Designing a next generation digital learning environment for higher education

Designing a next generation digital learning environment for higher education

September 11, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski


Today I’m going to talk about how to create
next generation digital learning environments. I’ll talk about features that make a true
next generation learning environment as opposed to a management environment and I’ll talk
about the theoretical underpinnings for genuine digital learning environments. All of this
will be in the context university education ranging from vocational education programs
to post graduate programs. The interest generated by instructivist Massive
Open Online Courses over the last five years has finally galvanised universities into action.
We have an opportunity to bring together over twenty years of experience in digital learning
and teaching informed by research and practice. New technologies, new approaches to learning
and new methods of designing and developing learning can all be applied to help us create
new and better possibilities for learning and teaching in higher education. I will talk
now about some of the thinking  that we need to accommodate. I’ll start with theories
of learning. There are lots of theories about how we learn
as children and as adults. Some of these have long tradition based in face to face models
of education and traditional, print based distance education models. Others are newer
and take advantage of affordances offered by new digital technologies. In fact, there
are many ways in which learning can occur in higher education and that approaches to
learning are, inevitably driven by discipline, level, learner maturity, teacher experience
and a host of other factors. Modern digital learning environments need
to be able to accommodate multiple approaches to learning ranging from highly constructivist
models of learning through to more social methods such as social constructivism, connectivism,
rhizomatic learning or other social learning approaches. They need to also offer opportunities
for maker based pedagogies that allow for creation, sharing and curation of learning
between groups of learners. If we want to build a true next generation
digital learning environment what we need to be able to do is to apply these learning
approaches within broader contexts. I see two complementary contexts within which learning
strategies can be adopted. The first of these is the pedagogy, andragogy,
heutagogy (PAH) continuum originally conceptualised by the Australian researchers Hase, Stewart
and Kenyon in 2013. This can also be thought of as student focused learning, student centred
learning and self determined learning. Or, in other words, “how do we get a student
to learn?”, “how do we get a student to self direct their learning?” and “how
do we get a student to self determine what they want to learn and choose how to do it?”. Our current focus is very much on pedagogy
but if we want to create life-long learners and learners that will keep  coming back
to us as learning partners in the future then we need to pay much more attention to andragogy
and heutagogy. Ironically, we actually probably do more of these than we think already. We
just don’t observe that we do them. What we need are digital environments that will
encourage us to focus on andragogy and heutagogy and not just pedagogy. The second context is in communities. When
we start to talk in terms of social learning, connectivism, rhizomatic learning, creation,
sharing and curation then we inevitably start to think of social groups. This leads us to
think about communities of inquiry and communities of practice. In particular Etienne Wenger’s
work allows us to locate other opportunities for learning within the context of communities
of practice. In his follow up work with Nancy White and
John D. Smith, Wenger focuses on theories of communities of practice  in what they
term digital habitats. These ideas provides us with concrete examples of what a true digital
learning environment might look like. For Wenger, Rice and Smith “Just as a natural
habitat reflects the learning of the species, a digital habitat is not just a configuration
of technologies, but a dynamic, mutually defining relationship that depends on the learning
of the community. It reflects the practices that members have developed to take advantage
of the technology available and this experience this technology as a “place” for the community.
A digital habitat is first and foremost an experience of place enabled by technology” They consider all aspects of digital habitats
but I will highlight one of the key distinctions that they make; that is the distinction between
the integration of habitat features as being through the platform, through interoperability,
through the use of integration tools or through practice. In platform integration the platform contains
everything that is needed for the community. Tool interoperability allows us to use tools
from different systems that communicate using APIs. Integration tools such as Zapier and
If This Then That allow us to construct integrations between tools. Finally integration through
practice relies on common practices such as naming conventions and hashtags to create
linkages between tools. In my view the expectation that a single platform
can contain all of the functionality required is misguided and, whilst practice based integrations
can work well with very experienced and highly digitally literate learners, the optimal approach
is to use interoperability and/or integration tools to create rich habitats from distributed
tools whilst retaining a clear identity. The development of these sorts of digital
habitats for learning should be the basis for  creating genuine next generation learning
environments. So if we use digital habitats as the foundation
for a genuine digital learning environment then what might that look like? What are the
common features? How are they organised? I’ll start by looking at the scope of digital
habitats in terms of their potential distribution through an institution. Then I’ll discuss
some of the key design principles that we’ve developed over the last two years as we’ve
created digital habitats for learning. Finally I’ll talk about some of the key functionality
that might be included in a digital habitat. Digital Habitats as environments are based
on ideas about communities of practice or communities of inquiry. As such they need
to have a domain focus. This domain focus may coincide with an area of study, a discipline,
a program of study. They may be driven from within a single School or Department or across
several schools. For example a School may have three digital habitats that focus property,
construction management and project management. There may also be digital habitats where the
domain is a research approach such as creative practice research where the learners across
several schools and programs may form a community. A key feature of digital habitats is that
they will often cross organisational boundaries; both internal boundaries and external boundaries.
Incidentally, the ability to form relationships across internal boundaries is a key factor
in diffusing innovations across an organisation. Crossing external boundaries is also critical.
Universities are porous organisations that do not have hard edges. We have part time
students, part time staff members, we have collaborations with other institutions, with
government and the community. We have a unique role in creating knowledge (which we do quite
well) and disseminating knowledge (which, in my opinion, we could be much better at). All of this means that we need to provide
ways and means of working, sharing and collaborating learners both inside and outside of the institution.
You can see this in the diagram. The end result is that we will have many digital
habitats that will interact within and between organisational units and outside of the organisation.
Our systems need to be capable of managing this. This leads us onto the design principles for
digital habitats. We have developed seven guiding design principles for digital habitats. Above all is Learner Experience. Everything
else falls second to this. By Learner Experience I mean the ability for a learner (and by learner
I mean all users of the environment including experts) to use the digital environment effectively,
easily and enjoyably. This requires careful consideration of all interactions between
a learner and the environment including including interactions with learning material and other
learners. By using principles of User Experience Design, Universal Design and Usability Design
we should be able to create learning environments where the technology becomes seamless and
‘just works’. Then, in order of importance, I see agency
first in terms of learner control. By agency I mean the ability for a learner to act within
a system. Current learning environments often restrict the ability for learners or learning
facilitators to control their environment or to create within the environment. A next
generation digital learning environment would offer much higher levels of agency to users. The next is social first – in terms of learner
interactions. This does not preclude learning opportunities based on individual study but
it does mean that the environment will encourage social interactions both within designed learning
spaces and within a wider social habitat that can encourage informal social learning and
the self organizing groups encouraged by rhizomatic learning. The environment would be flexible first – in
terms of content. By this I mean that it would include powerful and yet simple content builders
available to all users that can easily display content of all types from inside and outside
including collaboratively developed content. This does not preclude the use of templates
it merely means that templates should be used for quickly creating new content based on
a design pattern rather than as a restriction on user agency. In terms of access and integration learning
environments should be open first. I strongly believe in the benefits to the institution,
the subject matter expert, the learner and the wider community of open content and open
environments. A next generation digital learning environment should encourage this approach.
This does not mean that everything has to be open and there should be opportunities
to restrict access selected components where appropriate.
With regard to integration, the next generation digital learning environment should use open
standards for communicating , embedding, sharing and authenticating learners and learning objects. I also believe that these environments should
be built on open source software. As is common with any modern digital system;
a next generation learning environment should take a mobile first approach in terms of delivery.
That is to say it should work completely on a standards compliant modern web browser in
a mobile device. Needless to say, it should render well on other devices as well. Finally it should go without saying that any
new digital learning environment should take a standards first approach in terms of its
underlying technology. Now let’s look at the key functionality
that we need. I’ve split these into designed spaces and informal spaces. There several types of designed spaces within
 a digital habitat. The first of these are what we might call course spaces. These are spaces that have been created within
the environment that allow for structured and semi structured learning to take place.
For example these would range from highly instructivist, set and forget self paced courseware
with minimal expert involvement through to structured social constructivist and connectivist
courses. These might be operated on a periodic, course
offering basis but a far better way to do this is to provide a continuing course space
around which a network can form. These ideas are best described by David Wiley and Jon
Mott in their work on open learning (Mott and Wiley, 2013). The first of these diagrams
shows the effect of recreating time boxed courses on the learner network for an individual
course and the cumulative effect over several semesters. The second diagram overlays the cumulative
effect of a growing learner network. This might be for one course or for a program. The second kind of designed space in a digital
habitat is learner’s own space. This is a space that they can control. It can be used
for personal reflection, as a showcase of achievements, as a place for evidence of learning,
as a central node for their personal network or as a location for assessment artefacts.
The learner space may be wholly within the system or it may be an external space that
is accessed through the habitat either through embedding or linking. Regardless, the learner
has full control over their learner space and the data that it contains. A lot of thinking
has already been carried out regarding the use of this type of space. Particularly notable
is the domain on one’s own initiative originally developed by Jim Groom at the University of
Mary Washington. This allows all students to have their own web space, including their
own domain name. It assists students develop their online identity, allows them user agency
and develops digital literacy. The third kind of designed space is one that
aggregates artefacts relevant to the domain or discipline focus of the digital habitat.
These can be generated by members of the community, by guests or be external objects that are
open and of high value. This sort of space grows over time and can be used to initiate
discussions, thoughts and connections. They also form a resource from which other designed
spaces can either contribute or extract. Needless to say there is little point in this sort
of space being closed to non members. Informal spaces through the habitat are primarily
formed around a social networking layer. This provides opportunities to develop a personal
learning network within the habitat. It follows the common features of external social networks
including the ability to follow or friend other learners, form private or public groups
around a special interest and, of course, to allow for learners to communicate with
each other. The social network layer within a digital
habitat can (and probably should) incorporate external social networks such as Facebook,
Twitter, Instagram, GitHub etc. The main purposes of a digital habitat social layer lie in the
opportunities for the discovery of other learners and the ability to initiate collaboration
through shared resources. There are some other important features of
digital habitats that should be mentioned. These include the ability to share and curate
artefacts and the ability to create and schedule both place based events and scheduled events.
Digital habitats can integrate with applications like Eventbrite and MeetUp to allow for face
to face events. They can also be used with scheduled webinars and video conferences.
In one recent example we included the ability to initiate a video conference via Skype or
Google Hangout from any page. Putting it all together we get something that
looks a bit like this diagram. All of this may sound great but there are
many challenges. Whilst the costs of creating the underlying technical solutions for digital
habitats are relatively small; the time and effort required to steward a community of
practice and grow that community is not inconsiderable. Institutions need to be aware of this when
supporting the creation and development of digital habitats. They also need to articulate
the desire to create these forms of environments as part of a coherent, meaningful and realistic
strategy for digital learning in higher education. Reward mechanisms need to be developed that
align with the strategy and support needs to be provided to learners of all types. Expert learners (subject matter experts) need
to be prepared to work collegially with other experts in the field of digital learning.
More positively, it is clearly possible to develop digital habitats that initially focus
on just one aspect of the habitat (typically artefacts or learner spaces) and other features
and components can be included over time. This diagram shows such an evolution.
It may well be the case that digital habitats are initially focused on postgraduate education
where learners are more experienced in learning, have higher levels of intrinsic motivation
and, perhaps, more clearly value a network of learners. Ideally, over time, digital habitats can form
a space which learners will move in and out of during their lifetime. The cross institutional
boundaries of digital habitats will encourage lifelong learning. They can also form the
basis for inter institution collaboration and for work with the wider community.