How Educational APIs are Enabling Online Learning

In 2020, COVID–19 impacted the education system in ways we couldn’t have imagined — with over 1.2 billion children taking an indefinite classroom hiatus in favor of e-learning. Remote tools are facilitating safe instruction, and students are continually adapting to this new normal. These changes are particularly impactful on K–12 students, who possess varying degrees of technical acumen, exposure, and independence. That said, which tools are now available, and how have APIs supercharged remote learning?

Hastening The Digital Shift

Unlocking egalitarian access to these resources has been an ongoing goal. Global socioeconomic prosperity wildly varies. Mandating localized applications is thus a dubious proposition — especially when requisite hardware costs a lofty sum. Teachers and administrators have embraced a modern approach: cloud-based education that leverages browser-based applications and web apps.

The good news is that many of these tools have enjoyed long-time use. For example, Canvas and Blackboard are stalwarts, tried-and-true outlets for extending the learning experience beyond the classroom’s physical confines.

It’s important to remember that learning isn’t merely the act of consuming information. The process includes progress reporting, resource sharing, and methods for submitting assignments. While students tune in using Cisco WebEx, Zoom, or Google Hangouts (to name a few), the administrative element to education remains crucial. Sharing feedback and crafting engaging experiences — individually and collectively — means tapping into services via APIs. As users, we can’t often witness this backend processes work on a technical level. However, the simplest of actions are supported by these software bridges. APIs make authentication (logging in), sharing, and more possible.

Adjusting on the Fly

While the educational realm is a good testbed for innovations, sweeping changes don’t always receive warm receptions — as a learning curve is often involved with educational tools. Academic IT teams (primarily at the K–12 level, for schools who have them) must acclimate to new technologies and be well-versed enough to offer remote support. Students must learn how to navigate applications and websites. Furthermore, parents or guardians become tech support staff by proxy.

COVID has accelerated these digital shifts. That throws a monkey wrench into the equation, though services with sound UI/UX can make the transition easier. APIs power essential functions and frontend interactions, playing key roles in making applications universally approachable. Here are some other popular examples:

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but one lesson nevertheless rings true: there are numerous options educators can choose from. Those choices can be overwhelming, but schools can rest assured knowing that providers stand behind their offerings.

Going down the list reveals a plethora of unique functionality. Teachers and students can view rosters and course data. Admins can invite students to groups, and students may request access to materials. Students can create, edit, and review flashcards — plus access millions of premade, community tools. Students might use the Khan API to view over 3,200 videos encompassing multiple subjects. Using other APIs, pupils can access grades, view assignments, submit documents, and manage their enrollment. These various APIs can also send notifications to keep class members informed of important activities.

Some Technical Nuts and Bolts

Interestingly, each of the APIs listed previously is a REST API, and thus retrieve information for the user via JSON or XML. Why is REST the go-to in these instances? For one, educational services need to be (somewhat) browser-agnostic, and REST’s advantage over alternatives like SOAP is its format inclusivity. We also must consider that educational APIs are accessing plenty of data. This content is hosted on remote databases.

The general consensus is that REST APIs can grab this information (like grades, messages, etc.) faster and more efficiently than SOAP APIs. There’s less programming involved. This relative simplicity makes it easier for developers to create new education solutions — especially as demand inflates — quicker and more economically.

A Matter of Privacy

Furthermore, REST plays better with established websites. Developers won’t have to reconfigure things to get solutions up and running. For this reason, RESTful APIs are comparatively plug-and-play without requiring excessive levels of configuration (assuming the application is a good match for it). These APIs are typically public, since providers actually want external developers to craft solutions with them.

Edtech developers must also dictate access to Personally Identifiable Information (PID). Students (read ‘minors’) must be able to access enrollment details, personal data, and sensitive information like grades from home. That transparency is great, but developers have to uphold data security. We don’t want bad actors to view these details. REST APIs fit well into this gatekeeping strategy, as their granular programmability offers greater control than low-or-no code alternatives.

Dictating Who Sees What

Protection rests with two things: authentication and authorization. Say we have a building that houses information we hold dear, like files or documents. Something like a passcode might get us inside the front door — as access is restricted. This first step is authentication, which essentially confirms the visitor (or person logging in) is who they say they are. Passwords are considered secretive. The people entering them are likely the authentic creators of said passwords since they’re personalized.

Just because we can get inside the building doesn’t mean we can access all rooms (in educational speak: groups, classes, video conferences). These siloed areas contain unique bits of settings, data, or resources hypothetically useful to students. In this case, an invitation or special keycard may be necessary to gain access.

This second step is authorization. The portal or web app owner has only granted certain users permission to these areas. Only pre-authorized students or staff may access what lies within.

Usage patterns are crucial here. Developers expect students to progressively navigate applications via common pathways. Knowing these behaviors allows developers to lock down applications selectively, as needed. Many APIs utilize OAuth 2.0 for authorization across numerous devices, for these very reasons.

Overall, these measures keep educational tools secure and viable for remote use. It’s tempting to say that APIs simply connect users to features, yet these background considerations equally drive adoption. Security matters, which is why Google and others tout how galvanized their APIs are. Developers must also consider compliance. Legal measures like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), plus the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), impact how students can safely learn online.

The Future of Online Learning

The technology stack for cloud-based learning is constantly evolving in lockstep with the API landscape. Additionally, giants like Google, Microsoft, and Apple are continuing to push into the educational space.

With this level of investment, we can expect to see many more educational APIs to emerge in the near future. Analysts expect the online learning market to eclipse $350 billion by 2025, suggesting that remote education is here to stay in greater form. Language learning and virtual tutoring will also grow immensely in popularity, especially as COVID–19 paints an uncertain picture for classroom education.

It’s heartening to see that tech companies aren’t leaving students behind. However, moving to e-learning will illuminate existing disparities within our global education system. Developers can provide students with a wealth of resources, but those won’t matter for children lacking the means to purchase electronic devices.

Ideally, education should be democratized for all. Browser-based APIs help level the playing field somewhat, yet the technological gap cannot be closed if school systems (or non-profits, in some cases) can’t provide students with computers — especially as household spending grows more discriminating amidst a pandemic.

Nevertheless, educational APIs are forming the backbone of our new e-learning ecosystem. While it’ll be interesting to see how K–12 schools approach cloud learning, students should have options heading into the fall and winter.