Next Generation Digital Learning Environments and Next Generation Enterprise IT platforms have many common features and capabilities and, most importantly, need many of the same technical environment underpinnings.
Nonetheless, institutions often implement learning environments and IT platforms as separate efforts led by teams in different areas of the organization.
Given their common characteristics, holistic planning thoughtful attention to IT enterprise architecture will be key to successful implementation of both NGDLE and NGEIT.
This holistic practice of enterprise architecture plans the entire IT landscape, examines requirements across applications, and provides an overall blueprint for how IT can contribute to an organization's strategic goals.
Over the next few years, many institutions will explore Next Generation Digital Learning Environments (NGDLE) as a way to meet both shifting educational approaches and the needs of their faculty and students. Many of these institutions are also planning for their Next Generation Enterprise IT (NGEIT) environments and systems — that is, the applications, architectures, platforms, and ecosystems required to run their organizations. Indeed, EDUCAUSE highlighted the importance of these two undertakings in its 2017 list of "Top 10 IT Issues."
As is becoming increasingly clear, the next generation of these environments will share common characteristics. Traditionally, however, institutions have approached digital learning and enterprise IT environments as separate implementation efforts, often originating from and led by different organizational areas. This approach risks creating environments that fail to take advantage of modern architectures, better data integration, and improved user experiences.
As we describe here, institutions will be best served by taking a holistic approach to planning the implementation of NGDLE and NGEIT. Indeed, thoughtful attention to the IT architecture will be a key ingredient for success.
NGDLE and NGEIT will share at least five key capabilities and functions: analytics, interoperability, personalization, collaboration, and accessibility.
Next generation analytics will make it possible to monitor student success and overall organizational efficiency in a more accurate and timely manner.
NGDLE and NGEIT will include detailed reporting and assessment tools, along with information dashboards that offer more advanced reporting on how an institution's academic and administrative services are functioning. This built-in functionality will require institutions to rethink their approaches to reporting, analytics, and service management; it will also replace some existing tools, while new tools and ways to move and aggregate data from these next generation environments will emerge.
Interoperability and Integration
NGDLE and NGEIT will make it easier to integrate other solutions and services by using common data structures and integration tools such as the IMS Global Learning Consortium Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard, the Ellucian Ethos hub, and SalesForce's Higher Education Data Architecture (HEDA). As institutions begin implementing next generation solutions, they must be strategic in selecting and setting the standards. They also must keep in mind the impact the standards will have on other tools and services added down the road.
In addition to this type of back-end integration at the institutional level, our next generation environments must also give end users the ability to integrate tools they find or develop on their own. The next generation environments should operate as extensible platforms that institutions and end users can easily build on. End users should be able to bring applications into an NGDLE or a next generation enterprise application as easily as they bring mobile devices into e-mail communications platforms today.
NGDLE and NGEIT will focus on giving users the personalized information they need, when they need it. For example, students using a learning management system will see reminders about assignments that are due and suggestions for follow-on courses. Users of enterprise IT administrative tools will be presented with personalized information dashboards showing relevant up-to-the-minute information and links to resources.
To achieve these levels of personalization, next generation environments will need access to robust data about their users; as a result, institutions will need strong identity management systems, data governance, and data integration services.
Tools for collaborating will be an integral part of these environments, allowing for easier discussion, exchange of ideas, and networking. Examples include integrating video chat functions — not just for conventional instructor/student interactions but for communications among class members and, for example, university researchers whose work is relevant to the course. As another example, staff communications required to support administrative workflows might be integrated into an HR on-boarding application. However, institutions will need to be careful not to overwhelm users with too many "inboxes" and communication choices.
Accessibility and Universal Design
Users will access next generation services from all of their devices (mobile, tablet, desktop) to both consume and contribute content. Students will access assignments, grades, and course material from wherever they happen to be, while faculty and staff will update course materials and access data on student progress any time from practically any location. This accessibility will improve services to our students and colleagues by allowing just-in-time information access and by streamlining workflows.
NGDLE and NGEIT environments will have common characteristics related to their creation and how they deliver services.
Many (if not most) next generation environments will be provided as cloud services. Institutions will therefore need infrastructures that permit data exchange from on-premises services to cloud-based systems; support meticulous attention to contracts and service level agreements; and provide extensive middleware services, including authentication and authorization.
Flow of Data
Data will be at the heart of these new environments. Institutes will therefore need to plan carefully for master data management, including the flow of data between applications and data governance.
Data integration tools, such as integration platform-as-a-service (iPAAS) and similar services, will aid in data exchange between services and facilitate the integration of solutions. For example, such services will make it possible for NGDLEs and next generation enterprise applications to exchange data, enabling powerful connections.
Ecosystem "Lego" Approach
NGDLE and NGEIT will be extensible; given the complexity of modern higher education institutions, it is unreasonable to expect that single-vendor, monolithic systems could provide all the functionality required. Instead, systems will use a "Lego" approach of plugging in modules as needed for additional functions.
A key component in building and deploying next generation environments is maximizing value for the institution by providing configurable systems built on a foundation of best practice services. This approach gives organizations the flexibility to adjust their services to meet changing needs. It also bases their systems on proven approaches.
The Practice of Enterprise Architecture
Given the characteristics that NGDLE and NGEIT share, organizations should employ a holistic approach to IT strategic planning. Institutions routinely use disciplined approaches to hardware and software design, development, and management to ensure the quality of IT services. Similarly, a disciplined approach to planning the entire IT landscape can ensure that all systems thrive and coexist — now and in the future.
We call this disciplined approach to planning the entire IT landscape the practice of enterprise architecture, and it is the key to successfully moving to the next generation.
Enterprise architecture is not just "architecture for enterprise IT" applications; instead, it is a practice that examines the requirements of all IT ecosystem components, from teaching/learning applications to communications applications to "enterprise IT "applications.
Enterprise architecture provides an overall blueprint for how IT can contribute to an organization's strategic goals. Employing a high-level view that transcends department boundaries, enterprise architecture is very much like urban planning for the IT landscape.
Both enterprise architecture and urban planning are founded on an expectation that parameters for integration into the environment will be established and agreed upon, and that everyone will comply with them. Urban planning, for example, typically regulates which city areas are appropriate for heavy manufacturing and which are reserved for residential use, while enterprise architecture might have technical standards for, say, single sign-on web authentication. Certainly, widely accepted best practices will predetermine some choices, but generally, local governance chooses urban planning regulations or architecture standards to factor in the city or organization's concerns. Further, both types of planning have frameworks for ecosystem efficiency and usability, and decisions are made with consideration of — but are not solely based on — the more narrow interests of individuals.
Although architecture standards impose limitations on IT designs, they also support the freedom to extend and innovate. In this sense, enterprise architecture is an enabler for the realization of next generation environments. One way in which enterprise architecture contributes is by supporting the formal adoption of well-documented standard application interfaces.
For example, an organization might set the following standards:
- Interoperability standards, such as the LTI, to define methods for linking disparate IT components
- Standard services, such as LDAP directory services, to define a platform for integration into the organization's infrastructure
- A standard container framework, such as Docker, to bolster application portability between private and public cloud options
Using standard enterprise architecture interfaces significantly streamlines the process of bringing independently acquired software and cloud services into the landscape, providing the agility we need going forward.
Enhancing data interoperability is a second way in which enterprise architecture lays a foundation for next generation environments. Just as urban planning facilitates traffic flow within a city, enterprise architecture enables data flow among separate IT domains. For example:
- To support predictive analytics, academic data warehouses simplify the aggregation of enterprise IT and administrative data with teaching and learning data.
- Standardized methods for data import allow content from external websites to be included in a course website or purchasing application.
- A full-fledged data-integration platform with prepackaged data flows and built-in administration of data governance can provide functionality directly to non-IT end users and let them run self-service analytics on-demand.
Technology standards and guidelines established through the enterprise architecture practice foster the data virtualization that both digital learning and enterprise IT will need.
Increasing Operational Efficiency
Finally, enterprise architecture contributes to an organization's operational efficiency. To the extent that IT standards are followed, the reuse of existing hardware, software, and services increases; in turn, this reuse reduces the duplication costs, implementation effort, and technical debt that results from technology sprawl.
Standardizing data exchange also streamlines data security work: decisions on data protection policies and procedures can be made once and then applied consistently across the IT ecosystem.
A high-level enterprise architecture perspective can even boost end-user productivity by promoting consistency among user interfaces — achieving the "heterogeneity of components to produce a homogeneity of function."1 Institutions can then use the organizational efficiency gains from enterprise architecture practice to advance their evolution to next generation environments.
Both the NGDLE and NGEIT will offer institutions increased flexibility, scalability, better analytics, and the ability to tap into an ecosystem to enhance functionality and services. By adjusting application configurations rather than customizing them, implementations will be easier to upgrade and give service owners more control and more options.
Using enterprise architecture practices to plan holistically for these environments will be the key to successful implementation of next generation services and allow institutions to better leverage them to advance their strategic goals.
- Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millchap, The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment. A Report on Research, EDUCAUSE, April 2015.
Josie DeBaere is director, Technology Architecture, Boston University.
David Weil is associate vice president and CIO, Ithaca College.
© 2017 Josie DeBaere and David Weil. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.