API Learning Technology EDUKWEST EdTech Insider

How APIs will Transform Learners and Learning Organizations

As consumers, most of us take for granted that our online experiences and interactions will be seamless. We expect that – in spite of the inexorable increase in data points that we each generate – meaningful information can be made available to us in two or three clicks of a mouse, or taps of a screen on a mobile app.

Our expectations don’t stop there. We take for granted that this wonderful machine we call the internet will deliver personalized and relevant information that will enrich our lives, simply because we are, for example, using our FaceBook profile to log in to a hotel booking system. Or a Twitter stream via a website, an eBay secure purchase via a third party site. And all the time, we hope that our data will be secure (or at the very least, we’re prepared to offset the risk of our data being compromised with the convenience that these web services offer to us).

Most of us don’t see – and don’t care – what’s happening under the surface to make these experiences seamless, personalized and secure. Driving many of these seamless online experiences are APIs (or Application Programming Interfaces). APIs are a core part of the functioning web – every search, commercial transaction or price comparison depends on an open and effective system of data exchange between web applications. Put simply, APIs are a means to enable different technology platforms or systems to interface with each other – normally, with the intention of sharing data for a specific purpose. Think of a virtual handshake.

Of course, APIs existed long before the internet – but the modern “Web API” really took off with the dawn of ecommerce in the early 2000s. The advent of social, the cloud and the ubiquity of always-connected mobile devices has meant that web APIs have become an essential part of all aspects of our online world.

Arguably the most important aspect of effective web APIs is that they have the potential to deliver a richer and more meaningful user experience. This is simply because they open up the possibility of endless data interactions – all delivered through an extremely convenient mechanism. So much so, that the phrase “API Economy” has been coined to capture the value of all those interactions. The API economy is the inherent value (commercial or otherwise) of all that data being exchanged across all those different platforms.

The API: What’s in it for learners?

So why should that matter for learners? Today’s learners are increasingly demanding ‘consumer-like’ online experiences in the workplace, including technologies to support learning and development (and wider human resources functions such as recruitment, onboarding, performance management, and so on). This requirement for a ‘seamless online experience’ that is at once user-centric and also linked to the promotion of core organizational competences, places new demands on how we manage information – and how we interpret the data that new information technologies can deliver. It’s API’s that make this possible.

Key ingredients: Big Data and Open API’s

At the heart of the discussion about APIs and learning is ‘data about learners’ – and how that data can be used to design more effective learning experiences. Think about the potential number (and value) of data points that a learner generates during their interactions with devices. Think about the multiple platforms that they can (and do) engage with on a daily basis – and how many of those data points are squandered in corporate learning. If I read something, share something or interact with someone in the workplace, is it recorded as a usable data point? If it’s happening outside formal learning within an LMS, then probably not – and that’s a missed opportunity.

However, there’s a catch. The API economy requires an open ecosystem to be fully realized. Open API ecosystems are a key driver of innovation – enabling niche providers of web services to enrich our online experiences based on open access to data. Generally speaking – and for good reason – the corporate learning world has been slow to embrace the ‘open’ principles behind the API economy – for example, open data exchange about learners and their learning experiences. There are commercial and practical reasons why this is the case – from data privacy and data protection through to centralized procurement and vendor lock-in.

But, as web-based applications start to dominate the learning technology market, generating massive amounts of data about learners, the explosion in ‘Learning Tech’ APIs has the potential to have a profound impact on how we manage and deliver learning. Simply put, there are enormous implications in terms of being able to better understand our learners – and what we do with the information that we gather.

What might this look like in practice? Imagine a scenario where hundreds of thousands of data points – from many different, divergent yet interconnected sources – are available for each individual learner in your organization. What does that mean in terms of performance and talent management?

And imagine if you had a data model which enabled you to not only profile each individual’s learning needs, but also to simultaneously track and tweak the interventions required based on the organization’s core competences? Whilst it may sound futuristic and in the machine learning space, it is a technique that is already being used to great effect in many other consumer spheres, for example profiling online consumers and targeted digital content marketing.

So an API-driven approach – one that will generate innovative, agile and user-centric solutions – has the potential to disrupt the learning technology space. At the Learnovate Centre, we have spent the last couple of years researching the prerequisites for a functioning API economy in learning technologies.

Who are the API players for Learning Tech?

On the demand side, there is a growing acceptance of the value of data to deliver strategic business and organizational gains. However, embracing the strategic value of data also requires the acquisition of core skills in data science and data analytics – skills and competences that are not traditionally embedded within many organizations, let alone HR or L&D teams. The capacity to create and maintain a viable data model that supports human resources whilst delivering against core organizational goals is central to unlocking and analyzing the strategic value of data about learners.

On the supply side, for APIs to be implemented effectively there are three fundamental aspects that any organization needs to consider:

  1. Data Mobility – the data itself has to be mobile – and it has to be meaningful and understandable. xAPI has a role to play here, by helping to determine a common ‘language’ that can be used to describe rich learning experiences. The ability to communicate and infer meaning from the data is paramount;
  2. Privacy by Design – learner data is, by definition, personal. It therefore demands an appropriate level of privacy – adopting the principles of privacy by design with APIs ensures that privacy is taken into account throughout the entire process. Trust is a necessary and valuable commodity;
  3. API Usability – the attraction of APIs is their convenience, they can be used to effectively deploy new functionality and features for learners at the drop of a hat. But adoption will only happen if the APIs are well designed, documented and supported.

Over the next few years, the demand for the ‘consumerisation’ of technologies to support learning in the workplace will inevitably grow stronger. Consumer-like digital experiences require effective APIs – there is no question, therefore, that the API economy matters for learners and for organizations that value their employees’ growth.

Applied to learning technologies, APIs have the potential to fundamentally change the way that we think about our learners simply because we will have more information about them. What we do with that information is key: whether it is to empower learners to take more control of their learning, or whether it is for organisations to better understand learning needs and design more personalized interventions.

To capture the outputs of our research from the past 24 months, we have created the ‘Learnovate Labs’ project. In the coming weeks, we will be piloting a number of activities and services designed to demonstrate how we can better deliver the benefits of the API economy to workplace learning.

Interested? Please visit Learnovate Labs to sign up and find out more.


Picture by Tsahi Levent-Levi via Flickr

Martyn has spent over 20 years working in the ‘EdTech’ sector, as entrepreneur, innovator, consultant and government advisor. He is currently Director of the Learnovate Centre, helping to accelerate the growth of the Irish EdTech industry by connecting Irish companies to the global EdTech network.

  • paulmartin42

    I cannot help feel that they are simply a rebrand of failed VLE platforms, many who’s ship has sailed