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An Introduction to Tin Can

Bob Little 

October 3, 2014

is_8983627_selimaksan_188If you’ve heard about the Tin Can API, you’re probably involved with online learning technologies. If not, you should know that “Tin Can” – sometimes known as the Experience API or xAPI – is a learning technology specification that captures data, in a consistent format, from a range of online and offline learning experiences.

Tin Can has yet to pervade the consciousness of every L&D professional – but that’s also true of the technology world, too. Asked for his view on Tin Can, Lenny Greenberg, founder and CTO of the California-based technology company Assistyx LLC, said, “I can’t help you. I don’t know what Tin Can is.”

So there’s no need to feel seriously disadvantaged among your peers if you’re not fully au fait with Tin Can. However, Christopher Pappas, CEO of the US-based E-Learning Industry’s Network, has written that Tin Can API “blends a decade of e-learning experiences with a decade of technological advancements to provide powerful options to organizations and learners alike.”


Its supporters claim that the community-driven and free-to-implement Tin Can API is easier to use and more flexible than previous specifications. By this, they mean the widely accepted and used e-learning “standard” Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM). Strictly speaking, SCORM isn’t a standard. Rather, ADL, a research group sponsored by the United States Department of Defense, noticed that the industry already had a number of standards and each provided part of an answer to a problem. So they produced SCORM, which tells developers how to use these existing standards together.

Consequently, any learning management system (LMS) or learning content management system (LCMS) that’s SCORM conformant can play any SCORM-compliant content. Complying with SCORM enables learning content to communicate with an LMS/LCMS and facilitates the tracking of learners’ activities. SCORM’s introduction some 14 years ago – and its wide adoption – has helped to encourage the use of online learning technologies, including LMSs/LCMSs, within corporate learning.

Tin Can is said to be the next generation of online learning technology standards. Version 1.0.0 was released in April 2013, some 18 months after its initial draft.

How Tin Can Works

Tin Can API is called “Tin Can” because, in the way of two tin cans connected by string, it aims to be a two-way conversation between the specification’s developers and the e-learning industry. When learning has occurred and requires recording, Tin Can API – a web service that allows software clients to read and write experiential data in the form of “statement” objects – sends secure statements in the form of “noun, verb, object” (or “I did this”) to a learning record store (LRS). An LRS is a repository that can share these statements with other LRSs. It can exist on its own, or inside an LMS/LCMS.

This means that tracking learning events can start wherever the learners are – and on whatever device they use. Any enabled device – including smartphones, tablets, laptops, and so on – can send Tin Can API statements whenever it’s connected to the appropriate network. This might be in real time but, equally, it might be after the learning has taken place. What matters is that the statements reach the LMS/LCMS.

Moreover, allowing LRSs to share data and transcripts with one another enables learners’ records to follow them as they move organizations and provide people with “personal data lockers.”

The Advantages of Tin Can

The key points about Tin Can API are that it allows:

  • More learning activities – informal and formal – to be tracked, rather than just the SCORM-captured formal activities relating to LMS-hosted courses.
  • Tracking even when the learning takes place offline – since the results can be uploaded to the LRS when the learning delivery device is next online.
  • Developers to build content however they wish because they now don’t have to rely on browsers and associated browser-based technologies, such as JavaScript. They can select the appropriate technology for their training content and allow L&D professionals to record the training events, including learners’ scores and other achievements.

At present, examples of Tin Can being used in commercial applications appear to be few and far between. UK-based e-learning content producer Brightwave has recently developed what it describes as a “total learning system.” Known as tessello, it’s powered by the Tin Can API and delivers four learning products in one, including a social learning platform and an LRS.

Federico Dondero, international sales manager at the Italian LCMS producer eXact learning solutions, says, “The eXact LCMS’s single source, template-based approach means that our clients can produce Tin Can compliant content.”

Steve Griffin, chief technology and digital officer at one of eXact learning solutions’ clients, Carson-Dellosa Publishing – a leading supplementary educational solutions provider for both teachers and parents in the United States – says, “We’ve experimented with Tin Can in releasing an open source, interactive e-book – on ‘intense machines,’ ranging from motorcycles to earth movers. The e-book was converted to support XML5 and Tin Can, and we made available the full source code so that others could use it to experiment with interactive e-books. In particular, we used Tin Can to communicate users’ answers to questions in the text to the SCORM Cloud.”

At the end of the last century, Steve was seconded from an educational sector, non-profit organization to become one of the co-authors of SCORM. He was also one of the co-founders of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, a body that aims to advance technology that can affordably scale and improve educational participation and attainment. He continues, “Incidentally, IMS has taken that same intense machines e-book and created a version that supports Caliper and LTi, all of which provide some degree of overlap with xAPI.

“For the most part, Tin Can is a straightforward API. It’s got some interesting things in it. It’s not too technically sophisticated. It poses some security issues but these aren’t insurmountable. It provides great functionality relatively easily and seems to serve its purpose well. However, it’s a ‘mousetrap’ in the sense that it may be a ‘better mousetrap’ but is anyone going to use it? Unless large numbers of people adopt Tin Can, it’s not going to be a significant development.”

What are your experiences of Tin Can API? Does it have a future in L&D?

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