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Recently, Hollis Robbins, dean of arts and humanities at Sonoma State University, asked why colleges and universities have ceded to commercial providers the digital learning environments that their students depend on.

As Robbins quite rightly observed, these platforms are “are clunky, aesthetically displeasing and far from user-friendly.”

The answer is that building such a platform is extraordinarily expensive and requires expertise and sustained commitment that no academic institution that I know of has.

Still, shouldn’t we tell the vendors what we need? Shouldn’t we drive the design process?

I believe we can agree on how the functionality and user experience of the LMS should change.

  • It should be student centered rather than course centered.
  • It should be comprehensive, including all the courses that a student takes.
  • It should provide students with a space where they can engage with content, undertake activities and complete assessments as part of an integrated experience.
  • It should provide students with a comprehensive academic calendar; a dashboard to chart their progress; tools to communicate with their instructor, classmates, and academic and technical support services; and a place to house a portfolio of projects and papers.

Here’s my prescription for such a learning platform.

1. We need to reimagine the user experience.

Instead of dividing the user experience into separate menu items -- think announcements, assignments, files, recordings and other tabs -- students need an integrated, seamless experience with one-click access to all resources. No student should be required to abruptly shift from one resource to another.

2. We need to reinvent the online learning experience.

We should reconceive of the online course experience in a more coherent way. Obvious metaphors are undertaking a journey, encountering a series of challenges, traversing a competency map or climbing up a series of levels. We have a lot to learn from video-game designers, who can teach us a great deal about how to enhance engagement, sustain attention, drive persistence and make experiences more immersive.

3. We need to provide students and instructors with data dashboards.

A student-facing dashboard ought to clearly identify what a student has done and needs to do and how many points the student has earned. An instructor dashboard should report on levels of student engagement, including time spent on task and areas of confusion. In other words, the dashboards should offer students and instructors actionable data.

4. The platform should provide ready access to key tools.

A comprehensive calendar needs to specify the tasks that students need to be undertake or complete in all their classes. A suite of communication tools should make it easy for students to send messages or arrange videoconferences with an instructor, classmates, a help desk and support services. Built-in note-taking tools, including “smart sticky notes,” to make it easy for students to compile and retrieve notes based on the courses’ online resources.

5. We need to provide students with easy access to advising and a community of care.

Now that student services have migrated online, we need to make it as easy as possible to access academic and financial aid advisers, tutorials, study groups, and learning and mental health support services. The obvious answer is to build this functionality into the next-generation LMS.

6. We need to make it easy for students to build networks.

Students should be creating a personal network that will support their career development. Especially valuable are networks that include alumni and employers.

7. We need to create repositories that can serve as a project portfolio.

Students need a readily accessible space where they can deposit their papers and projects.

8. We need to be able to integrate active learning tools into courses as easily as possible.

Tools for annotation, collaboration, concept and network mapping, data visualization, presentation, text mining, and timeline creation need to be readily available within the digital learning experience itself.

Some might assert that all of these capabilities are already available in today’s learning management systems. My response is that the problem lies less in capabilities than design, which compartmentalizes features rather than offering a more integrated experience.

A great deal of attention has focused recently on the idea of a competency transcript that would identify the skills a student has acquired or a comprehensive learning transcript that would provide a verified record of all of a student’s coursework and training, irrespective of provider. These are wonderful ideas.

But if we were to radically rethink the LMS, it could, in fact, incorporate those elements while creating a platform that would make the experience of online learning as seamless, coherent and immersive as reading a book or playing a video game or, might I add, using a commercial-grade website.

We need new ways to keep students connected and engaged. We need new pedagogical approaches that will help our students master complex concepts or closely and critically analyze difficult, multifaceted texts. We need diagnostic dashboards to help us understand where and why students get off track. We need simpler ways to be able to furnish individualized feedback.

A next-generation LMS could address all those needs.

The LMS was originally created less to support instruction than to address a series of administrative challenges: to automate the population of class rosters, authenticate the use of licensed resources and ensure the security of course materials.

The time has come to transform the digital learning environment into what it ought to be: a true teaching and learning tool.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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