The Value of Using APIs at Your EdTech Company
Our lives are becoming more global—and as consumers in a technology-driven society, we immediately attribute these changes to the rise of the internet and mobile technology.
Yet what we take for granted is that behind these networks there's a web of communications run by application programming interfaces, or APIs for short. Just as cross-cultural social networking platforms simplify our communications with citizens around the world, APIs enable developers to communicate amongst different software.
As the technology we use becomes more interconnected, it is only natural that our institutions follow. In today’s API Economy, businesses are relying upon collaboration to improve their user applications. Education technology has lagged behind in integrating API technology, but with its potential to solve administrative problems and improve student learning, the use of APIs in education will continue to rise.
Before looking at education, and education technology, let's first look at the nature of APIs to see why they matter.
What is an API?
To understand APIs, let’s say that a student, Jack, is assigned a presentation on The Battle of Gettysburg. Jack only has two days to complete this assignment, so he recruits three friends to help him. One friend specializes in creating clay models, another thrives at note taking, and yet another excels at creating PowerPoint slides. As the three friends complete their respective tasks, each sends a messenger to deliver the work. Jack does not have to visit each of his friends individually and can build his presentation more efficiently. With his friends working behind the scenes, Jack compiles the notes, PowerPoint slides, and visual model to fit his needs and then directs all his energy to delivering a perfected presentation.
APIs serve as the messengers between Jack and his friends, or in the regards to tech, between a client and a provider. A good API transfers the tools and resources necessary for a client to implement a program. With the help of APIs, companies are able to focus on their specialties, saving them time and energy from building already-existing applications. As tech startups build more and more specialized software, companies like Airbnb, Instagram, and Expedia recognize the benefits of collaborating with companies who specialize in niche applications.
To look at an example, we know Airbnb as the online marketplace for short-term rentals and leases. Behind the marketplace transactions, however, is the complex workings of third party APIs. When a couple enters the Airbnb platform, they are greeted by the peach and white color scheme of the Airbnb’s web page. Yet behind the trademark colors associated with the Airbnb company are applications by SendGrid, Twilio, and Nexmo. When that same couple later receives a message confirmation for their Airbnb getaway house, it is the Twilio API that processes the message. Relying on Twilio and other APIs for automated notifications, payment processing, and user verification, Airbnb avoids reinventing the wheel and focuses instead on connecting housing suppliers to buyers.
Buy vs Build: How Companies Use APIs
Many tech startups like Airbnb have realized the value of looking into outside vendors, but some companies prefer to recreate projects themselves. However, there are real costs associated with developing a project in-house. When considering the cost and competitive advantage of licensing technology from a third party, it is helpful to consider a program’s usefulness in relation to a company’s core competencies.
A core competency refers to a specialty that makes one company unique from another. Although Airbnb’s messaging features may be an important component to enhancing the user experience, consumers look into the company for its valuable housing marketplace. Thus, Airbnb benefits by purchasing these features from those who excel in building them.
If a third party provides applications that are essential to a platform experience, but irrelevant to a company’s focus, oftentimes a company will save time and resources by implementing another’s API. When Airbnb partners with Twilio, the company does not have to worry about maintaining its SMS services, thus saving maintenance costs. Airbnb also frees up resources that may have gone into developing a messaging software to focus on its own market. By making use of APIs, companies are able to devote their resources to introducing innovative technology rather than recreating services.
These same principles can benefit education institutions and education technology companies looking to enrich their tools.
What will APIs do for Education Technology?
As more and more companies realize the benefits of using API software, users also benefit in experiencing a common pattern of features. (Think about all the applications you can sign into using your Facebook account.) But despite their prevalence in other industries, APIs have not been fully integrated with education technology. In trying to improve one’s writing, a student will open several applications for one assignment: programs to brainstorm ideas, check grammar, look up synonyms, or create a bibliography. Teachers and tutors then spend hours grading essays by hand and return feedback with paper rubrics and handwritten comments. In both cases, the lack of API technology restricts educators and students from a unified experience.
Of course, some edtech companies have caught onto the API economy. Pearson relies on APIs from WriteLab and Learnosity to simplify student assessment tasks. Learnosity, in turn, leverages Desmos, an online graphing tool, to support its Math and Graphing Products. Another tech start-up called Clever helps school districts organize web applications and simplify login procedures by connecting student information to third-party programs. These companies demonstrate how APIs simplify school administrative tasks and enhance the learning experience of their students.
Returning to the previous scenario of the student writing assignment, at WriteLab we look into solutions for simplifying the writing process for teachers and students. We partner with Chungdahm Learning, StudentBrands, and Pearson to automate essay scoring and revisions. When these companies leverage WriteLab’s APIs, they gain access to our scoring and comment engines (compelling AI features) that work directly in their platforms. These features allow their customers to engage in the writing process in a new way—and save time on grading so teachers can offer more essential, personalized feedback.
Will the API Trend Reach Education Soon?
In this fast-paced, technologically-driven society, API usage and innovation is essential to push the edtech industry forward. For anyone who is interested in improving the learning experience of future generations—developers, business development leaders, and curriculum specialists—it is important to understand the implications of the API economy and seek out this trend to improve student learning.
Founded by a Berkeley research team, WriteLab brings together Natural Language Processing, Artificial Intelligence, and English Language Instruction. With international partners and investors, WriteLab saves instructors time and scores student work accurately—helping students revise multiple drafts for every assignment.