UNC Learning Technology Commons: Easing the procurement problem with NGDLE

I was planning to write a descriptive post about the new UNC Learning Technology Commons, but there is already some excellent coverage. UNC’s Matthew Rascoff wrote a blog post on Medium that captures the basics quite well:

A compelling recent report from EDUCAUSE proposes that the “Next Generation Digital Learning Environment” will be based on a “‘Lego’ approach,” in which “components … allow individuals and institutions the opportunity to construct learning environments tailored to their requirements and goals.” The authors, Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millichap, envision an app-like ecosystem of interoperable ed tech tools, each of which does one thing well, rather than the monolithic collection of functionality that is the learning management system.

Today, with the launch of the UNC Learning Technology Commons, the University of North Carolina system is taking a step in the direction of this more modular, flexible, and learner- and educator-centered approach.

We’re reimagining the way university faculty and staff buy the ed tech they need to help their students learn. Our goal is to empower educators with the best instructional tools available — in the classroom or online.

The UNC Learning Technology Commons is a system-wide effort to curate an annotated catalogue of digital learning products available for accelerated purchase by the 20,000 faculty members of the UNC system, and to build a community of educators who share (anonymized, aggregated) learning outcomes and user experiences with those products.

Upon launch of the commons last week, EdSurge published a very useful summary that hit on the procurement angle in more depth.

The Learning Technology Commons aims to iron out inefficiencies in edtech procurement. Rascoff recalls overhearing faculty from one UNC campus praise one tool, while instructors at another institution said they weren’t allowed to use it because their legal department thought it wasn’t compliant with FERPA.

With the Commons, faculty will be able to select tools that have already been approved by the UNC system. Any software, app, game or edtech provider can apply to join the network. They must agree to a standard set of requirements defined by UNC, which include agreeing to protect student privacy, comply with relevant laws and regulations, and share pricing at different volume levels. The idea is to make the decision-making process for faculty “feel more like downloading an app on your phone and less like doing a giant RFP for an enterprise planning system,” Rascoff says.

Today, the Chronicle described the commons with an emphasis on faculty-driven reviews of the apps.

The idea for the commons came out of a conversation at a summer event that included an associate professor and program director in the program in instructional systems technology at UNC-Charlotte. While talking with Mr. Rascoff and colleagues from other campuses, the professor, Florence Martin, said she realized that there was little communication across the university system about effective instructional technology and a lot of duplication of efforts.
The biggest advantage of the learning-technology commons, Ms. Martin said, is that she will be able to connect with professors in similar disciplines on other campuses and more easily find tools to use in her classroom.

“Colleagues can share experiences with others and learn from them,” she said. “That will be really meaningful.”

Jim Groom jumped in today, comparing the approach in North Carolina with the corporate – state collaboration seen in Virginia.

During my time at OpenVA one of the things I really wanted to see happen was various institutions around the state working together to share technical infrastructure. How could we think about scaling something like Domain of One’s Own for the VCCS? -or share that model with Virginia Tech or Norther Virginia Community College? Even beyond that, how could we rethink sharing machine images of various tools and applications these schools currently use to give all Virginia schools greater access to a diversity of educational technologies. A clearing house for educational technologies that might be inspired by and built on the model of something like AWS. [snip]

In terms of impact. Video conferencing? Really? The program switched up to start providing grants and course redesigns, but even that was crazy. 15 course redesigns in the 2014-2015 academic year at the tune of $500,000, or $33,000 for each course redesign—those are almost MOOC-like costs 🙂 In short, 4VA was an brilliant example of how corporate and state collaborations ultimately become a drain on the taxpayer, and as much as $2 million in infrastructure costs squandered on technology you could reproduce well-enough with virtually free applications like Google Hangouts, Skype, or even appear.in.

All four posts are worth reading for those interested in North Carolina’s approach to empowering faculty-driven learning apps usage and discipline-specific sharing. I’d like to add some notes on two aspects of this effort that bear watching.

How Procurement Processes Favor Big, Established Vendors

In a presentation titled “Fixing the broken edtech procurement system: How the good guys and gals can win” shared with GSV Labs last week, there was an emphasis on the distorted ed tech market. Quoting one vendor:

Several of our sales processes are four years in the making. Our average sales cycle is about eight months to get some of the schools in the district as customers and about 18 months to expand to the whole district. Fellow education entrepreneurs tell us that this is comparatively fast…

Slow sales cycles make things hard for entrepreneurs who need capital to keep operating, and who need to prove to investors that they have created something worth supporting. The typical investor does not understand that, in education, a product could be ‘ hot’ and yet take two years to sell.

The Learning Technology Commons app marketplace approach driven by end-user reviews wants to level the playing field and avoid the problem of only enterprise systems filtering through procurement, separated from what faculty really want to use. Jim Groom’s description of the 4VA multi-million dollar video conferencing is a prime example. The Commons takes a lightweight approach that should make it easy to get apps approved for consistent terms and conditions and do less big-company filtering.

This approach mirrors some of the work at UMassOnline during the Patrick Masson days to implement Needs Identification Framework for Technology Innovation (NIFTI).

How do we foster collaboration and communication around educational technologies such as e-Portfolio, Learning Activity Management Systems (LAMS), and Open Educational Resources (OER)? While UMassOnline has taken on many new technology initiatives in the past, the process in which the technology needs are identified for emerging tools has been missing. A methodology to identify the needs for new technologies was created in the summer of 2010. The Needs Identification Framework for Technology Innovation (NIFTI) or the “volcano” process includes a workflow to fill-in the the missing technology gaps from our campuses and allow for exploration of emerging technologies all while UMassOnline takes on the financial and technological responsibilities.

While NIFTI did not set up a commons or app center approach, it did acknowledge the wide scale usage of learning apps and provide a support structure for many faculty-initiated adoptions of specific tools.

Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE)

As mentioned in the Medium blog, the setup for the commons was described as going in the direction described by the EDUCAUSE NGDLE report. One thing North Carolina is doing is turning the typical LMS-driven procurement approach on its head. When I asked Rascoff how the apps would be pulled together, he said that the primary plan was to set up all accepted apps with Single Sign On (SSO) capabilities. Rascoff described that since the LMS is not where learning occurs for the most part, his team is leaving that decision up to the campuses and focusing their efforts on the learning apps.

I have heard frequent complaints about institutional innovation centers that just promote the known systems such as the LMS, and UNC is pushing a different approach as did UMassOnline. Will this effort get any traction on the UNC campuses? Will faculty both drive higher adoption of various learning applications as well as provide pedagogically-driven user reviews? Will this approach lead to multi-institution discipline-specific networking around the use of ed tech?

It’s obviously too early to tell, but the UNC Learning Technology Commons is worth watching.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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16 Responses to UNC Learning Technology Commons: Easing the procurement problem with NGDLE

  1. Peter Hess says:

    Way back in 2004, Michael, in a post titled “Learning Objects Aren’t Legos” wrote:
    “We want to think that learning objects are legos, i.e., that they can be snapped together in an infinite variety of ways without concern about how one fits with the others. However, anyone who has substantial experience trying to re-use learning objects knows that this is false.”
    He wasn’t talking about the LMS, but his argument applies there too. For as long as I have been aware of something we now know as an LMS, which goes back to at least 2000, people have been talking about the better option of constructing customized Digital Learning Environments out of “best of breed” software. So far it hasn’t worked, and I’ll contend that it never will, except for a small minority of tinkerers who enjoy spending endless hours at their digital workbenches finding and exploring new Lego pieces and ways to make them fit together. When there are well defined matching bumps and depressions (as with LTI extensions) that make it somewhat easier, the modular components are appendages to (and dependent on) a monolithic host. And even then, I know from hard experience, there can be big challenges.

    Much like Microsoft Word, the bloated kludge we love to hate, that slows down our computers with vast complexity that no one uses in its entirety, the LMS will survive and thrive simply because it is easier for (almost) all parties when there’s one solution that – ta a degree at least – meets everyone’s needs. The NGDLE alternative is to hand faculty members a huge box of Lego pieces of all different shapes, for them to paw through to find the ones that work for them. Once they’ve found their cherished bricks, their job is not yet done: they then have to try to put them together into a coherent, attractive, internally consistent structure. And after they’ve done that, to maintain their customized DLE, they’ll of course want to: keep on top of updates to its components, be aware of vendors comings and goings, be on the lookout for newer, better “best of breed” components; trouble shoot their unique customized environment when updates and unanticipated interactions cause the whole structure to fall apart. NGTH.

    By the way, after flogging it mercilessly here, I wonder if it’s time to retire the shopworn Lego analogy. Flower gardens anyone? Scratch baking?

  2. allison390 says:

    Great points, Peter. And I think, like those little indestructible Legos themselves, the analogy still holds up pretty well.

  3. allison390 says:

    Agreed that faculty have way more (and way more important) things to do than serve as deputy Ed Tech directors. However, something like the NGDLE could at least streamline the process of adoption and make more tools available, more easily, for faculty adoption. But you’ll still need qualified ed technologists to curate, educate and anticipate all those ongoing issues you mentioned. The biggest plus, IMO, is to simplify the purchase and approval process. That really is a migraine that needs relief. But this one pill won’t cure all the ills, that’s for sure.

  4. Phil Hill says:

    Peter, you make a great point about legos and unlikely adoption of complete best-of-breed components. But like Fred in the G+ comments, I don’t think that’s what the NGDLE, and by inference UNC, folks are arguing. From the NGDLE report:

    The challenge for the NGDLE is supporting this diversity while retaining the necessary technological coherence. But in this challenge also lies the opportunity. Clearly we need to invent new architectures that support a digital confederation. We need to invent a model for technological coherence for the NGDLE, consisting of standards and core services. Other components will also be necessary, such as new standards, tools, and user experience designs.

    There is more of a search for balance between the gains of enterprise LMS (technological coherence) and the promise of learning apps. Are there some who do call for deconstruction? I’m sure there are, but NGDLE and the UNC LT Commons are seeking balance.

    So the relevant question in 2016 is not the same as 2000. The question is whether a balanced approach with common infrastructure underneath (most likely the LMS supporting standards, with some common toolset) supporting best-of-breed components – and actively supported by ed technologists as Allison notes – will lead to real adoption by faculty. As you note, this ends up being “modular components are appendages to (and dependent on) a monolithic host”. That is the most likely scenario.

    But to get there, support units and ed technologist in general, need to actively support this usage. UNC is attacking the challenge of procurement. UCF is attacking the challenge of support and development of customized integrations where needed. UMassOnline attacked the problem of product lifecycles and service-level agreements dependent on actual usage.

    I’m not sure if UNC’s commons will work (in terms of vendor participation, individual campus funding, faculty usage, and faculty review), but I also don’t see that their approach requires or assumes complete deconstruction into legos with no LMS host.

  5. btopro says:

    Love the lego analogy from a systems construction / cobbled together perspective (and being contrarian to utopia is not a replacement for attempting to strive for it). I think the main thing that’s been missing over the decade(s) is the longevity of legos. Legos, last forever (basically) and when you buy other sets you can mash them together and remix them into new things you never thought of. You, the lego owner, own the legos, all of them, and can do whatever you want and eventually NEED to do with them to create new things.

    In Edtech / LMS land it’s more like going to one of those “Brickland” stores where you don’t actually own the legos, you just get to play with them, and for a limited window of time. Because of this, you and your kids can build neat things, but they are generally small scale because you don’t have enough hours in the day (or money) to keep coming back again and again. LTI fits the Brickland renting legos model nicely, make this cool thing that you’ve wrapped all your cash up in until those companies dissolve or you don’t feel like paying (and lets not get into mixed student data transmission and retention policies that risk management probably can’t sleep over the thought of).

    If we are to actually have learning ecosystems that people construct themselves they have to have enough control and ownership to keep building outside the directions that come with their 1 set, buy another set, and mash them together. With enough lego sets (that they own) and enough time, people will be able to share, and remix complex pedagogy.. err.. I mean, brick creations.

  6. The Lego approach works well with the Lone Ranger approach to courseware development. Aside from the big courses that attract the attention of textbook publishers, there is the Long Tail of courses that the Professional Development Team approach does not address.

    In addition to the textbook publishers, the British Open University is a good example of where the Professional Development Team approach works best.

    Note, however, that the British Open University is far more open to releasing their content under a Creative Commons license than would be the case with say the University of Phoenix or Pearson.

    Perhaps someone should talk to Bernie Sanders about creating a US Open University and mandating that it put its learning content in the public domain!

    Anyway, if you’re interested in The Lone Ranger Approach, The Professional Development Team Approach, and how the British Open University differs from the traditional university in terms of organization structure and faculty roles, check out my blog post at:

    Strategies for Developing and Maintaining Open Educational Resources

    Mintzberg’s Taxonomy of Organizational Forms


  7. Is the Learning Technology Commons app marketplace in competition with the Community App Sharing Architecture (CASA) from UCLA? Here’s the CASA website:


  8. CASA “evolved out of UCLA’s collaboration with IMS Global …”

    “CASA (Community App Sharing Architecture) is a specification from IMS Global Learning Consortium that enables the sharing of curated digital content or learning activities between peers, making it easier to enhance an institution’s LTI Tool learning ecosystem. In addition to sharing and discovery, the value of CASA is that it allows for app filtering based on privacy, accessibility, interoperability, Caliper™ and existing IMS standards to help educators create an effective teaching and learning environment.”

  9. According to the EdSurge article

    UNC Launches ‘App Store’ for Digital Learning Tools

    “The [Learning Technology] Commons is built on the LearnTrials platform, an online edtech management system that allows users to share and review products. “For faculty it feels like TripAdvisor,” says LearnTrials CEO Karl Rectanus. ‘They rate products, ask questions and create portfolios.'”

    So, my question is really whether the LearnTrials platform implements or uses some implementation of the Community App Sharing Architecture specification from IMS Global.

    Perhaps LearnTrials has nothing to do with the CASA spec.

    But, both would seem to be about “enabling the sharing of curated digital content … between peers.”

    LearnTrials, however, seems to focus more on the review of products.

  10. I’ve been in contact with a friend of mine who’s knowledgeable of all things IMS. Our exchange on the NGDLE and CASA may help explain the relationship.

    I’ve have to learn more about the Tsugi App Platform and the CASA App Store.

    Once apps get developed, either they’re distributed under one of the CC licenses, or they have to be acquired (purchased).

    As for the latter, I’ve been reading about UNC’s Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE), the technology learning commons, and the The Needs Identification Framework for Technology Innovation (NIFTI) on e-Literate.

    I’m not sure how many (or if any) software vendors have bought into these ideas, nor do I know if they work with IMS standards. But, easing the procurement problem seems like a good idea.
    They are all related. The UNC and CASA are “stores” (i.e. registries) – Tsugi is a container and set of APIs to make writing Learning apps much easier and make them more consistent from a UI and architecture perspective. And all of them are early steps to truly build the NGDLE.

  11. Phil,

    I’ve consolidated my comments on your article (nice work, btw) in my blog post at:

    Legos for Lone Rangers: A Bottom Up Approach To Courseware Development


  12. Phil Hill says:

    Fred – thanks for consolidation as I think this subject needs more discussion. I’ll either comment or add new blog by tomorrow.

  13. Pingback: UNC Learning Technology Commons: Easing the procurement problem with NGDLE – Alberto Acereda

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