xAPI is not magic: VII - xAPI enables your Personal Data Locker

By jPablo Caballero | January 20, 2017

The idea of the LRS as a database of experience data leads some to proclaim the advent of an era where, thanks to xAPI, everybody can store and control their own training and experience records.

Let's consider three key characteristics of an xAPI environment:

  • the LRS, as a central system to store experience data (and possibly other documents)
  • the possibility to copy experience data from one LRS to another, and also to export and/or import statements in bulk
  • the possibility that Activity Providers can send statements to more than one LRS (there are no restrictions in xAPI about this)

Given some or all of these characteristics, it would be technically feasible that individuals owned personal LRSs, and could control access to their experience data. It's the idea of the “personal learning data locker”, where a user would keep the history of all their activities (training activities and other types of activities). It is sometimes stressed that the data would belong to the user, and she would have total control over it, being able to decide ‘what information the user wants to release to their employer’. Some even say that the experience graph (the set of interconnected data expressed by the statements) should/would replace the résumé.

Maybe xAPI has the potential to enable that scenario. But the fact that there is potential does not mean that it can be immediately or easily realized.

In fact, all this sounds very nice in theory, but only for about 2 seconds, until we start thinking how this potential can materialize and what it really implies.

Yes, an LRS can keep statements about what you have experienced (not about what you have learned!). But does any regular computer user know how to install, set-up, maintain an LRS on the Internet? It’s not a trivial task, certainly not one that anybody can do. The option is then to use the services of a company that does this for you. So then, “your” data is managed by someone else (so, it doesn’t really “stay with you”). Also, this type of service is usually meant for businesses, so the cost is probably too high for individual consumers. Even assuming that you have “your own” LRS in place, what if the experiences that you want to track are not xAPI-enabled? how are you going to send statements to your LRS? if you want to store the training data from your employer into your personal LRS, who owns the data? can you force your employer to perform the technical tasks (however simple they are) to send your training data to an external system (your personal LRS)? What if the training data -or the subject on which you’ve been trained- is confidential (intelligence, military, proprietary systems or processes)? what if company policy just doesn’t allow that?

We could go on and on. There are tons of issues about data privacy, data security, company policy, intellectual property, tecnical details, etc. that would need to be worked out for this to happen. These are issues that the xAPI doesn’t address, and will (most likely) never address.

In particular, it is kind of funny how sometimes those who paint this futuristic picture of personal data lockers mention data privacy as a challenging issue, but almost immediately dismiss it saying that some technology (e.g. blockchain) will help overcome it. In some regions, Europe in particular, but possibly others, data privacy is not a ‘challenge to overcome’. It is a heavily regulated matter, with important legal and economic implications for companies and individuals. It is not to be taken lightly. Technologies (like blockchain) may, in the future, be contemplated by laws and regulations as useful or valid tools. But that's not going to happen overnight.

Again, the idea of personal experience data lockers is not impossible, but it is way, way more involved than it seems. xAPI can help, because it paves the way to allow for this to happen, potentially. xAPI alone is not enough. There are many more issues to be worked out for a solution like this to materialize.