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.


  1. “NGDLE”? Really, I mean, seriously? Took years of training to get a Ph.D. to come up with that one, no doubt.

    Nothing new under the sun. Same old ideas, new jargon attached. Very very old wine in new bottles. Nobody knows anything.

  2. Thanks for highlighting this and for your (as always) excellent observations, Tony.

    I like the general ideas about the architecture – it’s a good if only very slightly incremental update of the e-learning framework of a decade or so ago, and that was a brilliant idea. I think the standards make a bit of sense too: you don’t have to use most of them for this kind of system to work, you don’t have to use them together, and it’s better than the alternatives of Balkanization or closed APIs. Not keen on the Stalinist model of imposing such things, but a few well-agreed standards can go a long way. I also think that this componentized-app-store-widgety-service-ish approach makes it easier (for learners and teachers, not just LMS admins) to build toolsets that conform to human beings rather than the other way round, though I think you are quite right that Lego is a poor simile. It’s more like an Arduino kit. And, of course, I am totally on board with the flexibility to go beyond the walled garden (Elgg has been doing this for over a decade). Also good to build ‘collaboration’ (bad word, good sentiment) from the ground up. There are some good ideas in this report.
    It is let down a bit by being a view from within, so it represents centralizing trends like personalization and analytics on an equal footing with genuinely interesting and transformative underlying shifts in architecture, ownership, social learning and control, and they don’t fit together well. Likewise (despite itself and some of its own ideas) it keeps slipping back to the assumption that all we are doing is making existing educational systems more efficient versions of the ones we grew up with rather than challenging the bedrock assumptions which, if you follow the general line of reasoning through some of it, it pretty much where it mostly wants to go. Maybe that’s a good thing – it is, after all, mostly about flexibility and diversity, and I guess that means Stalinist methods should be supported as well as those that are a bit more open.
    More thoughts on this at posted openly in a closed, walled group discussing where we want to go next at AU. This should be good food for thought.


  3. I agree with both Tony and Jon at a high level. I’m a bit underwhelmed by this article, which reminds me too much of a great one by Jon Mott from 2010, based on work with David Wiley:
    Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network
    QUT also published a model of decreasing areas of technology control that I also found useful: Core, Arranged, Recommended, Recognized:

    I think there are two key things that have been discussed only implicitly in the current context:
    1. There needs to be a mediated dialogue between Learner and Educator that enables the learner to keep control of his/her content, and indeed their environment, for lifelong learning beyond the institution. DS106 does this as a proof of concept, but we need more than RSS…Jon’s list is helpful. I guess this makes me a PLE fanboy.
    2. Recognition that learners have a wide variety of needs and preferences and the framework of engagement should be negotiated. There can then be scaffolding for the learner to take control of their learning in phases, at the institution and beyond. There could then be ways of (self) assessing the skill and the learner’s preferences.
    As an aside, I’m irked that Canada’s Essential Skill of Continuous Learning is not leveled like most of the 8 others – if it were, this could be a scaffolding framework.

    • Thanks, Jon.

      Your ‘few more thoughts’ are exemplary and I recommend anyone interested in the topic of standards for e-learning technologies should read your post. Lessons from the past, indeed.

  4. In the open source software world, there’s a concept (sometimes called the UNIX philosophy) which suggests that complex systems (to meet complex requirements) are best constructed out of an array of single-purpose modules (each focused on doing one job very effectively) that can be combined many ways (like Legos) via well understood and agreed upon means (in the case of Legos, the little dots of a known size and spacing, in the computing world “APIs”).

    The strength of this approach is that individual modules that aren’t up-to-scratch can easily be replaced by other pieces that do the job better (or have adapted to do a slightly different job that’s more closely aligned to the need). Also, others can recombine those same modules in different ways, often in ways that the designers of individual modules or even the APIs through which they connect, never anticipated. That is referred to as permissionless innovation… and it’s something that all learners (and software developers) should be encouraged to do (and should try to enable others to do)…


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