• David Sharp
  • 10 January 2017

Time for Tin Can

In the 21 years since I founded International Workplace you can imagine I’ve seen a lot changes. I mentioned at our anniversary party last year that our first ever week in business coincided with Robson and Jerome hitting the top of the charts with ‘Up on the Roof’ and that the cutting edge of internet access was via a 14.4 modem.

Fortunately, I don’t really remember too much about Robson and Jerome. But I do remember the pinging and bouncing of the 14.4 US Robotics modem and the way you held your breath in the hope you would connect successfully to the internet by achieving a ‘hardware handshake’.

I’ve always wondered who comes up with these everyday phrases that seek to define a set of technological processes? As a Mac user, the days of numbered operating systems have long been replaced for me with labels like Leopard, Snow Leopard and Lion Mountain. As an Android user, it seems hard to keep up since Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean and now Nougat (I don’t even remember Lollipop and Marshmallow, and I hadn’t realised that – like storms – there was an A-Z protocol that started so innocently with Alpha and Beta!).

David Sharp

Which brings me to Tin Can. If you’re involved in anything to do with the technology side of learning and development, you’ll undoubtedly have heard of Tin Can. But I’m constantly surprised when talking with people in the wider L&D sphere or with management responsibility that it’s something they’ve not come across.

If you’re in L&D and Tin Can API sounds as alien (or as stupid) to you as any of those Android operating systems above, can I strongly suggest you spend a few minutes finding out about it. It could (and should!) revolutionise the way you deliver and track training activities.

Tin Can API describes itself as “a brand new specification for learning technology that makes it possible to collect data about the wide range of experiences a person has (online and offline)”. It’s not actually that new, but if you forgive the pun it does do exactly what it says on the tin (can).

It’s not an operating system or a piece of proprietary software or something you have to pay for. I would describe it as a set of open source protocols that allow you to really analyse and record learning activities in as much detail as you want, provided you knew which details you wanted to measure in advance (more of which below), and that you have a means of recording them.

In layman’s terms, Tin Can API gives L&D professionals the metaphorical ability to view a pile of sand as a collection of grains of sand, if they want to. None of this is particularly ground-breaking in a world where almost every device can seemingly now talk to every other device, which is where the API part comes into it.

Rather than me trying to explain all of this to you, the good people in the Tin Can community have done this for you already, and it’s well worth a read, and includes a handy explanation of the differences between Tin Can and SCORM.

Why should you spend your time looking into it? Because it promises a nirvana for tracking learner activities across the whole universe of L&D interventions, including mobile learning, simulations, virtual worlds, serious games, real-world activities, experiential learning, social learning, offline learning, and collaborative learning.

Most importantly, using Tin Can as a protocol for building a Learning Record Store (LRS) that talks to your Learning Management System (LMS) can allow you to track anything you want to, including learning experiences, achievements, activities and even job performance. So as well as course assessments, it allows you to record simple activities such as whether someone has read an article or a circular you have sent them, in the same database that records their learning.

One user, one record. That’s powerful. 

Here at International Workplace we have just built our first course using Tin Can API, which combines a Display Screen Equipment (DSE) risk assessment with a DSE course that sits alongside it. The idea being that you can whizz through the risk assessment in a matter of minutes if you want (most people do), while those who want to find out more about any aspect of DSE can learn about it as they go through.

The client is delighted with it, and it confirms our decision to make all our new development Tin Can compatible. It also confirms the decision we made three years ago to invest in developing our own Learning Records System, which can integrate fully with our client’s systems, and can powerfully track the courses we are developing.

I say courses, but because Tin Can can track any experiences, that world no longer adequately describes the content we are producing. This is a genuine problem for us; the techies in our team would like to see us refer to courses in future as activities, which captures the range of what we are making for people but doesn’t mean anything to our clients. But the DSE risk assessment is as much of a tool as it is a course. Perhaps it’s time to dust down the dictionary for something suitable modern and meaningless. Praline Pattercake, anyone?

If you’d like to find out more about what Tin Can API can do for you or how to make use of it in your L&D programmes, please do get in touch.