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Designing a Digital Learning Environment for the University of Wisconsin System

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With its LMS contract set to expire, the University of Wisconsin System set out to reimagine its systemwide learning technology platform to better harness both technology and data in order to maximize student success.

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Credit: ideyweb / Shutterstock.com © 2019

The University of Wisconsin System (UWS) is one of the largest systems of public higher education in the United States, serving more than 170,000 students each year and employing approximately 39,000 faculty and staff statewide.

The UWS is made up of thirteen four-year universities and thirteen two-year branch campuses affiliated with seven of the four-year institutions. On July 1, 2018, UWS began a restructuring process through which UW-Colleges and UW-Extension joined with the UWS's four-year comprehensive and research universities. Together, these institutions are a tremendous academic, cultural, and economic resource for Wisconsin, the nation, and the world.

Overview: The Shift from LMS to DLE

With a long-standing contract with an LMS provider set to expire, the UWSA Office of Learning and Information Technology recognized the opportunity to reimagine its systemwide learning technology platform, which had remained largely unchanged for many years. UWS had been reviewing trends in the learning technology market and understood that a unique opportunity to reimagine how technology could be harnessed was at hand. By shifting its perspective from an LMS-based content platform to a digital environment that creates information users can act upon, UWS could realize the many benefits of an interoperable suite of services and tools that allow it to maximize student access and success.

Starting a conversation about a major transformation of systemwide learning technology required deep stakeholder engagement as well as senior leadership support from the UWSA Offices of Academic and Student Affairs and Administration. To prepare for the request for proposal (RFP) period, these two offices teamed up to lead the 2015 Learning Environment Needs Analysis (LENA) project, which built on previous learning technology IT roadmapping efforts and involved extensive campus-based listening sessions with students, instructors, and administrators regarding the needs and perceived gaps in learning technology.

The LENA project was an unprecedented joint effort by the Offices of Academic and Student Affairs and Administration, and it yielded extensive insights into the current and future learning technology landscape, uncovered the wants and needs of UWS institutions, and identified gaps in learning technology. The LENA findings also aligned with Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millichap's research on the next-generation digital learning environment (NGDLE), thereby providing confirmation that UWS faced the same technology challenges plaguing the higher education community at large.

DLE Design and Features

Based on the LENA findings, UWS planned to design a digital learning environment (DLE) that included five key characteristics:

  • Accessibility. Universal design principles are fundamental to the DLE, enabling it to ensure that all students—regardless of ability and learning preference—can succeed in all instructional modes.
  • Analytics support. The platform supports learning and administrative analytics, while also providing data to inform intervention strategies that support student success.
  • Collaboration. The platform encourages and supports collaboration among users both within and outside the institution.
  • Interoperability. DLE components are interoperable—that is, they are standards-based and work together seamlessly at the core rather than being stapled together to sit side-by-side.
  • Personalization. The DLE is student-centered and allows for a personalized student experience in terms of both course content and learning pathways.

A Fixed and Flexible Model

While the UW–Madison campus joined the Unizin consortium and procured Instructure's Canvas platform directly, UWS launched an RFP process for all other system institutions. The RFP included vendor demonstrations of UWS teaching use case scenarios, stakeholder sandbox testing, and stakeholder surveys; based on the results, we ultimately chose the Canvas platform as the core of the new DLE. Rather than focusing on a predefined set of technology functions, however, we synthesized and used stakeholder feedback to design a "fixed/flexible" service management model that addressed the actual instructional needs of UWS institutions.

The UWS DLE framework's fixed aspect is complemented by its flexibility in allowing UWS to adopt technologies and processes that support the unique aspects of teaching and learning.

Fixed features. Standardized policies, processes, and technology architecture support a consistent approach to administrative functions such as technology integrations, data management, and procurement. The DLE's fixed aspects lower technology barriers, drive a consistent user experience, and support administrative efficiencies.

These fixed features also allow the DLE to "move as a system," setting the stage for a DLE Community of Practice in which colleagues from UWS institutions can better manage knowledge in finding, sharing, transferring, and documenting their expertise. In addition, the LENA findings showed that students want a consistent user experience. The DLE's fixed elements—such as a systemwide course template that includes a standard navigation menu with like-ordered items—support ease of use and reduce the time students need to "figure out where to find things."

Flexible features. Flexibility is critical for the delivery of open, active, adaptive, and competency-based learning strategies and for allowing those strategies to evolve in the future. The model also includes a formal change management process that allows the DLE to transparently and continuously evolve and to nimbly meet ever-changing academic and administrative needs.

Managing Data to Support Success

With the fixed/flexible framework, UWS is positioned to bring together data—information from myriad enterprise and institution technologies—and leverage the unique strengths of its many institutions to support student success.

In addition to providing a seamless, accessible student experience, the DLE also makes possible an effective, well-organized approach to managing digital learning interactions and information exchanges among students, instructors, institutions, and external stakeholders. Reliable access to data enables data analysis activities that can help us improve student experiences—from the point of inquiry about attending a UWS institution through application to an institution, learning and academic support activities throughout their student experience, and on into the postgraduation alumni years. We will also use data to guide and support the ongoing evolution of the UWS DLE strategy itself.

DLE as Amalgamator

The UWS DLE challenges the traditional role of an LMS as "the" platform for managing content for teaching and learning. Shifting our perspective from a proprietary, one-stop vendor-controlled LMS that holds the keys to our data to an information-creating digital environment allows us to realize the many benefits of an interoperable and agile suite of services and tools that maximizes student access and success.

The DLE continues to evolve with the participation of subject-matter experts in workstream teams from UW institutions. The DLE is not a closed system, and UWS has direct relationships with service and tool providers that subscribe to open standards, such as those managed by the IMS Global Learning Consortium. The DLE now boasts more than 50 external tool provider integrations that not only are standards-based but also ensure that the tools are accessible, secure, and maintain student data privacy.

The DLE is ever-evolving; over time, we may add, remove, or move tools and services among various layers of the environment. For example, if a third-party tool initially adopted by one UWS institution proves to be beneficial to other institutions, we can leverage economies of scale in a shared services procurement process facilitated on behalf of multiple institutions. We have found this approach to be beneficial when procuring learning technologies in the past.

Impact of the DLE

The DLE provides students and instructors with the digital services and tools needed for innovative practices in teaching and learning, as well as offering improved support of student learning outcomes. The DLE is easy to use, stable, secure, and standardized, yet it maintains flexibility. It also gives UWS a way to improve collaboration and sharing, thereby spurring innovation in teaching and learning and fostering student engagement. The DLE allows us to transform teaching and learning to a data-informed endeavor that supports instruction by enabling engaging, intuitive, interactive, and pedagogically sound learning experiences for students.

The DLE builds on instructors' expertise in student success by allowing UWS institutions to be nimble and adaptive in using data to support teaching and learning. We know, based on student feedback, that a seamless experience with institution-provided technology reduces barriers to access.

The DLE incorporates data generated in three key areas:

  • student and instructor interactions with academic and administrative systems,
  • the information that instructors generate as they recognize student performance levels and warning signs, and
  • the insights students gain from reflecting on their learning.

The result is a structured, transformative pivot away from disaggregated indicators regarding the success of student pathways. Instead, the DLE takes advantage of the collaborations that result when data silos are broken down and data is combined and translated into meaningful actions to support student success; such actions include student performance "early alerts" and student visibility into peer performance benchmarks.

The DLE also offers administrative benefits, including the reporting capabilities required in higher education for accreditation, compliance, the delivery of academic services, and other administrative purposes. Furthermore, the DLE negates the need for UWS to predict and react to the future of technology, with varying degrees of success. Through data-informed decision-making, an adaptive DLE flips the traditional model of "predict and plan"—within a structure of closed, tight-knitted systems that we choose based on what we think will happen in five to ten years—to an open and adaptive process of technology adoption that directly impacts teaching and learning in near real-time.

Finally, the DLE lets UWS give its stakeholders—that is, students, instructors, and administrators—the technology environment they need to thrive, regardless of how the future evolves. UWS, rather than technology vendors of siloed products and services or exclusive associations, is the architect that is proactively building the DLE and planning its future.

Lessons Learned

Using ITIL as our IT Service Management (ITSM) approach for implementing the DLE enabled UWS to promote a cultural mind-set of providing high-quality IT services. ITSM employs a blend of appropriate people, standardized practices and processes, and technology to drive value and continuous improvement while proactively addressing risks and managing costs.

As of this writing, we have completed two semesters since the DLE implementation; many of the UWS institutions are still in the transition phase, so our lesson learning is ongoing. As with any major transformation endeavor, however, we have already found that communication is critical to a project's success—and perhaps its biggest challenge.

Indeed, regardless of how much communication takes place, it may never be enough. Given the size and complexity of UWS, it would have been impossible for messaging from the UWS office to reach all stakeholder groups at all the institutions at the appropriate time and in the most effective manner.

To contend with this, we chose a formal project management approach in which each institution had its own project manager with local executive sponsorship. Through these project managers, each institution used its own rollout and communication strategies. This allowed institutions to leverage standard template materials to customize messaging for their students, instructors, and administrators in a way that best fit their institution's culture.

Where to Learn More

This article is part of a set of enterprise IT resources exploring the role of digital transformation through the lens of understanding costs and value. Visit the Enterprise IT Program to find resources focused on digital transformation through the additional lenses of governance and relationship management, technology strategy, business process management, and analytics.


Renee Pfeifer-Luckett is Director of Learning Technology Development for the University of Wisconsin System.

© 2019 University of Wisconsin System.