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Lego bricks


The next-generation learning management system shouldn’t be a system at all, but a “digital learning environment” where individual components -- from grade books to analytics to support for competency-based education -- fit together like Lego bricks, a new white paper recommends.

“The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: A Report on Research,” released last month, advances Educause’s initiative to examine how faculty members and students feel about their learning management systems and what they want from them in the future. The effort, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is known as the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment Initiative.

Even though virtually all colleges and universities run some form of learning management system, many faculty members have a “love-hate relationship” with the software, Malcolm Brown, director of the Educause Learning Initiative, said in an interview. On the one hand, he pointed out, it’s technology “you can’t live without,” but on the other, it’s a source of frustration and impatience for many.

Educause hoped to consider whether existing learning management systems can support higher education at a time when many colleges and universities are experimenting with new forms of delivering courses and awarding credit. Instead of focusing on “incremental change,” the researchers decided to articulate what a re-envisioning of the market would look like, Brown said.

The white paper combines Educause’s own research with input from learning management system providers, accessibility and universal design experts, IT officials, university leaders, and others. Authors Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney and Nancy Millichap then synthesized those opinions into one overarching recommendation: that commercial providers, open-source communities and individual developers settle on a set of specifications to make different software work together -- in other words, the studs and cylinders that make Lego bricks interlock.

The specifications need to devote equal attention to five main points: interoperability, personalization, analytics, collaboration and accessibility. The first, interoperability, is described in the paper as the “linchpin” of the overall vision.

“We can’t just have one big chunk of code that’s going to do everything for everybody,” Brown said. “Legos work because that specification is so clear and unambiguous. As long as you observe those specifications, you’re going to snap together.”

The specifications aim to improve both the user experience and the processes behind the scenes. As the Lego metaphor attempts to explain, interoperability means giving faculty members the freedom to piece together their preferred learning management systems without worrying if the tools they pick will be able to share data. That, in turn, would enable faculty members to use analytics to track student performance across a variety of software tools, the report reads.

The analytics piece is also an important element for the Gates Foundation, which has signaled its interest in improving the data collected from and reported about students.

The user-facing specifications, accessibility and personalization, focus on giving all faculty members and students the opportunity to use and customize their learning management systems. It also means giving students the ability to set personal education goals, which Educause’s research suggests would make them more likely to use their learning management system.

Finally, the report recommends learning management systems abandon the “walled garden” approach -- that “a course is either public or private.” Instead, the systems should let students move freely between public and private online spaces and capture collaborations no matter where on the internet they occur.

George Kroner, a software solutions professional at the University of Maryland University College, said the paper represents “advanced future thinking” about how the learning management system market can evolve.

“The biggest elephant in the room is that a lot of the systems that are used in higher ed are very course-centric in nature,” Kroner said. “What we see is that probably is the biggest limiting factor of not just current-gen ed-tech products, but also the administrative systems that support them.”

In the vision proposed by the white paper, faculty members would be less tied to courses, but also to the vendor their institution chooses. In fact, faculty could connect an open-source calendar with analytics from D2L and videoconferencing from Blackboard. While such a future may not sound immediately appealing to vendors, Kroner pointed out that learning management system providers in recent years have moved in that direction. For example, most systems now support interoperability standards, which enable developers to create software that works with all systems.

“Above all else, our vision of a next-generation learning experience is one where the needs and preferences of learners are placed directly at the center,” Katie Blot, senior vice president of corporate strategy and industry relations at Blackboard, said in an email. “This means an environment that is not only personalized and collaborative, but also flexible, intuitive and driven by data to help learners -- and those who support them -- make good decisions along their educational pathways.”

Colleges and universities are also exerting some pressure on vendors through procurement processes, Kroner said, a strategy that can be used to guide the market in the direction the paper recommends.

“The conversation is no longer about choosing the best LMS,” said Kroner, a former Blackboard employee who served as a community expert for the paper. “It’s about the best suite of technology to accomplish what your institution wants to do.”

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