The Future of Learning Environments in Higher Education

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Examines the NGDLE in Spring Focus Session

min read

It's been nearly a year since EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) published its research report on Next-Generation Digital Learning environments (NGDLE). Since then, the teaching and learning community has embraced many of its ideas, using its framework as a way of organizing thinking and planning for what comes next. Indeed, despite "NGDLE " being a bit hideous as acronyms go, it seems to have become a useful label for strategic thinking about the future of learning environments in higher education.

To further explore this framework, the ELI convened a summit one day prior to its 2016 Annual Meeting. Close to 50 senior campus leaders—all of whom are involved in supporting the teaching and learning mission—engaged in far-ranging discussions with us around the idea of the NGDLE. We asked them to explore questions such as:

  • in this context, what do the labels "next-generation " and "learning environment " mean?
  • what "ingredients " and what kind of leadership are needed to realize the NGDLE?
  • what are the opportunities and threats with respect to the NGDLE concept?

In this context, what do the labels "next-generation" and "learning environment" mean?

By far, the characteristic most often mentioned was "learner-centered. " This comes as no surprise, as the EDUCAUSE research clearly detected an impatience with the traditional LMS platforms on precisely this point. Another characteristic that frequently came up was "multiple pathways. " This involves various options for learners to navigate their way to the mastery of course content. These two characteristics are linked, since one of the most important ways in which an environment can be learner-centered is through the provision of such pathways. This also speaks to the importance of the theme of personalization and customization, which is coming up so frequently of late in discussions about student success.

What "ingredients " and what kind of leadership are needed to realize the NGDLE?

The most recurrent answers included:

  • The importance of partnerships. The scope of a campus learning environment obviously entails not just partnerships between campus organizations, but external partnerships as well. These include vendors and, increasingly, consortia of institutions.
  • Change management and leadership. The NGDLE is as much a cultural shift as anything else, and of all the kinds of change, cultural change is the most challenging.
  • Application of learning science. There is a need for learning tools that don't simply imitate traditional practices, but rather embody fresh designs and approaches based on what we know works.
  • Interoperability based on standards. In an environment with a digital foundation, this is the linchpin.
  • Benchmarks and rubrics. It's always important to measure progress towards goals, and we need NGDLE "yardsticks " to help us in this respect.
  • Shared vision and strategic direction. The complexity and multiple dimensions of a 21st century learning environment requires the unifying support of an overarching conceptual "glue, " one that can be effective across campus units and various stakeholders.

We closed by asking the group about what might be called NGDLE "sightings "—nascent initiatives and developments that are moving in the direction of the NGDLE. The summit participants offered several items, among others:

  • gathering support for alternative forms of learning assessment (such as competency) and the appearance of platforms that support them;
  • a more comprehensive student focus (such as integrated student advising and the extended transcript) and their realization in new advising systems and new credentialing standards [];
  • the growing appreciation of and support for openness based on interoperability standards;
  • leveraging the broader higher education community by means of consortia such as Unizin and the University Innovation Alliance.

We are at the outset of this migration into new models for our digital learning environments. The above are excerpts from a more comprehensive discussion, and there is still a lot of territory remaining to be explored within the NGDLE framework. At our Spring Spring Focus Session, the ELI will be doing further such exploration, addressing topics such as:

  • analytics, integrated student advising, and learning assessment;
  • responses from both LMS platform vendors as well as from component vendors;
  • accessibility and universal design for learning.

You can join the conversation on April 27-28 from noon to 3:30pm ET. Register today to view live web-based presentations and participate in discussions surrounding the NGDLE.

Malcolm Brown is Director, ELI, for EDUCAUSE.