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Build only the APIs your customers need

- a story of an e-learning platform by Marjukka Niinioja & Vuolearning

· Partner API,api economy,course

When I first started creating API courses online, I was looking into several e-learning platforms.
Automatic enrolling of students to the course and selling courses were high on my list of requirements. But as I’ve majored in education, I couldn’t help feeling that most of the platforms made for course sales were lacking a lot of the features providing a good learning experience. I also put platforms providing APIs and plugin ecosystems high on my shopping list, and explored many of them.

Let’s just say that the APIs in the typical learning platforms are reasonably good, bad or ugly.

When the opportunity came to create a Master’s level online course with the Tampere University and professor Marko Seppänen, I knew that effective learning experience was going to be a key. As the course was going to be provided to the masses as a free online course, it also required a level of automation to allow students to self-register. But it also had to give those students a good possibility to learn.

I met with a few different online learning providers. There is a great community of good quality
learning platforms originating in Finland right now. After discussions with CEO Johanna Pellinen from Vuolearning, I made the decision to launch the API Economy course on their platform. Vuolearning is a Finnish SMB with a practical but pedagogical view on online training. The course is available for registration through various channels, including Oppia.fi, an online course marketplace by another Finnish company, Wakaru.

For this article, we interviewed Vuolearning’s CEO Johanna Pellinen and CTO Otto Pellinen on
why and how they integrated these two platforms together. We are curious about the business reasons, but also the extremely simple technical solution, using APIs.

“We are driven by the customer need. If there is a clear demand for something from the current customers and market, we look into how we can provide them with a solution. We prefer solutions that take advantage of our partner ecosystem, we don’t want to invent the wheel, again.” starts Johanna.

One of the frequently repeated questions from the customers has been how to connect the e-
learning platform to the e-commerce platforms.
It was clear from the beginning that they didn’t want to make their own market place or add e-commerce features. Johanna and Otto researched many alternatives with their team. It wasn’t easy since many of the e-commerce platforms out there are not suited for selling anything digital or online courses in particular. They finally turned to Oppia.fi because they were also giving assistance for marketing the courses. After all, the main goal for the Vuolearning customers is to sell as many courses as possible in the most profitable way. This is the core value proposition Vuolearning wanted to help their customers with.

This was the business
problem that needed to be solved

The biggest issue in the customer experience of a student buying an online course is how easily
they can get access to the course after registration or paying the fee. So Vuolearning and Oppia.fi teams set up a meeting and discussed different options. Oppia.fi has a webhook based partner API currently evolving with new partner requests. After some discussions on the information needed and how the teachers creating the courses could activate the feature, the rest was easy.

 

Otto explains: “We already had support in our own code for the logic when a teacher registers a student on a course manually. We also had an internal implementation to read an interface for registering users. So the only thing we needed to do was to get an example of the data sent by the Oppia.fi webhook when a new student registers in their platform. The teacher can activate the integration easily in the Oppia user interface and then we just start getting notifications from the webhook. The whole thing was ready the following week after the first meeting”.

What about providing APIs of your own?

After talking a while with Johanna and Otto I just had to ask the question: “Have you considered
providing your own APIs?”. Johanna had a clear answer. They had selected an API strategy,
which was to answer the exact needs of individual customers, so not really partner APIs but
more of an integration approach, i.e. handling case-by-case how two systems could talk to each
other.

Otto pointed out that they had already done some customer-specific cases, and that they
were internally already using APIs with their React.js and Node.js code base. It would be quite
easy to design APIs for customers and partners if a clear value proposition could be identified.
Otto wanted to also share his experience with all API developers out there: if there isn’t a clear
value proposition (“purpose”) for a specific API, it becomes much more difficult for developers to use
it because they need to bypass a lot of extra complexity and figure out themselves how to use it to meet their need.

I agree, and while APIs may sound complex, they can also provide very simple solutions. In this example case, both companies base their business model on platform economy and the APIs are their boundary resources, while also helping to make their internal development more productive. Providing a well-documented partner API may give way to an even more scalable business model, but you need to be quite clear what to prioritize.

As Johanna pointed out at the end of our interview: “The APIs you provide may have an impact on our customers’ behavior and what kind of learning experience gets delivered”.

How can you learn to make an API strategy?

There are many other applications for using APIs as part of building your customer and learning experience or your partner ecosystem. Process and system integration is just one option, but there are many others like using machine learning or artificial intelligence.

Learn more what APIs can do by joining the free online introduction to API Economy. The course is suitable for students and professionals with many different backgrounds, but if you are enrolled at University or other formal education, you can also take advantage of the credit (1 ECTS, 25-27 study hours) of Master’s level studies you gain from taking the course.

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