The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment in Action: A Contextualized Approach

min read

A recent evaluation of campus learning tools at the College of William & Mary prompted an opportunity to think systematically about aligning the digital learning environment with institutional goals.

The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment in Action: A Contextualized Approach

The College of William & Mary is a midsized liberal arts institution that prizes interdisciplinary studies, student-faculty interaction, and powerful personal learning experiences. The ever-changing landscape of digital resources to support these priorities raises many questions about what path to take when implementing educational technology changes. A recent evaluation of campus learning tools prompted an opportunity to think systematically about matching our digital learning environment to institutional goals.

In Spring 2016, our eLearning Initiatives office assembled a team of administrative staff and faculty partners representing a range of departments and began with a question: What needs to be in William & Mary's digital learning environment in order for us to be effective? As research and commentary on the Next Generation Learning Environment (NGDLE) took shape in 2015 and 2016, we anticipated that the answer would be multifaceted.

Digital teaching and learning effectiveness in a liberal arts environment involves attention to individuals, flexibility, and a learner-centric approach to instruction. Such efforts live at the classroom or micro-level of a teaching context. However, institutional or meso-level decision-making is where the NGDLE is shaped. At William & Mary, we believe the most effective approach to building the NGDLE is to equip all instructors to navigate their own digital learning environments. This approach fuels meso-level changes through usability in micro-level realities.

Our efforts in conceptualizing and creating a flexible digital learning environment include ongoing processes in understanding our own context for learning, while anchoring technology changes to specific needs. Over the past two years, William & Mary's version of the NGDLE has taken shape. Here is how we did it.

The Problem: An Inflexible LMS-Centric Digital Learning Environment

Like many institutions, William & Mary has had an LMS-centric approach to digital teaching and learning for many years. This legacy of a monolithic LMS helped promote past innovations and technology integrations, but the LMS is no longer the primary driving force for effective digital methods. Instructors now seek greater flexibility in tool use, a wider variety of digital resources, and options for engaging with students outside traditional LMS channels. The ever-increasing selection of specialized tools for student engagement, digital feedback, collaboration, communication, and more contributes to a menu of teaching tools that operate outside the LMS while becoming an integral part of the classroom.

William & Mary needs standardized resources that allow for personalized applications and individual preferences. Enter the NGDLE, a conceptual approach to an integrated and forward-thinking system of personalized and student-centered technology integration. The NGDLE has quickly taken root in the higher education lexicon and provided an opportunity for William & Mary to take a fresh look at our approach to teaching and learning with technology. We set out to discover what unique teaching and learning needs exist at our institution and how we could best address those needs in ways that support the institution's goals.

The Process: Surfacing Needs and Priorities

Working with then-Associate Provost Michele Jackson, we devised an approach to faculty interaction, decision-making, and institutional effectiveness she termed "embeddedness." This approach focuses on teaching and learning units interweaving among administrative and curricular initiatives across the institution. We worked hard to be active collaborators, listeners, and partners in strengthening the William & Mary experience. As we embedded our resources and perspectives in the culture of the institution, we became more attuned to instructional needs and better positioned to effect change within the context of our learning environment.

Our formal beginning for conceptualizing and creating the NGDLE began in late 2016 as we evaluated potential solutions for LMS transition. After examining forty-six case studies of institutional LMS change, we realized that an LMS-centric approach may not work for our context. More information was clearly needed, so we developed a series of design-thinking sessions for faculty, staff, administrators, and students to address our big question: What needs to be in William & Mary's digital learning environment in order for us to be effective?

We dedicated six months to hosting these sessions, collecting and aggregating feedback, and completing a thematic analysis of existing needs and instructional aspirations []. The abbreviated findings below revealed a need for an agile NGDLE that enhances teaching and learning by

  1. putting pedagogical ideas within reach;
  2. supporting renewal through learning about possibilities;
  3. implementing potential solutions to instructional challenges that instructors currently face; and
  4. providing the means to perform instructional tasks more efficiently.

These findings are both aspirational and attainable. They reflect real needs and real possibilities. Most importantly, they maximize learning enablement rather than learning management. From these anchor points, we can create a contextually responsive meso-level solution for practical micro-level instructional needs. Our team decided to pivot our efforts from creating a new ecosystem or toolset to instead equipping individual instructors and academic units to navigate the existing digital learning environment in a way that better supported their own teaching and learning efforts.

The Product: Pathways to Personalizing a Digital Learning Environment

Given typical budget constraints and resource limitations, William & Mary did not seek a new LMS solution. With the awareness that the LMS no longer needs to be the core of our learning environment, we moved forward with a practical approach for faculty and staff to navigate their own NGDLEs. Our approach focuses on connecting instructors with ideas, practices, and peer examples of what works in our institutional context. Below are three recent examples.

1. Learning Design Heuristic

Built on the work of Nardi and O'Day, we conceptualized six aspects of our NGDLE: tools and technology, spaces, practices, values, content, and people. We identified examples of resources in each aspect and correlated them to overall instructional goals observed at William & Mary. The product is a brief learning design heuristic [] that instructors can reference as they plan courses.

2. Learning In Situ

Faculty and staff desired real-life examples of educational praxis anchored in the William & Mary context, so we developed a series of pedagogy workshops [] in which instructors learn from each other and see examples of digital teaching and learning resources from peers. We close each workshop with specific next steps on how instructors can leverage the William & Mary NGDLE to pursue similar methods.

3. Learning from Peers

The work of instructional and course design can be overwhelming. Without help and/or aspirational models of how to effectively design learning experiences, many instructors will default to their own past experiences. We connect faculty to a rich repository of sample assessments and projects from multiple disciplines. Our eLearning Samples site acts as a DIY hub for resources and use cases for multimodal projects, digital storytelling, and more.

The Path Forward

Contextualizing the NGDLE at William & Mary required careful attention to the real needs of stakeholders to design and promote multiple pathways for success. As we continue to add resources to our NGDLE, we encourage informed navigation of the environment and promote usability over complexity. The result is a human-centered digital learning environment that can both support current needs and seed instructional aspirations.


Special thanks to my former colleague Michele Jackson for her co-leadership of this project and authoring of initial results. Thanks, also, to eLearning and instructional colleagues at William & Mary for contributing ideas and perspectives for a personalized learning environment.

Adam Barger is the Acting Director of eLearning Initiatives at the College of William & Mary.

© 2018 Adam Barger. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.