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On the MOOC Horizon: Tin Can API

By Bryant Nielson, Managing Director On June 26, 2014 Under eLearning, Featured Posts, Learning & Development, MOOC, Social Media, Training

Tin CanOver the course of the past year on this blog, I’ve described several ways MOOCs are already changing training and development. These digital learning environments and the technology-enabled learning tools that power them are making training more engaging, more relevant, and as a result, more effective. In particular, MOOCs have three main advantages over traditional instructor-led training:

  1. They allow training departments to easily unbundle content so that employees have access to the information they need when they need it.
  2.  They help foster peer learning and the development of personal learning networks within, and even between, organizations.
  3. They allow organizations to track and mine training data on a large scale to improve training results, discover relationships between variables, customize training programs, and predict training effectiveness.

Looking into the (near future), there is a new technology that will help bring all three of these things together: Tin Can, aka the Experience API. Tin Can is just starting to make significant waves in e-learning and it is still on the horizon for MOOCs, but this technology has a huge potential to further transform corporate training.

What is Tin Can?

Tin Can is an application programming interface, or API, which is essentially a method that allows information to be shared across software programs. For example, an API makes it possible for you to share a YouTube video on Facebook or a photo on Twitter. Tin Can is an API specifically for learning activities.

You are probably already familiar with the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM, which is a specification that allows learning management systems (LMSs) to track e-learning user activities. The catch is that SCORM only works within the context of an LMS—it doesn’t interact with other programs. Using SCORM you can generate a large amount of data about how long learners spent on different e-learning activities, how many times they have to take an assessment to pass, and so on, but only as long as all of the learning activities are housed within the LMS. Here is where the problem becomes immediately evident: with cloud-based resources, Khan Academy videos, mobile learning applications, social media, and so on, most of our learning activities don’t actually take place inside an LMS.

This is where Tin Can comes in: this API can track learning activities no matter where they take place. Tin Can collects learner data in what is called a learning record store (LRS). Very simply, an LRS comes in the form of a statement that a learner engaged in a certain activity. For example, “John watched Communication Video 1” or “Sharon attempted Question 3.” Each statement has a description of the activity, a timestamp, and other information, and LRSs can stand alone or be sent to an LMS. (Read more about Tin Can statements). The point is that Tin Can is flexible enough to encompass many learning activities that SCORM can’t and, coincidentally, that training departments in general have been ignoring for a long time. So whether employees are learning online or off, from digital resources or even from one another, Tin Can is able to track the data.

Why use Tin Can?

What underlies Tin Can is the recognition that not all workplace learning happens within the boundaries of a SCORM-compliant LMS. Jon Aleckson, who writes the Managing eLearning blog, has identified five things Tin Can does better than SCORM:

  1. Better portability for content and data: Learning experiences no longer need to be housed within an LMS to be trackable.
  2. Better analytics of a user’s learning experience: Tin Can is highly flexible and thus can provide a wider variety of more precise analytics.
  3. More mobile and offline access for learning: Learners don’t need to be logged into a computer for their learning activities to count.
  4. More tracking of real-world activities: Meaningful learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum—it happens in the context of real-world activities.
  5. Recording formal learning activity and informal learning activity: Tin Can is able to track any learning activity that can be put into an appropriate statement.

The Tin Can website describes how the API can be used to correlate training with job performance:

“As we start to aggregate these [activity] streams across an enterprise, or even across an industry, we can start to identify the training paths that lead to the most successful outcomes. Or, conversely, we can identify the training paths that are leading to problematic outcomes. Now we can determine the effectiveness of our training programs and measure ROI.”

Now be honest: Can your current tracking system do that?

What does this have to do with MOOCs?

MOOCs are on the cutting edge of corporate training, and for all practical purposes Tin Can is on the cutting edge of MOOCs. But if you look at the goals of Tin Can above, I hope you’ll notice that they overlap quite well with many of the goals of MOOCs, including unbundled content, mobile learning, learning from real-world activities, and integration of formal and informal learning environments.

Efforts to “Tin Cannify” popular learning resources, like YouTube videos, are ongoing, and the major MOOC providers have not integrated Tin Can into their courses. But there is some movement in that direction—Google Course Builder was starting to experiment with Tin Can before it integrated with Open edX, and some open-source e-learning platforms like Moodle also support Tin Can.

Organizations are increasingly adopting MOOCs for everything from building talent pipelines to standard workforce training, to customer education. Integrating Tin Can into these digital learning environments will further enhance the effectiveness of training programs by providing more, and more relevant, data about all of an organization’s learning activities.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.

Learn more about Bryant at LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/bryantnielson

Bryant Nielson - EzineArticles Expert Author