Enabling Next Generation Digital Learning Environments: Why Standards Matter!

Jack Suess, VP-IT & CIO, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Jack Suess, VP-IT & CIO, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Two years ago, Rob Abel, Malcolm Brown, and I wrote an article for EDUCAUSE Review titled, A New Architecture for Learning. The articled posited that for higher education to support students and faculty as connected learners and instructors, we must rethink our approach to academic technology architecture. At the foundation of that architecture is information technology, in its role as the strategic enabler of connected learning. This article will provide an update on how we have progressed towards this vision, where we are going, and what you can do to help.

"At a minimum the one thing everyone can do is require new and existing vendors you work with, to conform with the listed standards"

The article described some of the recent standards, such as learning tools interoperability (LTI) and LTI2 that had improved the ability for learning tools to work together. Today, hundreds of software products support either LTI or LTI2. At the same time, the article highlighted that these improvements alone were insufficient in reaching our goal of supporting the individualized needs of learners and instructors. The article noted that to bring about the change we were seeking would require greater cooperation and collaboration across our national organizations to build a shared vision.

Thanks to support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the leaders of our national organizations, and many campus instructional technologists and leaders, I am glad to report that I see tremendous progress taking place. One example, through the support of the Gates foundation, Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millichap interviewed thought leaders across higher education and developed a report titled, Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE). Through extensive interviews with over 70 people, this report examined the current learning management system (LMS) and extended the technical description described in A New Architecture for Learning with the functional gaps keeping higher education from achieving connected learning. The major finding was redefining the role of the LMS:

“Over time, the LMS needs to be supplemented (and perhaps later replaced) by a new digital architecture and components for learning that contribute to and enable the transitions that higher education is currently experiencing. The challenge is to build on the value of the LMS as an administrative tool by retaining what works but not be bound to an outgoing model of teaching and learning. Another challenge is to make targeted investments that will bring about the next generation environment more quickly and coherently.”

The paper identified five dimensions to be addressed as we move forward, these are:

•Interoperability and Integration - the ability to integrate tools and exchange content and learning data will enable everything else.

•Personalization - allowing students and faculty to customize and configure the learning environment and the ability to easily use adaptive learning techniques to support individualized learning.

•Analytics, Advising, and Learning Assessment - the NGDLE should be integrated into other systems supporting student success and provide students and advisors information to improve decision making and time to degree.

•Collaboration - the NGDLE should move beyond a course-centric view of information and learning and easily integrate public and private resources into the course.

•Accessibility and Universal Design - we need tools that use universal design principles to build accessibility into what we do at the start, not as an afterthought.

Recently, I attended a day-long event focused on discussing next steps in advancing the NGDLE. After attending the day-long NGDLE discussion I felt there were four key standards that will be the key to advancing the NGDLE.

First, was the opportunity associated with accessibility - we discussed the IMSglobal draft standard - Access for All (v3.0) and how many of us in the room, though not officially disabled, used accessibility features on our phones to improve the experience. What if each individual could specify global settings that would work across whatever tools and content solutions they chose. While it will take time, version 3.0 of Access for All, defines a comprehensive set of personal attributes that could greatly advance personal accessibility.

Second, the advancements in analytics - the IMSglobal Caliper Analytics standard has been released, and we have begun to see organizations achieve conformance with the standard. This is a major achievement and will allow us the ability to get data on how students use the content and tools we provide in a course. With data, we can ultimately measure effectiveness and best practice.

Third, in terms of integration and interoperability, the release and early adoption ofLTI2 allows much richer integration to occur between the LMS and tools or content. Now, with LTI2, we could support the sharing of an accessibility profile or data about where to place the tool, thereby improving the user interface.

Fourth, in terms of collaboration and personalization, the IMSglobal community app sharing architecture (CASA) project provides an open standard for publishing and sharing catalogs of applications with application metadata about features and functions. CASA will enable the construction of affinity-focused environments of peers where each peer can apply local policies for both publishing and receiving app catalogs. We expect most suppliers and vendors to have a CASA, as will many educational institutions. The goal for CASA is that as cloud-based applications use LTI2 and Caliper Analytics we can give faculty more opportunity to expand learning tools and content in their courses.

Over the last few years, I am heartened to see a number of universities step up and engage their campus in building the NGDLE. Examples include:

•The twenty-two institutions that have joined Unizin and are working to improve the digital learning experience by providing an environment built on collaboration, data, standards, and scale.

•The twenty-four institutions that have received iPASS grants from EDUCAUSE to build better advising systems.

•The twenty-two institutions working with APLU on personalized learning.

•The hundreds of corporate, K-12, and university members of IMS Global that are working on the development of standards.

At a minimum the one thing everyone can do is require new and existing vendors you work with, to conform with the listed standards. By listing standards as requirements you are helping to protect your own investments and advancing the community closer to achieving the NGDLE.

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