Breaking Down the Digital Learning Environment and NGDLE

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If you’re a leader or an educator at an academic institution, you’re already well acquainted with the many benefits of digital learning:

  • It offers students a way to be more engaged as active participants in their own journey, promoting confidence and motivation — while also strengthening the all-important skill of digital literacy.
  • It gives faculty a way to work more efficiently, focusing on high-impact activities and less on administrative chores.
  • The expanded access to learning resources supports a more diverse group of learners — an important goal for any institution.

Of course, “digital learning” can mean very different things to different institutions. It’s a broad term, covering a multitude of applications, with continuously evolving opportunities as well as challenges.

As the higher ed community looks ahead to the future of digital learning, a much more detailed picture emerges.

Over the past couple of years, higher ed thought leaders have developed a vision of the next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE), a highly customizable and adaptable ecosystem of digital tools to support both students and faculty.

Here, I’d like to examine the changing paradigm for digital learning; the pros and cons of the NGDLE; and how a custom learning experience (CLE) can help bridge the gap to offer the best of both worlds.

Why move from system to ecosystem

Throughout the early twenty-first century, the learning management system (LMS) played a key role in enhancing the learning experience for educators and students alike.

Represented by primary players such as Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle, as well as Sakai, eCollege, and Desire2Learn (D2L), these online platforms saw a wide and enthusiastic level of adoption across all institutions of higher learning.

By 2014, 99% of institutions had adopted an LMS.

A series of 2013 and 2014 surveys conducted by EDUCAUSE and ECAR reported high rates of satisfaction with these systems, with 74% of faculty calling the LMS “a very useful tool for enhancing teaching.”

In these surveys, a majority of students reported satisfaction with their institution’s LMS and expressed a desire to see it used in more of their courses.

However, students also found some areas for improvement, particularly with regards to:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Engagement
  • Personalization
  • Accessibility from a mobile device

These gaps between the LMS offering at the time and the student-driven vision of what it could be were understandable.

While these systems have continued to improve and expand, adding features and enhancing usability, they are still based on the same core paradigm. Some have been in use for longer than today’s entering college freshmen have been alive.

To keep pace with a rapidly changing pedagogical landscape — and fully prepare students for the digital world — institutions must continue to change, grow, and adapt. 

This means not just improving digital learning but fully rethinking it.

A post-LMS world won’t just reflect the technological innovations of the past decade, it will also model the shift in pedagogical approaches, with a contemporary classroom that is more student-centered and learner-oriented.

In 2015, EDUCAUSE and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched an inquiry into what, exactly, this next generation learning system might look like. Bringing together the wisdom and expertise of more than seventy thought leaders in the field, the result is an exciting vision for the next generation digital learning environment (referred to by the winning acronym NGDLE).

The difference between an LMS and a digital learning environment (DLE)

The LMS is “one size fits all,” a single central application with multiple features and uses.

Conversely, the digital learning environment is an ecosystem.

It is described as a loose network of various components, designed to work together — “a confederation of IT systems and application components that adhere to common standards, both technical and otherwise, that would enable diversity while fostering coherence.” Or, “a dynamic, interconnected, ever-evolving community of learners, instructors, tools, and content.”

The LMS could continue to be one part of this broader ecosystem; the NGDLE doesn’t so much replace the LMS as supplement it, creating a context.

The EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) proposes a so-called “Lego approach,” a set of interchangeable but seamlessly integrating pieces, with the final structure defined by both the institution and the user.

As an EDUCAUSE report states:

“The core insight from the NGDLE research is that learners and instructors must have the ability to shape and customize their learning environments to support their needs and objectives. By espousing a component-based architecture based on standards and best practices, the NGDLE encourages exploration of new approaches and the development of new tools.”

Five core aspects of next generation digital learning environments (NGDLE)

What puts the “next generation” in NGDLE model?

To offer a true paradigm shift, the NGDLE must express these five core aspects:

1. Interoperability and Integration

For the ecosystem to function successfully, all potential components should have full integration capabilities. The tools need to talk to each other. Content formats should be standardized.

2. PersonalizationNGDLE Model

When disparate components are operating in seamless cooperation, the student experiences the result as a dynamic personalization. The DLE should be customizable to the learner’s needs, adaptable to their academic focus, and responsive to their individual learning style.  

3. Analytics, Advising, and Learning Assessment

The NGDLE should include robust tools to acquire, assess, and analyze valuable data on learning approaches and outcomes. Used productively, this information will provide dividends to both individual learners (giving students more tools to track and improve their own performance) and the institution as a whole (measuring impact and outcomes of various pedagogical approaches).

4. Collaboration

Students rate tools for collaboration as one of their top priorities. Classrooms are also moving toward collaborative problem solving as a crucial exercise. The NGDLE should provide mechanisms for seamless collaboration across a variety of tools and platforms, promoting cooperation both within the institution and beyond it.   

5. Accessibility and Universal Design

For the NGDLE, accessibility won’t be an add-on or an afterthought but a central aim. “Universal design” means rethinking all tools to make them accessible to the greatest number of people, supporting a broader population of both students and instructors.

Drawing on these core design principles to build individual components, the options for customization and personalization are endless. Which brings us back to the Lego analogy; as institutions, as instructors, as students, the NGDLE will challenge us to take on the role of individual architects.

Malcom Brown writes, “The shift to component-based architecture gives us — the members of the higher ed community — an unprecedented opportunity to shape, rethink, plan, and design our digital learning environments in a way that we haven’t had since the advent of the LMS.”

A Custom Learning Experience offers potential solutions to NGDLE's downsides

The NGDLE offers an exciting vision for an educational experience that better serves to engage and empower the learner at its core.

However, executing the NGDLE model is not without its challenges. EDUCAUSE sums up some of the potential obstacles like this:

“Building the NGDLE — including addressing the diverse needs of colleges and universities — presents a formidable challenge. Participation is needed from a wide range of institutional and vendor entities, who will need to cooperate in novel ways.…Meanwhile, removing some of the limitations on which tools can be plugged in to a learning environment could leave students and other users with a bewildering abundance of choice.”

What Is a Custom Learning Experience?

The custom learning experience begins with an underlying toolkit, composed of a broad compilation of both outside tools (today’s LMS offerings might be just one of these) and the institution’s own high-tech tools and build-outs.

But the toolkit is only the beginning.

Custom Learning Experiences

The learner experiences deploy the toolkit through a custom-built interface that is designed around the specific needs, goals, and personality of the institution:

  • Its chosen pedagogical approaches and strategies
  • The key differentiators of the institution
  • The desired learner experience
The custom learning experience offers an elegant, efficient solution that embodies the vision of the NGDLE while providing a coherent and seamless experience for students.

Building a custom learning experience takes considerable organizational will and upfront funding; it also demands unified effort from many departments.

A custom learning experience vendor is often able to deliver the solution more readily, evading internal turf wars to keep the mission moving forward.

One thing is clear: The NGDLE is not an off-the-shelf, turnkey solution. Both the rewards and the challenges it offers stem from the same source — its customizability. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Keep Learning

When Online Learning Needs to be Differentiated, Pedagogy-Driven, and Deliver a Great Learning Experience

At the 2018 Eduventures Summit, a panel of representatives from Harvard Business School (HBX), ArtCenter College of Design, and Moravian College discussed these three topics and how they influenced their online learning experiences.


Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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