The Tin Can API (also called Experience API or xAPI) is a new e-learning interface that is modeled after the data points gathered by social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn. It’s a big buzzword in the online learning community. But I can’t figure out how it is applied practically. I don’t see how it’s going to help me get people certified in the online corporate university that I administer. I keep reading about it, trying to imagine how it will help me. And until I see it in action, I think I will remain skeptical.

That’s what happened with me and Tivo years ago. I asked, “why would anyone want to watch TV later? They’ve missed the show!” I couldn’t see the benefit until I had my first binge of Professional Bull Riding on a good friend’s Tivo device. Then it suddenly became a technology without which I could scarcely survive.

The developers of Tin Can have given numerous examples of how Tin Can is different and better than prior e-learning standards like SCORM. SCORM allows me to import a course from one learning system into another. It’s like magic. The quizzes and all the videos play perfectly on the new platform.

Tin Can, on the other hand, does away with packaging up courses. It instead sees “experience” as the real teacher, and so encourages employees to report their learning activity via apps an d other software. The apps export subject, verb, noun statements like “I ate macaroni salad.” The employee can scan the barcode of an excellent book like 5150 and it will record a statement into the Learning Record Store (LRS) as “I read 5150.” And if they take a course in the traditional learning environment (the Learning Management System or LMS) then that gets recorded as well. “I passed the quiz on Macaroni Salad with a score of 75%.” The problem with the book scanning example is that it would be possible to scan a bunch of barcodes of books you never read. The quiz is what already gets recorded in a more Excel-friendly format. I hardly want to generate learning success rate graphs using subject noun verb statements.

The notion the new xAPI is trying to put forth is that learning is ubiquitous and therefore should be captured at every turn. I have an app I use that is analogous to this type of interface. It’s called “Rescue Time.” It tracks my activity on my work computer and reports back to me on how productive I have been. It decides if the websites I visit are productive or unproductive, and whether the software I use is related to Design, Finance, Marketing or some other discipline. I find that on most days I am around 95% productive and I work about 6.5 hours on the computer during an 8 hour work day. This is a cool app.

I think the Tin Can API is trying to do the same thing for organizations – track its employees, their learning experiences on and off the worksite, and whether or not the learning they do correlates with real world results. But how we get there from where it is now is a complete mystery to me. I would love to see an example of a corporation that has adopted the xAPI and has put it to effective use. I still find the ability to move a course around using SCORM a lot more practical than attempting to track when an employee has a brilliant insight on Yammer. But I won’t be the first to say that the Emperor is nude. I think we just need to see what his magic suit can do before we decide whether it is of a fine quality.