Multinational Perspectives on Next Generation Digital Learning Environments

Digital Learning EnvironmentsOver the past fifteen years, the Learning Management System (LMS) has become almost universal in higher education seeing unprecedented adoption rates. Estimates of institutions running an LMS are almost always near 99%. In teaching and learning, which are enterprises defined by individualism, this close to universal take-up is stunning – in the past few years, no other academic application has achieved anywhere near as close an adoption rate. This is not surprising: through LMS systems and products, institutions are able to control and measure the benefits of eLearning by offering a single system for supporting the rudimentary functions of online education.


With the growth of desire to make education more flexible and personal, the LMS is changing. The need to provide education which matches the learning needs of individual students is driving change. In today’s market, both teachers and students expect to be able to choose the tools they themselves define as being the right ones for their needs. This need for flexibility is placing heightened demands on the future digital learning environment of the institution.


Thus at this year’s OEB, which takes place in Berlin this December, a session entitled ‘Multinational Perspectives on Next-generation Digital Learning Environments’ will take place. In this session, leading edtech experts from different countries will present several challenges that have to be faced. Through discussion and debate with the audience, common ground will be identified from a multinational perspective, helping push forward necessary agendas for change.


One of these change agendas is the growing consensus for the need for what is known as the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE). As Francesc Santanach, who is in charge of the eLearning laboratory at the eLearn Center, the e-learning research and innovation center of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and a speaker at the session, notes:


“My institution came to light as an online-only university in 1995. At the time, we had to develop our own learning environment because no products were available to cover our needs. Today, the problem of addressing new needs is still there, but the solution is radically different: It is no longer about developing, but about how to pull together the tremendous number of available products, as well as those that are emerging every day. NGDLE stands for an ecosystem of tools, services, and platforms and the way they should interoperate to support learning methodologies and educational needs.”


Further insights will be provided by Jeff Merriman, Associate Director, SEI Office of Digital Learning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he leads activities to help enhance teaching and learning at the Institute through new and innovative uses of information technology. For Merriman, the entire educational establishment needs to see a fundamental shift:


“Next Generation Digital Learning Environments (NGDLE) require a new generation of digitallearning infrastructure. The “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning systems, or any system in higher education for that matter, is no longer viable. We as an industry must completely re-think how the systems of education can be delivered to support innovative and evolving learning methodologies as well as  rapidly advancing technology and products.”


These comments make clear that with the extensive reach of the Internet and digital literacy, voices are increasingly proposing what might be termed a ‘modular approach’ to the digital learning environment. Calls are growing for a sort of ‘education ecosystem’ in which multifaceted educational functions, like assessment, accreditation, personalization, and analytics are considered separately. The NGDLE’s conundrum is to support this multiplicity whilst maintaining technological cohesion – yet herein veness. But in this challenge also lies opportunity.


Another speaker at the session is Marieke de Wit, Community Manager of Educational Services at SURFnet, the collaborative ICT organisation for Dutch education and research. For Marieke, this modular approach requires deep thinking and hard work:


“Many institutions strive to provide  education that matches the learning needs of each individual student. This places high demands on the institution’s digital learning environment (DLE). There is no single system that meets all the needs and requirements of every student and  lecturer, which is why a modular approach seems the obvious choice.  However, implementing a modular approach is easier said than done.”


Marieke adds that in 2016, SURFnet translated its modular approach into a functional one, separating the educational process into thirteen components:


“By doing this, “SURFnet created a frame of reference for institutions that helps them with the development of their own digital learning environment. To gain hands-on experience with a modular learning environment, we developed a “demo-DLE”, based on a functional model that demonstrates the possibilities of a modular DLE for education.”


These remarks indicate that just a scratch below the surface of even apparently stable and established digital practices reveals that they, too, are subject to uncertainty, flux, and the demand for change. The OEB session will delve into how this flux can become a positive force, helping participants find ways to deal with uncertainty and adapt to these changes. The controversies will also serve as a polestar for this year’s OEB in a broader sense, address the advice advanced by the NGDLE’s advocates: to learn from uncertainty and perceive opportunity in the challenges confronting the world of eLearning.


Photo Credits:  Brandon Dill “Smart Board” under the following CC License

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