EDUCAUSE looks beyond the (current) LMS environment: is it a future we want?

May 11, 2015 Tony Bates
The future of educational technology? Image" © biotech01, DeviantArt

The future of educational technology?
Image: © biotech01, DeviantArt

Brown, M, Dehoney, J., Millichap, N. (2015) The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: A Report on Research EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative

What is it about?

EDUCAUSE has published a very interesting white paper that:

explores the gaps between current learning management tools and a digital learning environment that could meet the changing needs of higher education.

What problem does the paper address?

The LMS has been highly successful in enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself. Initial LMS designs have been both course- and instructor-centric, which is consonant with the way higher education viewed teaching and learning through the 1990s.

Higher education is moving away from its traditional emphasis on the instructor, however, replacing it with a focus on learning and the learner. Higher education is also moving away from a standard form factor for the course, experimenting with a variety of course models.

What solution does the paper propose?

A next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE):

although the NGDLE might include a traditional LMS as a component, it will not itself be a single application like the current LMS or other enterprise applications. Rather, the NGDLE will be an ecosystem of sorts….

It must address five domains of core functionality:

  • Interoperability and Integration
  • Personalization
  • Analytics, Advising, and Learning Assessment
  • Collaboration
  • Accessibility and Universal Design

All five are core functional dimensions of the NGDLE, meaning that progress toward the full realization of the NGDLE is possible only if the whole set is addressed…..

We will need to take what might be called a “Lego approach.” Indeed, if the mash-up is the way that individuals and institutions will assemble their own NGDLE, then one way to enable that model is to populate the landscape with a set of tools and resources that are NGDLE conformant. This would result in a toolbox of applications, content, and platforms that could be assembled in custom ways. The key is defining what is meant by “NGDLE conformance.” Legos work because of a design specification that ensures the pieces will interlock, while enabling a wide variety of component parts. For the NGDLE to succeed as we describe here, a similar set of specifications and services will need to be defined that constitute the conformance needed to make the Lego approach workable….

We are suggesting an NGDLE-conformant standard or specification, which would be based on adherence to a coordinated set of component standards. Once such a standard is in place, future investments and development efforts could be designed around the NGDLE specifications.

The culture of higher education teaching and learning must evolve to encourage and even demand the realization of the NGDLE. We need to adopt “NGDLE thinking,” whereby the functional domain set described above feels to us like a natural fit for any learning environment.


First, this is one of the most interesting papers on the future of digital learning that I have read for some time. I have had to shorten it considerably but I highly recommend reading the whole paper carefully. It contains many interesting ideas and a useful set of resources that could be directly incorporated into current teaching and learning. This is not surprising as it is  the result of ‘consultations with more than 70 community thought leaders’.

Now who am I to argue with 70 community thought leaders? Certainly I wouldn’t disagree with the shortcomings of current learning management systems, and I find Lego absolutely awesome, along with collaboration and common technical standards. I myself have previously reported that LMSs are a necessary evil, but need to evolve.

But on the second reading of the paper I started getting a really uncomfortable feeling. I’ll try and unpack that discomfort.

1. Be careful what you wish for

First, this seems to be much too much of a top-down approach to developing technology-based learning environments for my taste. Standards are all very well, but who will set these standards? Just look at the ways standards are set in technology: international committees taking many years, with often powerful lobby groups and ‘rogue’ corporations trying to impose new or different standards.

Is that what we want in education? Or will EDUCAUSE go it alone, with the rest of the world outside the USA scrambling to keep up, or worse, trying to develop alternative standards or systems? (Just watch the European Commission on this one.) Attempts to standardize learning objects through meta-data have not had much success in education, for many good reasons, but EDUCAUSE is planning something much more ambitious than this.

2. Is LEGO the right metaphor for a learning environment?

A next generation digital learning environment where all the bits fit nicely together seems far too restrictive for the kinds of learning environments we need in the future. What about teaching activities and types of learning that don’t fit so nicely?

We need actually to move away from the standardization of learning environments. We have inherited a largely industrial and highly standardized system of education from the 19th century designed around bricks and mortar, and just as we are able to start breaking way from rigid standardization EDUCAUSE wants to provide a digital educational environment based on standards.

I have much more faith in the ability of learners, and less so but still a faith in teachers and instructors, to be able to combine a wide range of technologies in the ways that they decide makes most sense for teaching and learning than a bunch of computer specialists setting technical standards (even in consultation with educators).

3. Model educational technology on human behaviour, not on computing

I am becoming increasingly disturbed by the tendency of software engineers to force humans to fit technology systems rather than the other way round (try flying with Easyjet or Ryanair for instance). There may be economic reasons to do this in business enterprises, but we need in education, at least, for the technology to empower learners and teachers, rather than restrict their behaviour to fit complex technology systems. The great thing about social media, and the many software applications that result from it, is its flexibility and its ability to be incorporated and adapted to a variety of needs, despite or maybe even because of its lack of common standards.

When I look at EDUCAUSE’s specifications for its ‘NGDLE-conformant standards’, each on its own makes sense, but when combined they become a monster of parts. Do I want teaching decisions influenced by student key strokes or time spent on a particular learning object, for instance? Behind each of these activities will be a growing complexity of algorithms and decision-trees that will take teachers and instructors further way from knowing their individual students and making intuitive and inductive decisions about them. Although humans make many mistakes, they are also able to do things that computers can’t. We need technology to support that kind of behaviour, not try to replace it.

4. Read the paper and make up your own mind

I think that despite my concerns this paper is really important. It offers one possible future for educational technology that we need to consider very carefully. I may be over-reacting in my response. You must draw your own conclusions from the paper – as I know you will. But do read it if you care about the future of education.

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