Why Next Generation Digital Learning Environments Are Useful for ICT4D

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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
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