If you want to take a peek into the future, then you should look no further than APIs and what they bring to the table. Unfortunately, too many vendors in the e-learning space have failed to see the power and potential of this capability, and have decided to ignore them.

It really is too bad, because APIs can totally revolutionize any e-learning solution--especially when you create mashups (multiple pieces of software) and integrate them into your solutions.

API Basics

An API (application program interface) enables an interface from a piece of software to communicate with another piece of software - in its simplest form - or a mashup. Facilitation now exists between the pieces of software, similar to interaction between a human and a computer.

Open architecture. APIs are open source code, so that developers can make modifications or changes in the code to suit your needs. Typically, APIs are free. However, there are vendors who sell their API solution wrapped in a piece of software. Or charge a fee for access to thousands of APIs.

APIs are not social media types; they are an interface between software products. For example, you can have an API for a shopping cart that you can integrate into your LMS for e-commerce.

API protocols. These are for people who want to manipulate or change the code or want to create their own APIs. For example:

  • AIM
  • Atom
  • Blogger
  • DTC-XML
  • Gdata
  • GET
  • hCalendar
  • iCal
  • Javascript
  • JSON-RPC
  • POST
  • REST
  • RSS
  • SMS
  • SOAP
  • XML-RPC
  • XMPP.

APIs available in popular programs include

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Google
  • Flickr
  • SCORM Player communicating with your vendor's solution.

APIs available today. There are thousands available, ready for download, and you have the option to either tweak the code or not. Here is just a few of ones I like that are unique and applicable to use in an LMS, LCMS, CMS, or learning portal.

  • After the Deadline: Checks spelling, misused words, style, and grammar with advanced AI and NLP techniques.
  • Hiogi.com: Social Q/A with a twist: mobile search based on the knowledge of a worldwide community; users ask questions and get answers via SMS. You can use the API to access the database of answered questions, unanswered questions, add new questions, and manipulate a user account.
  • Hunch: Question-and-answer service that offers solutions to user-entered problems. Hunch's answers are based on the collective knowledge of the entire Hunch community. Hunch is designed so that every time it's used, it learns something new.
  • Cliqset: Aocial web service that helps users share and discover content and discuss it with other users. The RESTful API allows developers to create accounts, edit profiles, monitor real-time comments and more. Responses may be formatted in either XML or JSON.

One caveat: if you use a vendor, they must be able to accept APIs, otherwise it won't work).

Mashup Basics

Mashups use multiple APIs together (API + API) to create a new application that power boosts the combination. Can you have more than one + one? Yes, you can have as many APIs + APIs as you want.

Beneficial features for mashups include

  • combination, visualization, and aggregation
  • permanent access data of other services
  • can be client-side or seen in the "Cloud"
  • has an active role in social media
  • simple to use and do not require programming skills - unlike APIs.

Here are some general mashup examples you're likely already familiar with:

  • post your status update in Linkedin and it appears in Twitter
  • post your blog and status and it appears in Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo
  • searches for restaurants in Google and Google Maps display various restaurants on the map
  • FourSquare; a social networking platform that intertwines the power of geolocation, other vendors in this space include Loopt
  • Layer; platform that combines visual, geolocation, social network capability, and other features in one solution.

There also are examples of many mashups applicable to learning. Here are just a few.

  • Noterize and Box.net: a note-taking app for the iPad that allows you to view and annotate PDFs and PowerPoint presentations. Its integration with Box.net enables you to save annotated documents to Box from within the Note environment.
  • Elodexa: an e-learning document search engine and online viewer; uses Google Docs.
  • printfriendly.net: creates printer-friendly versions of any blog
  • MyVidster: a social bookmarking tool plus videos; collects videos from the entire web and shares with friends or a larger audience.
  • Producteev: a cross-platform task management application.

Build Your Own

There are many tools out there that enable developers to create their own mashups. However, before selecting a tool, you will need to decide on the mashup type you are planning on using. There are three types:

  1. front-end: help build front ends using widgets with little to no programming
  2. back-end: combine web-accessible data and services that can be called using a REST interface
  3. integrated: enables creation of end-to-end web apps that link widgets to data and services.

After selecting your type, the next is to select a tool. One available tool is an "enabler," which combines data and services to be applied to new types of resources. An example is creating a RSS feed from a spreadsheet and builders. Another type is a "builder," which help you create your own mashups without programming or development skills.

Bottom Line

The advantages to using APIs and Mashups is to take your e-learning solution to the next level of learning for your end users. Boundaries are forever eliminated. Features are now available that once were impossible - regardless of whether you are using a fee-based solution (as long as they accept APIs) or a free, open source solution. You want analytical data? Is it possible. What about social learning features? Yes. Widgets? Sure. Search? Not a problem. Media Management? Absolutely. The sky is the limit.


Links to Other Resources

Programmable Web - Provides an extensive directory of mashups on the Internet for you to view and track. Includes dashboard and tag information on the popular mashups and adds new mashups daily.

WebMashup.com - Provides mashups you can use and mashup examples. Directory is quite extensive.

YouTube Name Mashup - Enter your first and last name to see two random videos based on those keywords. (Does not work with IE.)

Hoverme - Firefox, Chrome, and IE browser add-on for Twitter. Simply, place your mouse cursor over the person, and Hoverme will present you with links to the person's profiles on other social media sites.


Tools:

Front End: http://www.google.com/ig

Back End: http://pipes.deri.org

Integrated: http://www.ict-romulus.eu/web/mycocktail


Craig Weiss regularly advises companies in the e-learning industry and is the owner of E-Learn Info. He is a former analyst with Brandon Hall, and has experience in the B2B, B2C markets as a director of training, and has been identified as one of the new voices in e-learning and social learning. His blog is www.elearninfo.com, and his linkedin profile is www.linkedin.com/in/craigweissinla. Contact him at diego.studiocity@gmail.com.