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Why Next Generation Digital Learning Environments Are Useful for ICT4D

By Steve Vosloo on July 11, 2018

Next Generation Digital Learning Environment

I recently participated in the Next Generation Student Success Symposium in Barcelona. The event, hosted by DXtera Institute and the Open University of Catalonia, brought together developers, researchers and innovators seeking to transform the delivery of education and learning impacts in a digital world.

Next Generation Digital Learning Environment

A core input into the envisioning of how teaching and learning could be done better is the 2015 white paper The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE).

Born out of the failures of most learning management systems, the paper, which was developed in consultation with more than 70 thought leaders in the US, proposes five core principles of a NGDLE:

  • Interoperability: supporting integration between different components of the solution.
  • Personalization: moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach common in education.
  • Analytics, advising, and learning assessment: essentially measuring performance and learning for actionable data.
  • Collaboration: supporting working together across time and space.
  • Accessibility and universal design: including everyone in educational opportunities.

Because no single application can deliver in all those domains, the paper’s authors recommend a “Lego” approach to realizing the NGDLE. In this way, individuals and institutions can bolt together components to construct learning environments tailored to their requirements and goals.

It’s an ambitious proposal, which has not yet been realized by any one organisation. It also has its critics, who question the practical feasibility of such a distributed digital learning ecosystem. And yet, the principles are solid and align well with those of good digital development.

Relevance for Developing Countries

While the NGDLE model was developed for US higher education institutions, I think the approach is highly relevant for developing country contexts, and even beyond education.

I have been working in edtech for over 10 years and consistently encountered the same problems when implementing solutions on the ground, such as:

  • The settings are poorly resourced with not much in the way of devices and connectivity.
  • Digital skills are limited amongst teachers and much-needed IT support is low or non-existent.
  • Training, when it happens, is often not enough or not for long enough.
  • Maintenance costs are prohibitively high.

Into such a context we bring learning management systems that are monolithic and all-encompassing. This seems unavoidable as education is complex with many moving parts to capture into one system.

The system mirrors the analogue practice of the teachers and learners, but without benefits that are initially obvious (it may take months or years to begin to reap the rewards of the implementation).

The result is that teachers are often overwhelmed by educational technology, unable to absorb the level of innovation they may bring. It’s not that teachers or learners don’t use technology, they just don’t use learning management systems. There is a disconnect between how people use technology in their personal lives and how we expect them to teach and learn with it. As a result, there is resistance to uptake of ICT4Edu and impact is limited.

Think Different

In this commonly-found context, what if we think differently about the implementation approach. Instead of presenting one system, laden with features and requiring that all the users come to it, can we offer a journey to edtech heaven that starts much smaller and more simple.

Can we deconstruct the features of the learning management system – e.g. registration, assessment, course management – and offer them through a distributed digital ecosystem? The example given at the conference was an assessment module embedded into Slack, whereby the student doesn’t have to log into a learning management systems but stays logged into Slack and takes the test there.

Of course such a modularized approach relies on interoperability, open standards and non-trivial integration exercises, and yet it is entirely feasible.

An Example: Teacher Chatbot

At the event I shared an idea for an educational technology tool to support teachers. In some countries, especially developing ones, many teachers are un-motivated and feel isolated. They are often under-qualified and/or unqualified. As a result they have limited subject knowledge and often lack pedagogical know-how.

The reasons for low teacher motivation are numerous and complex. The UNESCO-IICBA report Teacher Support and Motivation Framework for Africa: Emerging Patterns thus calls for holistic responses and school-based support frameworks that develop pedagogical knowledge, classroom management skills and reduce feelings of isolation.

In 2013 I led a project in Nigeria that provided pedagogical and subject content knowledge to primary school teachers via mobile. The results were very encouraging and the pilot teachers clearly benefited from the just-in-time pedagogical tips.

Back then we used Nokia Life to deliver content, but the platform was since shut down. Today we have chatbots embedded in widely used messaging platforms, such as Facebook Messenger or WeChat. This approach already supports the distributed ecosystem of the NGDLE. We know that teachers use messenger apps in their daily lives and have had virtual mentoring through the platforms.

Based on the findings in Nigeria from five years ago, the proposal I shared is to deconstruct the standard learning management system into just the core modules that support teachers, and present them in a way that matches the digital lives of teachers – starting through messenger apps.

The initial focus could be on increasing motivation through pedagogical and community support. A teacher support chatbot could be used for light-touch, daily engagements that provide just-in-time:

  • Pedagogical support;
  • Motivational messages;
  • Community messaging and peer-to-peer communication and sharing; and
  • Administrative broadcasts.

I think the value of a distributed approach lies in its ability to meet users where they are, digitally-speaking. It can bridge the divide in the peoples’ personal and professional use of technology. For too long we have tried to fit people to the system, based on their analogue practices, and not paid enough attention to their digital lives.

A granular approach also means that a solution can easily start with core features and mature and enrich over time, growing with the digital capabilities of the user, and offering a scaffolded learning journey.

Today a chatbot user, in the future a power user of a learning management system. Same background system, different interface and features, unlocked over time.

Looking Ahead

The underlying philosophy of a next generation approach is applicable to other ICT4D sectors and could certainly lead to more connected, usable and cross-functional solutions that meet user where they are instead of require them to shape-shift into monolithic systems. It is a useful model to frame our thinking of solution development over time.

Hopefully we can be inspired by the education sector and develop next generation environments for health, agriculture, humanitarian support, and more.

Image: CC Ryan Adams

Filed Under: Education
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Written by
Steve Vosloo is passionate about using technology in education. He's worked at UNESCO, Pearson South Africa, Stanford University, and the Shuttleworth Foundation on the use of mobile phones for literacy development, how technology can better serve low-skilled users, and the role of digital media for youth. All opinions expressed in this post are his own.
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5 Comments to “Why Next Generation Digital Learning Environments Are Useful for ICT4D”

  1. I don’t think it’s impossible to achieve all the 5 models, we are able to comfortably address all the models you raise with our e learning platform skooldesk (tryskooldesk.com) an online learning assessment that aims to improve test scores of kids at primary level. Interoperability: supporting integration between different components of the solution.
    Personalization: The platform is self paced, with users able to personalize their learning through a dashboard
    Analytics: Parents / Teachers are able to see strong and weak points of a child
    Collaboration: This is multi faceted, one method the platform enables collaboration is through chat rooms where students can interact on 3 thematic areas, English, Science and Math.
    Accessibility and universal design: Platform is accessible to users with disabilities and can be translated to other languages, though this feature has not been implemented yet but it exists.

  2. Ed Gaible says:

    Great post, thanks for it! I especially love the possibility of distributing LMS functions among a range of social tools (e.g., Slack) that are already in use. That’s terrific.

    I’m a bit skeptical about personalization and related approaches, however, especially in the contexts that you describe (low teacher capacity, low infrastructure). Current leaders in personalization, such as Summit Learning, AltSchool, emphasize and provide the intensive involvement of teachers as facilitators of students’ individualized approaches. At some point–I tend to think in about 10 years–AI will be able to provide a good deal of this facilitation in the form of adaptive learning. However at present the processing power available to handle multiple requests isn’t available. (See the NY Times on surveillance and AI in China, which is reporting lag-times of _weeks_ for facial recognition of jaywalkers — https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/08/business/china-surveillance-technology.html ). While internet connectivity in currently low infrastructure environments might rise to meet demand by the time that AI services are prepared to address students’ needs for personalization, current approaches require large number of devices (1:1?) with high levels of connectivity so as to enable students and teachers to shift among a selection of resources and pathways of exploration. Such infrastructure resources are only available in a few areas and schools and, again, require high engagement and high levels of skill on the part of teachers.

    (“And another thing…”) While personalization is currently very popular, it complicates the requirement that education systems provide measurable results so as to enable better allocation of scarce resources (e.g., higher ed enrollment) and better decision making. Assessment via pre-designed tests (even a test provided via Slack) is likely to be inaccurate.

    As mentioned, I really (really) like the idea of a distributed, social, cluster of LMS functions; EduTrac in Uganda, creating instant EMIS via SMS, could perhaps be taken as an example of one component of potentially distributed LMS functions, and has the virtue of remaining as simple to devekio and use as possible. Something along the lines of the distributed system you describe is worthy of immediate development (IMHO) but is perhaps best kept separate from some of the complicating and perhaps transient interests that interfere with getting such tools built and fielded.

  3. Ehud Gelb says:

    LIKE.
    An additional enriching concept would be expanding the “classroom” to include e.g. a greenhouse. The “teachers” would include “farmers”,
    Production related specialists, scientists and even students. This combination has proven results in rural areas – for the system, community involvement and economic benefits.

  4. I’m curious about whether a service-based model may, in some circumstances, be preferable to a lego-type approach for edtech. Wrote a short post a few years back: https://www.techchange.org/2014/08/12/edtech-as-service/

  5. Thanks for all the comments.

    Certainly getting this right will not be easy, and perhaps the concept is the real value add. Getting developers and funders to think in a more modularised way will be very powerful for innovation.

    @Christopher, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. In other words, you could have a lego-type approach based on some SAAS blocks and some custom in-house built blocks.