Functionality

In multiple conversations conducted with over 70 educators, campus-based technologists, and developers from the private sector, EDUCAUSE—enlisted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—identified five domains of core functionality for the NGDLE:

  1. Interoperability and Integration: The ability to integrate tools and exchange content and learning data. “This is the linchpin of the NGDLE,” emphasizes the report.
  2. Personalization: Outfitting and configuration of the learning environments, which is then used to construct pathways to accomplish learning tasks and attain learning goals; this needs to occur not only at the individual level, but also at the departmental, divisional, institutional, and consortium levels.
  3. Analytics, Advising, and Learning Assessment: Learning analytics should be incorporated to measure, collect, analyze, and report data about learners and their contexts for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs. Integrated planning and advising systems (IPAS) is an “institutional capability to create shared ownership for educational progress by providing students, faculty, and staff with holistic information and services that contribute to the completion of a degree or other credential,” defined the report.
  4. Collaboration: The NGDLE must support collaboration at multiple levels and make it easy to move between private and public digital spaces. The NGDLE must also include a requirement to move past a “walled garden” approach to locking down a course’s LMS, and instead enable a learning community to make choices about what parts are public and what parts are private.
  5. Accessibility and Universal Design: “A holistic, ground-up approach, addressing accessibility within the larger framework of universal design, has the potential to provide the most accessible digital learning environment possible,” states the report. NGDLE designers must consider accessibility in terms of the students as both receiver and creator of content.

[A much more detailed description and outline of implementation and design strategies for each core functionality can be viewed in the report.]

New architectures

Enabling the five core functions also means creating new architectures, say the report’s authors. The NGDLE will not itself be a single application like the current LMS, or other enterprise applications; rather, it will be an “ecosystem of sorts,” characterized by:

  • At the built layer, it will be a confederation of IT systems, including content repositories, analytics engines, and a wide variety of applications and digital services.
  • A full adherence to standards for interoperability, as well as a wide variety of applications and digital services.
  • Instead of uniformity and centrality, it will need to support personalization at all levels of the institution. The NGDLE will not be exactly the same for any two learners, instructors, or institutions.
  • For users, it will be a cloud-like space to aggregate and connect content and functionality, similar to a smartphone, where users fashion their environments directly with self-selected apps.
  • If the paradigm for the NGDLE is a digital confederation of components, the model for the NGDLE architecture may be the mash-up: A web page or application that “uses content from more than one sources to create a single new service displayed in a single graphical interface,” describes the report. “Hence, it uses a heterogeneity of components to produce a homogeneity of function.”

The report notes that if a mash-up is the way institutions will assemble their own NGDLE, then a “Lego” design may be the best option.

Incorporating a Lego design

A mash-up model can be enabled by populating the landscape with a set of tools and resources that are NGDLE-conformant, explains the report. “This would result in a toolbox of applications, content, and platforms that could be assembled in custom ways.”

Campus tech specialists say a Lego approach could work because of a design specification that ensures the pieces will interlock, while enabling a wide variety of component parts.

The Lego approach, they explain, can enable communities to focus on realizing specific aspects of the NGDLE functionality, interconnected into a single structure. It can also address the key needs for personalization by enabling this function at a variety of levels, from the individual to the institutional.

The report lists a few vendors and solutions currently providing this NGDLE functionality, including LoudCloud.

“In general, LoudCloud, since our inception, has built with the ‘Lego,’ or what we call modular design, in mind. We have always been of the philosophy that ‘one size does not fit all’ and that applies both at the learner and institutional level,” said Greg Harp, LoudCloud’s Chief Marketing Officer to eCampus News.

Harp explained that this philosophy applies to LoudCloud’s modules being self-contained with the ability to move those containers into other platforms or into proprietary systems of institutions.

“Each of our LMS modules, for instance the Discussion Forum or our Quiz engine can be independently integrated with other platforms. In the K-12 arena, JEFFCO school district is a great example of where we have built modules that work with and through other systems they have from a legacy perspective or that they felt met their needs,”  noted Harp. “We offer RESTful services and API’s for our different modules to easily integrate with other systems. I believe this ability to be both modular and self-contained not only sets us apart in the industry, but as this report indicates, put us in line with the future of educational technology.”

“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 work,” say the report’s authors.

For the report’s recommendations on creating an NGDLE-conformant standard or specification, vendors and solutions currently providing NGDLE functionality, as well as what new NGDLE components for the future may entail (smart tools, portfolios, dual enrollment, authoring tools, etc.), read the full report here.

About the Author:

Meris Stansbury is managing editor for eCampus News.