ELearning Standards: Where Are We Now?

A topic we get a lot of questions about at Brandon Hall Group is eLearning standards. We are all relatively familiar with SCORM and its variants, but the advent of the Tin Can API, or Experience API, or xAPI, has sparked the majority of the inquiries.

First off, let’s address the name. When the project started, it was called the Tin Can API as a working title. By the time the developers got around to giving it a proper name – Experience API – Tin Can had stuck. In fact, the home page for the standard is still www.tincanapi.com. So there are three names floating around out there, but they all refer to the same thing.


To help clear the confusion, I’ve put together a quick reference to the available standards, as well as what it coming in the near future. For a more in-depth look at Tin Can, what it is, what it isn’t and what it does, visit the web pages referenced above. Brandon Hall Group will also be participating in a webinar at 11 am ET Thursday, Oct. 15, that will look at how Tin Can is able to help measure new forms of learning to feed analytics.

There are essentially three sets of learning technology standards:

  • Aviation Industry Computer-based Training Committee (AICC)
  • The Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM)
  • Experience Application Programming Interface (xAPI), also known as the Tin Can API


Developed by the aviation manufacturers in the 1980s, AICC developed the first interoperability standard for a Learning Management System (LMS) in 1993. However, the group officially dissolved in 2014. Organizations continue to use the AICC standard due to its stability and uniformity, but the AICC standard itself was developed in a pre-XML environment and is rather out of date. However, the Package Exchange Notification Services (PENS) standard that the AICC developed is widely used to one-click publish authored content to an LMS. Any future development was transferred to the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL), creators of both SCORM and xAPI.


SCORM has been the standard for eLearning since the U.S. Department of Defense was tasked with developing it in 1999. However, its most recent version is SCORM 2004. Although updated as recently as 2009, it carries a moniker 11 years out of date and is beginning to show its age. Designed to work best within a desktop/laptop environment, the learning experience has expanded far beyond these use cases and requires something new.
As such, the ADL, which initiated the original SCORM standard, developed a new standard designed to capture this new expanded learning environment. The project was initially called Tin Can xAPI, but is now called Experience API (xAPI). It is designed to do five basic things that are difficult, if not impossible, in a SCORM environment:

  • Support a variety of content types
  • Simple to implement
  • Support offline or disconnected scenarios
  • Support portable content (interoperable across platforms)
  • Improve access to run-time data

In the end, xAPI is designed to allow organizations to capture a wide array of experiences and treat them as trackable, measureable learning events. Essentially any activity can be broken down into a three-part statement (actor/verb/object) such as “John read a book.”

Although the xAPI is being adopted rapidly, full optimization of the standard requires the use of a learning record store (LRS), essentially a repository for this information so it can be used to feed reports, analytics and other technology systems. A traditional LMS will not necessarily be able to capture or report on these new experiences, but can by embedding an LRS.

ADL acknowledges that xAPI does not replace SCORM, but instead works seamlessly with SCORM to allow a wider array of learning experiences to be included in the tracking and reporting of learning. Organizations do not need to convert any SCORM content to the xAPI unless they wanted to gain more in-depth reporting (beyond scores/completions) or perhaps make the content mobile.

To sum up:

  • The AICC standard is not really relevant anymore, so should only be a requirement if an organization is using (and plans to continue using) a lot of AICC compliant content.
  • SCORM is still the standard of record, and companies should be sure that the content they are using and developing is SCORM 2004 conformant, if not compliant.
  • Although in early days, xAPI cannot be discounted. Designed to address the flaws in SCORM by the very same people who designed SCORM, xAPI is going to be the standard for future learning. Exploring it now will save in catch-up time down the road.

At the same time, xAPI is not a replacement for SCORM. So while xAPI will be the focus for the next three to five years, the next full standard is on its way. Before AICC folded, work was begun on what is called cmi5. ADL has taken the reins of cmi5, which promises to take the concept of xAPI and turn it into a full-blown standard that addresses the major gaps in SCORM. For example, in a SCORM course, both the course structure and the content are imported into the system. With cmi5, only the structure is imported and the content can reside anywhere. The new standard will also expand the number of rules that can be captured and tracked, such as “launched,” “abandoned,” “satisfied,” and many others.

Want to know more? Still confused? Join us for the webinar on Oct. 15. Hope to “see” you there.

David Wentworth, Principal Learning Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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