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What are education sector realities telling us about the likely evolution toward next generation digital learning environments?

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#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.