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Community leadership for more effective use of technology in service to education

#7 and final post of a series in preparation for May 2016 Learning Impact Leadership Institute

In the previous posts of this series I have reviewed the requirements driving next generation digital learning environments, looked at the anatomy of interoperable educational apps and considered the realities of sector trends in learning platforms and products.  Episode #6 concluded that the evolution to NGDLE will be driven by a combination of high value use cases enabled by an interoperable product ecosystem.

The Critical Importance of Sector Leadership

First a bit about the sector leadership required in getting to the NGDLE.  From where I sit, education sector leaders need to decide if NGDLE (or whatever comes next) is something that is happening to us or something that we are going to make happen? 

To explain further, tech innovation in the consumer world tends to “happen to us.” Apple iTunes is not something that consumers invented.  If consumers had invented Apple iTunes I’m sure we would have chosen to make sure all those tunes and apps would work on any mobile device we chose, not just Apple devices. Or, why is the Apple library limited to use on 5 devices?  That is not very consumer friendly.  But, individual consumers don’t have much influence in terms of the platform strategies of high tech companies.

But, the education sector is different.  While historically there has been a steady pattern of what I call the "alien invasion" theory of edtech adoption, there is huge potential for institutions that can work together to shape the ecosystem, and therefore the platform strategies of suppliers, going forward.  Indeed, we are at a period in time right now where not only institutional leaders, but leading suppliers are largely agreeing that vendor-specific ecosystems are NOT the way forward in the education sector. No single vendor can provide the diversity of digital resources, tools, apps and platforms.  And no single vendor can provide the sales channel to dominate education revenue generation.

But, strong collaborative leadership is required to establish an open edtech ecosystem. The “system” of leadership that seems to be working are suppliers that can bring the product ideas and technical expertise while institutions bring the clarity of the high value use cases and the firm requirement for plug and play integration.   In IMS we have seen the combination of these two forces achieve some amazing things.  Leadership from both institutions and edtech suppliers in creating and evolving the ecosystem the NGDLE (as envisioned in the EDUCAUSE research and this blog series) is essential.

Use Cases and Emerging Product Categories that Will Shape NGDLEs

In IMS Global we definitely believe that necessity (aka compelling need and value proposition) is the mother of invention.  Exact timing of the cycle of adoption can highly variable based on a number of factors (see the discussion on filtering ideas based on the four major VC risk areas in the previous post of this series). In IMS we like to determine if the value proposition is strong, then establish a track of work and then let the market feedback help us sort out the risk factors and timing.

High value use cases for the NGDLE are those that enable flexibility, choice and personalization that lead to improved educational outcomes.  Here are some obvious winners:

  • Seamless user experience for teachers and students: Sorry if this one seems rather uninspiring but the reality today is that the user experience in navigating among apps and platforms is still not very good.  Making the user experience seamless is key to enabling the development of NGDLEs that are seen as a step forward, rather than backwards. Indeed, an obvious first and essential step in building further confidence toward the NGDLE concept is to achieve seamless integration of some of the core instructional applications already in use at most institutions (see a list in the previous post).
  • Curated digital resource choices with associated assessments: Student outcomes improvement ala Benjamin Bloom’s famous “2 Sigma Problem” is dependent on delivering effective differentiated instruction via a classroom cohort.  This infers well thought out instructional strategies and resources, especially assessment resources, that can support and inform those strategies. Also, as the number of educational “apps” and “digital resources” scales, the need for effective curating that combines easy access/integration with effectiveness becomes paramount. 
  • Digital resource recommendations: Ability to help automate the recommendation of educational resources from among the curated choices will provide high value to instructors, students and parents. This is a very advanced topic that will take many years to develop.  However, it is completely feasible that machine learning techniques could be applied to monitoring and capturing the recommendations of instructional experts.
  • Understanding the usage of digital resources: As the use of digital materials scales there are obvious high value questions that need to be answered concerning the usage of digital resources.  Which ones are being used, when and why? Which ones are not being used?  Why not? This information is of great value to suppliers and institutions alike. However, if it is not “easy” to get the data in one place and understand it, the adoption of digital resources will be hampered.
  • Optimizing and/or personalizing student pathways to a credential or degree:  The ability to understand student pathway options and choices, improve them and recommend them has obvious value. True personalized learning, an umbrella term that can encompass many things, is achieved when the outcomes are defined for each student. The true personalization occurs then across a set of courses or competencies.  Educational success and fulfillment are achieved through a balance of personalization and optimization of the path through courses and gaining of competencies.
  • Better understanding of student progress and risks:  For an NGDLE to deliver on student success it will need to do a better job of helping students understand their level of success and risks of failure.  The NGDLE must support real-time communication and dashboards across a variety of activities to help students measure themselves. An NGDLE will help students, advisors and faculty understand when self-service needs to be supplemented with high touch intervention.

We are observing emerging product categories and how they are fitting into the edtech ecosystem all the time in IMS Global.  I am going to refrain from mentioning specific product names here.  Rather, I will use abstracted definitions of the categories we see growing and emerging.  A very important note, that while the learning management system category is not listed, the LMS has the potential to enable or implement many of the categories below.  Whether or not it is a good business strategy to do so is another question.

  • Modular digital curriculum and assessment: Instructional material or curriculum as a “black box” in which the modular construction and progression are difficult to access and understand are becoming less attractive in the digital age. There is both huge opportunity and risk here for organizations that can structure their curriculum products to help solve the high value use cases above. 
  • Integrated adaptive assessment: While related to the ability to modularize assessment (previous product category) the category of assessment tools that can be readily integrated with a variety of instructional resources and approaches will be fundamental to improving digital learning outcomes. Assessment is a specialized science and quality assessment is not simply providing some test items. This category will combine ease of use/integration with high quality assessment with real-time feedback.
  • Digital curriculum mapping and management: Differentiated instruction, individualized instruction and personalized learning all require management of the pathways and options available to teachers and students. The management of the curriculum needs to take a step up from where it is today. This product category will enable that.
  • Learning resource catalogs, app stores, repositories: Perhaps Google or Amazon will be the answer to searching for educational resources. However, the search and integration of resources required to enable the high value use cases above is a lot more complicated than the sort of searching and recommendations that suffice for enabling Internet commerce.  This product category addresses the organizational and ecosystem integration features needed to enable better learning outcomes and ease of use.
  • Learning analytics processing and messaging: Learning analytics is a hot new product category. It is also something that many LMS platforms and tools offer in some shape or form.  As with assessment, learning analytics is a highly specialized field. And, analytics needs to be performed across many apps.  Therefore, I think it is likely that new products will emerge that are separate from existing products.
  • Outcomes and achievements management: Several new product types are emerging that are helping institutions manage how they structure and assess student progress in terms of competencies and micro-credentials.  Some of these products are incorporating the “integrated” assessment category.  This category will help institutions structure the relationships among the outcomes they hope to achieve with students. It is different but potentially related to curriculum management. It is a layer above.
  • Student pathway management: Products that can help advisors and students understand the path.  These products will help students plan and optimize their path to their learning and degree objectives.
  • Edtech research data collection and processing: An NGDLE will enable better research of the effect of technology and instructional approaches on student achievement and outcomes. Therefore, I anticipate that products that enable learning analytics correlation of edtech usage to student success will emerge.  This could be considered a subcategory of the “learning analytics” category above, but am calling it out separately as a vey important and necessary contribution that may not be covered by other analytics applications.

Want to read about specific products along these lines? The best place is the IMS Learning Impact Report, which we publish annually, and which we consider to be ongoing research into the product categories that are leading the way to next generation digital learning.

Finally I will leave you with a simple idea and figure (shown here) to help illustrate the road we are on in terms of a maturity model of edtech products and the evolution toward next generation digital learning environments.  At the base level, an educational institution should be able to support the use of technology to support teaching and learning. This is stuff like BYOD and Google Apps for Education or Microsoft Office 365. The next level up is the enhancing of productivity using technology. Herein lies the success of LMSs and many other tools and technologies. However, one should not think it trivial to get to this 2nd/middle level because there are loads of examples of digital tools, and lack of integration of those tools, that have made life less productive for teachers and students. The “top” tier are emerging applications that have the power to improve student achievement and learning outcomes. Some of these are new product categories and others are existing products that are used in ways that clearly support better outcomes.  But the key point is that for an NGDLE, the expectations are evolving from the perspective of the customers – the students, the faculty, the institutions and society in general. 

The motivation for collaborating on NGDLEs is to enable a more effective ecosystem of educational platforms, apps, tools and resources that have measureable impact.  I hope to see you at the Learning Impact Leadership Institute where a unique collection of sector leaders gathers to further this important collaboration.

#6 of a series in preparation for May 2016 Learning Impact Leadership Institute

In the previous posts of this series I have provided a high level overview of the potential goals of next generation learning environments.  In the last several posts I have taken the perspective of what it might mean to be an “interoperable app” in the context of next generation digital learning environments. 

Now it’s time to come back to reality and look for clues from the market in terms of how we are likely to evolve to next generation digital learning environments.

Today is the First Day of Your Journey to NGDLE

One of our conundrums in getting to the next generation is dealing with the current generation.  Educational institutions are already dealing with “sub-optimal” integrations (I’m being kind here) of systems, platforms and applications that teachers and students touch every day.

Indeed, I would be a much less grumpy person, and more importantly, faculty and students would be much more satisfied with technology, if the following products, typically found in a majority of classrooms today, were better integrated:

  • Digital textbook (interactive)
  • Library digital resources
  • Summative testing
  • Formative testing
  • LMS with Gradebook (or separate Gradebook/outcomes assessment & tracking)
  • Classroom capture
  • Classroom response
  • Classroom management
  • Interactive whiteboard
  • Other digital resources and applications

This is a pretty limited set.  But if just a subset of these applications were really nicely integrated into a seamless and easy experience for students and faculty, technology would be a lot more appreciated in the education sector. Although in K-12, the “other digital resources and apps” are typically in the hundreds – even today.

The following types of products are also in the mix already.

  • Online class conferencing
  • Assignment grading system
  • Adaptive learning tool(s)
  • E-portfolio
  • Course evaluation

And don’t forget basic shared IT infrastructure:

  • Student information systems
  • File storage and sharing
  • Video management
  • Content authoring
  • Calendaring

And then there is the potential for integrating those mobile apps that come to educational institutions courtesy of the Apple, Google, Amazon or Microsoft consumer Internet app platforms. 

Learning Platforms Are Evolving

Now let’s consider the evolution of the “learning platforms” themselves.  In IMS we use this term rather broadly.  In the future I expect we will be characterizing the subcategories of learning platforms better. But for now a learning platform is essentially an integration point for learning resources that may provide as little functionality as single sign-on and 1-click launch.

News alert!  If you’ve been following IMS recently you will know that there are more than 400 products that have passed conformance certification.  There are over 70 LTI learning platforms and a couple hundred LTI tools in that mix – which probably represent about 1/3 of the actual adoption of the LTI standard in the market.

Indeed in K-12 school districts we are seeing easily 20-50 LTI tools or content series being integrated in districts (1+ million learning objects via thin common cartridge) that have gotten their LTI act together.

One question to ask is, “Are the more sophisticated learning platforms in tune with the stated requirements of the NGDLE?”  Back in October of 2015 I did a featured talk at OLC (Online Learning Consortium) in which I highlighted some of the directions toward NGDLE.  In preparation for that talk I reviewed the web sites of several of the leading learning management systems looking for messaging that might be consistent with the NGDLE requirements.

The figure here shows what I was able to ascertain.  Apologies to all concerned that this is dated now – and therefore may be different today.

While this comparison is a very crude analysis, I do think it reflects several market realities in getting to the NGDLE:

  • Analytics (however it might be defined) is clearly the area of the NGDLE that is getting the most attention, interpreted as, “there is strong customer interest and money to be made there.”
  • Accessibility as a standalone category is not getting the attention that all of us would hope it would be getting, although personalization (which I have connected to accessibility in this series – see discussion on user preferences here) is getting some play (but I expected more).
  • Collaboration gets a fair amount of coverage, but it is not the hot item that the NGDLE research seemed to indicate it should be – perhaps because, as in the world of IMS, collaboration of various types can be supported via a wide range of apps.
  • There were a range of other key marketing themes that did not get too much attention in the NGDLE research, including usability, reliability, mobile, content management, course building, grading and competency-based education (CBE).
  • Perhaps most interestingly, is that the marketing of the so-called “lynchpin” of the NGDLE, interoperability, was very uneven and, form the perspective of IMS, pretty weak. 

While again, this is a very crude analysis, I think the market is giving us some important messages about NGDLE.  One could take a “glass half empty” of “glass half full” interpretation.  The glass half-empty view is that the product providers are not in tune with those institutional leaders participating in the NGDLE research.  The glass half-full view is that the product companies are focused more on marketing to higher value themes – like product usability, student success, competency-based education, etc.

My own view is that both interpretations are correct. In my thirty-five years of product development experience across a variety of sectors, I feel that there is no sector in which the product providers are more out of touch with their customers than the education sector.  The senior executives and marketing folks in a large number of product companies are not understanding as well as they could the desires of the end users.  On the other hand, I do believe that it will be very specific areas of improvement that will drive progress toward the NGDLE.  General ideas, like personalization, are not going to drive the suppliers and customers to work together to get to the NGDLE.  More specific ideas, like clearly better usability of technology to support teachers and students needs, will.

What Will Drive the Progression Toward NGDLEs?

Getting to next generation digital learning environments will happen because the high-value use cases require cooperation among a diverse set of digital resources, apps, tools and platforms.  Enabling specific high-value use cases is key. Where the “architecture” comes in is to be able to evolve the solutions to those use cases collaboratively across an ecosystem of suppliers and institutions – versus a much more slow and ultimately unreliable approach of big bets on one-vendor solutions.

To put it another way, the evolution to NGDLE will be driven by a combination of high value use cases enabled by an interoperable product ecosystem.

Up next in the series: In the next and final post of this series on next generation digital learning environments I will take my guess at specific use-cases and new product categories that are driving us toward NGDLEs.