Leading the way to next generation digital learning environments: Use-cases and new product categories

#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 1EdTech 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 1EdTech 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 1EdTech 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 1EdTech.  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 1EdTech 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.