6 Implications of the Next-Generation Digital Learning Environments (NGDLE) Framework

A year ago, EDUCAUSE published a white paper describing new directions for our campus digital learning environments. (You can download a copy of the report here.)

In the year since its publication, it’s become clear that there is growing support within the higher ed teaching and learning community for the idea of learning environments to be based on component architecture. Rather than relying heavily on a single application like an LMS, this approach would be more modular in nature, allowing institutions to pick and choose the most relevant digital tools to suit the specific needs of their student and faculty populations.

As the concept of component architecture gains momentum, it seems appropriate to begin identifying some of the implications of that approach for our professional practice.

Here is an initial set of six such implications:

1) We are the architects.
The shift to component-based architecture gives us — the members of the higher ed community — an unprecedented opportunity to shape, rethink, plan, and design our digital learning environments in a way that we haven’t had since the advent of the LMS. We are the architects. So we will need to think like architects. One characteristic of this kind of thinking is that the architect takes the long and wide view, thinking about how the structure will hold up five, 10, even 20 years after completion and whether this design will work for everybody. In a component-based approach, especially one that is very interoperable, there will be a tendency to simply collect lots of different stuff. But adding functionalities could lead to clutter — like a smart phone with too many apps — so we’ll need to adopt the architect’s perspective.

2) The challenge of BYODLE (bring your own digital learning environment).
Personalization and customization is, by itself, a decentralizing force. Teaching and learning in higher education has always had a bit of a wild west character to it, where educators and instructors are frequently and independently tailoring the design of the course to suit their own approach to teaching their subject. This style will receive new encouragement in the interoperable environment, where it will present challenges in terms of coherence. How is a press for customization to be reconciled with students’ desire to always have the syllabus in the same folder? The answer’s not immediately apparent, so this is an issue that will need to be grappled with by each institution.

3) Policy and governance will be critical.
Under the pressure of this new ecosystem, the policies and governance practices now in place may start to crack. A learning environment of broader scope and more diverse componentry will require new policies and additional nuances with respect to the governance of those environments. For example, with learning data flowing in unprecedented volume, we’ll need to revisit privacy policies and perhaps redefine the charters for our governance committees.

4) Weighing the pros and cons of open source code vs. consortia.
This new territory will require us to rethink the way we work with our colleague institutions. Since what we are talking about is a learning environment and not first and foremost an application, it will require that we come together for purposes in addition to writing code. Code is important, but it is by itself not the whole story.

About a decade ago, there was surge of impatience with the LMS, similar to what we are seeing today. So the community banded together and jointly wrote code to create an open source LMS, called Sakai. The idea was to regain control of the learning environment by producing an über-application that would be free to institutions of higher education. Today, the  path to regaining control lies less in writing super-large chunks of code and more in forming consortia that serve a variety of purposes. Some of these purposes include setting up buyers’ clubs that have more influence on vendors and that can secure volume discounts; sharing data and best practices; jointly buying technology; and in some cases writing component applications.

5) Vendor relationships must evolve.
We’ll need to consciously move away from more adversarial relationships with vendors and work toward something that more closely resembles partnerships and collaboration. Most likely, the key point of engagement with them will be around standards. We’ll also need to work to ensure that the key standards are well and fully implemented, and we will need to re-examine our own procurement practices in order to ensure that components we bring to the mix truly are interoperable. But, and perhaps most important, we will also need to communicate to our vendors the vision and aspirations that we have for our learning environments.

6) Leadership will shift.
Finally, this new approach to the DLE will require new kinds of leadership. At EDUCAUSE, we see this evolution toward the NGDLE as nothing less than academic transformation. This will require new aspects or dimensions to leadership, especially the ability to build consensus across campus groups and organizations. It will also call for new approaches to governance and will require continued participation in the strategic discussions on campus. The leadership called for is one that must be facile in working with a cohort of campus players and external partners in support of the teaching and learning mission.

To learn more about the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment initiative, read this blog post responding to comments from the higher ed community, or check out our resources page.

Malcolm Brown is director of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.