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Is xAPI Backward Compatible with SCORM?

Posted by

Categories: Ideas, Standards, xAPI

Posted 16 July 2012


No, it’s not. And, dude, you’re totally missing the point.

xAPI is a new paradigm. To make something backward compatible means to live within the constraints of old. The constraints of SCORM have been holding us back for years.

Innovation and progress require change. Embracing xAPI will require change; change to how we think as well as to how things work. Change is the price of progress.

Some comparisons might be helpful:

  • Is streaming download backwards compatible with DVDs?
  • Is the car backwards compatible with horse and buggy?
  • Is the electric light bulb backwards compatible with candles?

In each case, the newer technology is radically different than the old. The newer technology allows you to do what you did before, but in a much better way. The newer technology requires effort and change to adopt, but the result is a massive improvement in utility. Such is the case with xAPI.

According to Wikipedia, “a product or technology is backward or downward compatible if it can work with input generated by an older product or technology.” A xAPI Learning Record Store (LRS) is not required to accept SCORM packages, therefore xAPI is not backward compatible with SCORM.

But the story doesn’t end there. Just because xAPI itself isn’t strictly backward compatible doesn’t mean that the products you use are going to abandon backward compatibility. It is possible, and actually quite common, for a product to be backward compatible even though the standard is not.

Your LMS isn’t going to stop playing SCORM content just because it can also accept xAPI statements. You can still light a room with a candle even though you have a light bulb. You can still play a DVD in your home entertainment system even though you can also use Netflix.

The products that you use will most certainly start to adopt the Experience API, but it will be a long time before they stop supporting SCORM. There is too much critical mass behind SCORM for it to go away anytime soon.

I suspect we will see innovative new startups building xAPI-only products (think Roku, Boxee, Hulu), while existing vendors will incorporate xAPI functionality into existing products (think Sony, Samsung or Panasonic DVD players with Wi-Fi and “smart apps”).

The point is, that even with the rapid uptake of xAPI we expect, you won’t need to change what you are doing if it is working for you. If something is broken, or there is something new you want to do, xAPI will probably be a godsend. If you’re happy with the way things are, you can leave things just the same.

  • Thanks for your points regarding xAPI and backwards compatibility with SCORM. This is certainly going to be a big issues for developers and I fear that there is already a bit of misinformation on the subject. This clearly sets the record straight and clearly explains why backwards compatibility doesn’t make complete sense. I’m really excited about the specification and hope that the result does extend into the technologies that you have listed. It is my belief that this would create a very feature rich environment for collecting useful metrics that would aid in the understanding of any learning environment.

    I’d like to note, perhaps to the benefit of your readers, of the initiative of CMI5 that will address the backwards compatibility with SCORM content. The AICC CMI specification was one of the foundations of SCORM and it is our intention, as stated so long ago, to ensure that CMI5 will work with existing content. I think this is important as it is my opinion that both xAPI and CMI5 can and will work very nicely together for the future development of content. In my mind, xAPI provides an excellent pathway to capture complex data from events like simulations. This ideology will work perfect in organizations where complex data capture is needed to work in association with traditional SCORM-style data collection in programs that require both types of measurement to satisfy both regulatory compliance and extensive metric analysis for review of overall training and learning performance. While CMI5 is behind xAPI in development, I am excited to see where you are taking xAPI and how the two will work together in the future.

    Thanks again for this post. I think it clarifies a lot of confusion, sets the record straight and shows how xAPI will provide a robust, effective solution for data collection.


  • Thanks for the kind words Kris. I’m anxious to hear how CMI 5 plans to address backward compatibility with SCORM. Will they be doing it at the spec level (requiring all CMI 5 implementations to also implement support for all legacy standards)? Or will they be doing it by providing tools to convert legacy content to the new format?

  • How does the Experience API compare with IMS Global’s LTI? Also, does xAPI consider LRMI and LearningRegistry for meta data compatibility?

  • Hi Richard,

    How does the Experience API compare with IMS Global’s LTI?
    The Experience API and IMS LTI do different things. LTI is essentially a plug-in infrastructure. It provides a way for an LMS to authenticate into and launch a tool. That tool could often be something that provides a learning experience, but doesn’t necessarily have to be. LTI provides a limited way to for that tool to send results back to the LMS, but at this time, that mechanism only sends a single score value. The focus of LTI is really in the authenticated integration between the LMS and the tool.
    The Experience API is focused on communicating the results of a learning experience. Whereas LTI communicates just a score, the Experience API allows you to communicate a very rich picture of the learner’s activity during the learning experience. xAPI also includes a mechanism for setting up a trust relationship between an LRS and a tool that provides a learning experience. For this, xAPI simply relies on OAuth and not its own internal specification.

    Does xAPI consider LRMI and LearningRegistry for meta data compatibility?
    The Experience API allows for learning experiences to be described in a number of ways. It is metadata agnostic. It will certainly be possible to use LRMI to define an experience and ADL is keenly interested in ensuring compatibility with its learning registry initiative. xAPI does provide a very simple metadata scheme for a basic description of activities, but it also allows for experiences to be identified with any URI which can have its own associated metadata.

  • LMS Trainer

    I understand the statements above, but I think the question is valid and this answer leaves a lot to be desired. The comparison is made between streaming and DVD’s. Technically, my BlueRay player can play DVD’s, BlueRay AND Stream content. It is backwards compatible. Just because I want to stream all entertainment in the year 2014, doesn’t mean I don’t want to play a DVD from 2000 or a Blu-ray from 2011. I don’t want to re-purchase or rent something I already own. I think the concept here is if I have an LMS that can play or run SCORM today, I DO want it to be backwards compatible. The question being asked is WILL have need to convert 1,100 training documents into a new format to make them compatible with xAPI based LMS systems. Any LMS vendor should be able to answer, YES, we are back words compatible AND YES, we support SCORM and xAPI via our API. New content will new content be xAPI based while allowing me to keep doing what I am doing with old content and still use the API to pull (more limited) tracking details. I realize that TIN is more than content delivery and tracking but this is the current world of LMS and training and I believe that if vendors (And Training Consultants) try to move too fast they will cause exceptional pain and confusion in the market. Most content is still in SCORM and most companies can not convert overnight BUT may want to start using Experience API in the near future for more options.

  • You hit the nail on the head with this point “Any LMS vendor should be able to answer, YES, we are back words compatible AND YES, we support SCORM and xAPI”. Totally agree that vendors need to avoid moving completely away from SCORM too fast.

  • Loveth

    HI MIKE,please how can i download ALISON ONLINE COURSES to SCORM

  • Andrew Downes

    Hi Loveth,

    This is a question that’s best directed at ALISON themselves, but here’s an answer from their knowledge base:

    In summary: you can’t because they want you to use their website.

    If your question was “How can I get tracking data out of ALISON into my LMS”, again that’s a question for ALISON. If they and your LMS provider were to adopt xAPI, then that would provide a possible solution.