that does not mean xAPI is a next-generation version of SCORM (aka Sharable Content Object Reference Model). It is not. And that’s a good thing. Let me explain.

How Did the SCORM/xAPI Confusion Begin?

To understand why these two data specifications are different, it helps to know a little bit about the origin of xAPI.

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Rewind briefly to a day in 2010, when the dew was still fresh and early morning sun filled the meeting room at Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL). A research team gathered to start work on an update to the SCORM specification.

By that time, SCORM was a decade old, and the only serious update had been delivered six years earlier, in 2004. However, it didn’t take long for the team to realize that another SCORM update simply couldn’t meet the needs that existed at that time, let alone evolve to support whatever forms training might take in the future.

The Trouble With SCORM

The primary problem with SCORM is its core philosophy. It relies on a “state”-based reporting methodology. In other words, because SCORM reports only the current state of an individual’s enrollment, it doesn’t specify when that individual completed a course or other details about that experience.

Can you extrapolate completion activity from SCORM data? Absolutely. But there’s a difference. And although that difference may seem like subtle semantics, it can have a huge effect on reporting.

With SCORM, when learners enroll in an online course, the state of the enrollment/course is recorded as “not attempted.” When they launch the course, the state is recorded as “incomplete.” If all goes well, they eventually finish the course. At that point, the status changes to “completed” or “passed” or “failed” depending on how learners perform and how the course is configured to report outcomes.

Along the way, you could collect other data, but few training providers actually apply that function to anything other than the score, because it is difficult to use and has very limited support for meaningful reporting.

For example, you could collect test questions and answers. But in 2010, many learning management systems (LMS) didn’t provide a way to report on all the answers every student submitted for a given question. Even if they did, the level of reporting detail was inconsistent.

Another Problem With SCORM

There was also a rather large elephant in the elearning room:  For SCORM to work fully, everyone pretty much had to log-in to an LMS. Yes, some methods divorced training content from the LMS, proper. But more often than not, this was accomplished through the digital equivalent of smoke and mirrors. It wasn’t a particularly stable practice.

And Don’t Forget These Issues…

This led to yet another digital elephant in the room:  SCORM’s reliance on JavaScript. Back in 2000, JavaScript was the only programming language used to create training content in web page format. Unfortunately, JavaScript suffered from many issues.

One was cross-domain requests. For obvious security reasons, browsers generally blocked JavaScript requests made from one domain (such as Example.com) to another (such as AnotherExample.com) unless it was done in a very specific manner. And most LMSs did not support that without more smoke-and-mirrors trickery. Oh, and as mobile devices became widely used, even more challenges emerged.

The Need, In a Nutshell

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To summarize, the “next generation of SCORM” needed to solve multiple problems:

1) Change from a “state-driven” reporting system to a system that let administrators collect more accurate, detailed information about training participants.

2) Provide a more detailed way to report training progress, apart from the completion state.

3) Provide a way to launch content from outside an LMS – potentially divorcing it entirely from the LMS, and possibly even removing the need for an LMS entirely.

4) Allow content to use programming languages other than JavaScript.

The Solution (Sort Of)

Did this framework lead to the next-generation of SCORM? Well, not exactly. Instead, the team at ADL actually paved the way for the Actively Narrating Technical Interface-Sharable Content Object Reference Model – otherwise known as the ANTI-SCORM.

OK, they didn’t call it ANTI-SCORM. But they could have. And with that, they gave SCORM a silent, respectful nod and simply walked away.

The Alternative

Fortunately, the ADL effort wasn’t a total loss. In fact, from the ashes of this original process rose the xAPI – a new and somewhat radical way to track and record what a learner does and when the action occurs, along with virtually any other data describing the learner’s actions.

In short, xAPI is “event”-driven. This represents a massive departure from the ways of “state”-based SCORM. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say an individual initiates an action, such as clicking a button, launching a course, or playing a video. The content immediately notifies the server (a Learning Record Store aka LRS) about this event in a statement that reads like normal speech. The statement structure includes three common elements:  actor-verb-object. For example, “Sally clicked the button.” “Anthony launched the course.” “John played the video.”

The content can be designed to include details in this statement, such as how long John played the video, or which parts of the video he played, or which operating system and browser John used, the date and time when the video was played, and so on. Content authors have nearly unlimited ability to collect related information.

Better Data = Better Insights

These statements can also be stitched together to see all the steps in a series of related interactions, the total time required to complete the sequence, how many steps were repeated and more. This provides a much better understanding of an individual’s experience than SCORM can provide.

As a result, learning administrators and course creators can easily review reports and isolate problems, so they can quickly adjust, clarify or correct the content. This helps ensure that learning initiatives are supported with the best-quality content. It also provides the kind of data that illustrates the business impact of learning initiatives.

Other Issues Resolved

xAPI also removes the SCORM JavaScript requirement I mentioned previously, so content doesn’t have to be limited to a web page. It can be a computer program, a mobile app or even an IoT device like a car, appliance or voice-controlled speaker. Essentially, it can be any connected thing that lets content send statements to the LRS.

This also means that content no longer needs to be launched from an LMS, so you might not need an LMS at all. (However, for reasons I’ll discuss at another time, many organizations will still need an LMS.) Regardless, in every way, xAPI has become the ANTI-SCORM. And that’s not a bad thing.

Putting xAPI Into Perspective

xAPI is not meant to replace SCORM directly. It is meant to respond to a rapidly evolving digital world. It is meant to support diverse needs in dynamic business environments. It is meant to take learning insights into the future, rather than concerning us with standards from the past. It is meant to be everything that “state”-based SCORM is not.

xAPI is flexible, granular, flexible, portable, flexible, consumer-friendly – and most importantly, flexible! And given its “event”-driven foundation, xAPI is more than SCORM could ever be.

In the new world order, we have options. We can choose to use SCORM or xAPI. And if you prefer the familiarity of SCORM services, you can rest assured that it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

So don’t think of xAPI as the next generation of SCORM. It’s something new. It’s something different. xAPI and SCORM will co-exist for years to come. And we’ll all be better for it.

 


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How to Drive Learning in Hard-to-Reach Places: Strategies from Non-Profits

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Workforce training is especially tough for relief agencies in the world’s most marginalized communities.

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Find out by joining John Leh, Lead Analyst at Talented Learning as he hosts a special online discussion with Ross Coxon, Director of Learning Collaborative at Humentum, and Bill Mastin, EVP at PeopleFluent Learning. You’ll discover how to:

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Anthony Altieri
About Anthony Altieri (1 Articles)
Anthony Altieri is founder of Omnes Solutions. He is an xAPI evangelist and Instructional Developer for the Internet of Things. For more than a decade, Anthony has implemented global LMS systems and developed numerous training products. As a maker, he specializes in building rich, engaging training environments that bring virtual and real worlds together. As part of his xAPI outreach, Anthony recently published a LinkedIn Learning course: "xAPI Foundations." You can connect with him on LinkedIn or on Twitter at @aa_altieri.
Contact: Website

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