Does talk of xAPI, SCORM, and LRSs make you feel like you are swimming in alphabet soup? This primer will help you sort out key buzzwords that are necessary to understanding what xAPI is and how it fits with eLearning.

An API is an “application program interface”—a way for two programs, systems, or apps to communicate. The xAPI specification, which is also called the Experience API—and used to be referred to as the “Tin Can” API—describes an API that can talk to all kinds of apps and tools, allowing collection of data about learners’ activities in many different places and using many different technologies.

The xAPI standard is sometimes touted as a replacement for SCORM, a widely used standard in eLearning. First released in 2001, SCORM was designed to facilitate communication between an LMS—a learning management system—and training content that was outside the LMS.

SCORM sounds a little like xAPI, no? Why change?

The xAPI standard, first released in 2013, is newer and more robust than SCORM. It is an open standard, and it takes on some of the functions of SCORM. It can also do many things that SCORM cannot, such as tracking a large array of formal and informal learning and work-related activities.

There are some very big differences: SCORM hails from an earlier era, before mobile devices were ubiquitous and when most learning was planned, scheduled, and tracked using an LMS. It does not capture anything that happens on a mobile device; in fact, SCORM only captures learning when the content is on the same web domain as the LMS, which rules out cloud-based eLearning as well. SCORM also tracks fewer types of activities than xAPI. It can’t track team activities, for example, or record multiple scores for an assessment.

As the eLearning universe has expanded to include mobile learning and informal learning that occurs on social networks and elsewhere, SCORM was missing more and more of the picture. Using xAPI-compatible devices offers managers a way to keep track of learners’ progress.

Using the metaphor of language and sentences, xAPI creates statements describing actions taken by actors. A learner is considered an actor, and any activity he or she performs is recorded. A statement could be something like “learner viewed video” or “learner passed assessment.”

These statements—all the data about each learner’s activities—is compiled in something called a learning record store, or LRS, where it can be analyzed, retrieved, and evaluated. Any tool that gathers learning data has to talk to the LRS so that data can be stored—and later retrieved and analyzed. In fact, any tool or app that a learner uses, whether to learn new information or to apply that information on the job, can (in theory) talk to the LRS and send it data about those activities. xAPI is the language used for those conversations. It only takes an occasional Internet connection to send xAPI statements to the relevant LRS.

Neither xAPI nor the LRS replaces the LMS; xAPI will work with a compatible LMS and track formal training that takes place within the LMS. Within an xAPI ecosystem, the LMS and LRS can coexist, with xAPI and something called cmi5 helping them talk to each other.

So … what is cmi5? According to Art Werkenthin in “Experience API, cmi5, and Future SCORM,” xAPI is only a partial replacement for SCORM; it does not replace the scheduling or user management features of SCORM, for example. That’s where cmi5 comes in. Billed as a “bridge,” cmi5, a new standard that was released in June 2016, provides structure and rules for communicating data about formal learning that occurs in an LMS to the xAPI database.

In an xAPI ecosystem, the pieces work together to capture data on individual learners and teams, regarding a broad range of formal and informal learning and work-related activities. That information offers managers and eLearning developers insight into what’s working and what kinds of learning activities successful employees have completed; it could, conceivably, help managers identify who in the team might be regarded as a “guru” who could mentor others.