educationtechnologyinsights

Building a Digital Learning Environment

By Jack Suess, VP of IT and CIO, University of Maryland Baltimore County

As a new year approaches, I was asked to write an article on the state of the Learning Management System (LMS). Since the request, I attended three meetings during which various LMS issues came up: the IMSglobal quarterly meeting, the Georgia Tech Scalable Advanced Learning Environment meeting, and the IMSglobal Board meeting. Each of these meetings gave me new insight into how the LMS, and instructional tools and content, will evolve over the next few years.

Before jumping into 2019, I want to go back to 2015, when Malcolm Brown and colleagues released their report, The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: A Report on Research. This report identified the five key elements of future digital learning environments, these are:

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

These five elements provide the basis for building a digital learning environment that give learners and instructors choice in the tools they use and provide a data rich environment in which to understand how instructors can best personalize learning for each student. When the NGDLE was defined in 2015 we had a sense of what would be needed, but not necessarily how we would get there. As we enter 2019, I am much more optimistic that significant progress is being made and the roadmap my institution can pursue for creating a digital learning environment is taking shape.

"The LMS remains a critical part of our instructional technology portfolio, but can’t do everything needed to create a digital learning environment"

The first step, interoperability and integration, saw great strides in 2018. In late 2017, IMSglobal announced a new effort, named LTI-Advantage. Throughout 2018, the LTI-Advantage working group created a standard that allowed tools and content to be highly integrated and for sharing information between the LMS and various tools. In mid-November, at the IMSglobal quarterly meeting in Georgia, I watched as Blackboard, Canvas, Desire2Learn, and Sakai demonstrated their support for LTI-advantage across a variety of 3rd-party products. With LTI-advantage, a tool or content vendor can fully integrate their product with any LMS that supports LTI-Advantage without needing coding changes! Both groups of developers, LMS and 3rd-party tools and content providers, praised the new standard as a breakthrough in integration and interoperability.

The second step is personalization. Here, I have been very impressed with the results from adaptive learning projects. In early 2018, an IMS workgroup released an excellent resource titled, From Adaptive to Adaptable: The Next Generation for Personalized Learning. This resource highlights the state of the field and is a great introduction. Another key resource is the Association of Public Land-Grant University’s (APLU) website, Personalize Learning With Adaptive Courseware, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. My own campus is working closely with McGraw Hill and the Aleks software to support math placement and help students improve their math skills. The Georgia Tech meeting focused on scalable learning and their early efforts using machine learning to scale, support and personalize answers to questions. Personalization is an area that every campus should be watching because it will differentiate products and offer new opportunities to improve learning outcomes.

The third step is analytics, especially learning analytics, using data to improve student learning or faculty pedagogy. In 2018, we saw some very tangible progress regarding learning analytics. In January 2018, IMSglobal updated the Caliper analytics standard to version 1.1, which allows more flexibility in providing and analyzing event data. Canvas was the first to support the updated standard and Blackboard also was certified in November, 2018. In September, Unizin, a consortium of higher education institutions making financial contributions to scale learning, launched the Unizin Data Platform and released a data model that integrates learning analytics and traditional student information system (SIS) data. This is the first step for members of their consortium to collaborate on using data to improve learning and pedagogy. My institution is working closely with Blackboard and Vital Source to leverage data from electronic course materials with LMS data to help identify at-risk students. In 2019, I expect to see a number of institutions using real-time learning analytic data to support students.

The fourth step is accessibility. In the summer of 2018, while attending the EUNIS conference in Europe, I listened to a keynote by Nicolaas Matthijs, developer of Ally, a tool for improving accessibility, especially in the LMS. This is talk highlighted the fact that while the software for LMS systems adheres to accessibility standards, some of the content put into these systems is often not accessible due to the way we create content through multi-media or pdf. Nicolaas showed how improved accessibility also improved content for all learners and encouraged the audience to recognize that improving accessibility in materials is not just a legal requirement, but a way to make learning materials better for all students. In addition, Nicolaas showed that while institutions are more concerned with accessibility today, the percentage of content today that is highly accessible across LMS systems averages about 40 percent. My institution has gotten access to Ally through our Blackboard license and we are now working to identify how we can use this to develop a comprehensive plan to improve content in our LMS. Ally, while owned by Blackboard, is also available for Canvas and Moodle. I believe this issue is one that all campuses should begin planning for and is essential to meet the universal design goals of the NGDLE.

In conclusion, as we enter 2019, I am excited by the progress being made towards the NGDLE vision. The LMS remains a critical part of our instructional technology portfolio, but can’t do everything needed to create a digital learning environment. Campuses can advance the work of teaching and learning through the NGDLE in a few simple ways:

1. Follow and participate in IMSglobal activities or engage with EDUCAUSE ELI;

2. In you are purchasing an LMS or adding tools and content, require that the vendor be certified through IMSglobal. In particular, verify that the vendor is working to support the LTI-Advantage and Caliper 1.1 standards;

3. Explore the use of adaptive learning by following the work being done through the APLU initiative; and

4. Make universal design and accessibility a key element in your faculty training programs and incorporate this into your teaching and learning plan.

Through these efforts, campuses will be creating digital learning environments that enable the LMS and best support student learning and faculty pedagogical innovation.

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