Leveraging APIs and Decentralized Tools in University Systems

A few weeks ago, Michael Greene and I attended the University API Winter Workshop held in Utah. Brigham Young University has done significant work in building their own university APIs, and have been sharing their knowledge with others by hosting this interesting and informative unconference for the past two years.

The workshop had two overarching themes:

  • how universities can leverage APIs for flexibility and seamless interaction between academic systems
  • how to provide services that allow learners to more easily retain their content and academic data beyond their time at a university

Here are a few highlights with links to the official notes from the respective workshops.

Decentralized Student Profiles

The idea behind a decentralized student profile is to create a portable identity record for a student that would contain their official transcripts and other important learning data. The record is controlled completely by the student, but with a way to verify the reliability of the student’s data using a solution like W3C’s Verified Claims. Learning Locker and Sovrin are examples of tools that could be used to create decentralized student profiles.

Domain of One’s Own (Reclaim Hosting)

Started by Mr. Edupunk Jim Groom, formerly at University of Mary Washington, and Tim Owens, Domain of One’s Own is a domain hosting service for universities that allow students to have domains that they own and control. Like many popular hosting services, it uses cPanel, which provides turn-key access to services such as WordPress, Drupal, Omeka, and Koken. Reclaim Hosting promotes this service to universities with the premise that adopting the service “promotes web literacy, digital identity, and allows students to reclaim control of their content”. The domains and their respective sites are often used for personal portfolios, digital projects, service learning projects, and writing portfolios. Examples of universities using the service are Emory, Davidson, and Georgetown.


OERSchema, developed by Michael Collins at Penn State, is a schema using the Resource Description Framework vocabulary that allows developers to apply human concepts to marked-up information, typically using HTML. This allows software applications to determine the context of the information, and the contextual relationships pieces of content have with one another. For example, the schema vocabulary contains language such as CourseSyllabus, Assessment, and GradeFormat. Associating these recognizable terms with OER content make it easier to find, reuse, and remix. Here’s an example of how the schema makes this possible – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zntVPDUwz_0

University APIs

While most applications used for teaching are connected to the LMS through the standard Learning Tool Interoperability, LTI is not the only way to bring tools into the LMS/Ecosystem. APIs are an even better method of connecting tools to the LMS, creating a more seamless and integrated experience for faculty and students. APIs create a single user interface, solving user experience problems (such as iframe within iframe) often seen in the LMS/LTI option. The ELMS Learning Network platform developed at Penn State is a good example of how this can done. There’s even an effort through the Open API Initiative to create a standard for APIs, moving away from vendor-specific descriptions and creating consistency across applications. This will lower the barrier to using and maintaining APIs to connect applications.

The most important thing I learned from the workshop is the value of creating opportunities for conversations about how to make the learning technology ecosystem flexible, usable, and perhaps most importantly, student centered. More information about the University API Winter Workshop and the full conference proceedings can be found here.