Some more thoughts on the NGDLE, for what it’s worth

There’s been a flurry of activity in the last few weeks around the NGDLE a.k.a. the acronym that won’t die. The current issue of EduCause Review is dedicated to it, and Brian Lamb and Jim Groom ride again together with their recent blog posts. I scribbled up some small thoughts of my own in June prompted by a JISC session that I was following online and since then I’ve had a little time to reflect on this new material, as well as several good conversations with people on and offline.

The more I read, the more convinced I am that this NGDLE tale is the Emperor’s New Clothes over again. “Zen like emptiness” anyone? And Jim and Brian’s blog posts both accurately identify what risks being stolen away from us (clue: data). A colleague reminded me of the inevitability of the hype cycle and we are probably at the zenith with this particular one, about to plummet down the slope. Whilst VLE vendors double down on their current positions, and everyone else discovers that this is harder than they thought, I want to expand out on a little of my own thinking under some loosely connected headings for future posterity. We can all laugh together later…

My own concerns are that this current vision for an NGDLE is fundamentally limited in scope and vision. That sounds quite strong, but I’m sticking with it. Until I change my mind.

Absence of student voices

“As part of this research effort, EDUCAUSE conducted a series of conversations with experts to gain insight into the limitations of the current tools and seek ideas for shaping new learning environments. In seven such discussions, we spoke with more than 70 educators, campus-based technologists, and developers from the private sector. Specific voices from the conversations are found in quotes throughout this paper” (1)

This vision for next generation learning environments has from all that I can see, been conceived of by people who are probably at least one generation away from the students of today, talking about what the students of a future generation might encounter. We are all kidding ourselves if we think that our understanding of what it is to be a student today is in any way authentic. Although the report draws upon ECAR research that includes student survey data, no students appear to have been in any of the blue-skies conversational spaces. I hear a fair amount of concern about the extent to which meeting student satisfaction targets is driving the agenda on our campuses, but to exclude students from the conversation entirely introduces a heavy bias from the outset. If the intention of this vision is to provide a more learner-centred environment then the voice of the majority group of learners needs to be incorporated. We need to admit students into the conversation about the development of learning technology (and technology more generally) on our campuses. Far too often we speak for our students instead of giving them a platform to speak for themselves.

Last September I started a major project, with a huge procurement component and we made the decision to include a student on the procurement team. I don’t mean we let some students score the supplier demos (we did that too), I mean that we had a student sitting at the negotiating table along with our senior team, meeting and quizzing each of the suppliers on equal terms. We didn’t always agree with her perspective, she didn’t always agree with ours and there were compromises all round. The overall outcome was better for her being there though. She brought the experience of being a student right now which was enlightening, and she brought an increased level of accountability to the process by not giving us an easy out. I see nothing like that in the production of this vision or in much of the subsequent analysis.

Only what can be wired together technically

“Finding: Interoperability is the linchpin of the NGDLE. The ability to integrate tools and exchange content and learning data enables everything else.” (1)

I’m never going to argue against better and easier interoperability, but my overriding concern with the current definition of the NGDLE is that it fetishes technology to the exclusion of broader thinking about the digital. It is absolutely concerned only with what can be wired together at a technical level. The concept of a Next Generation Digital Learning Environment should be larger than this and admit those things online that can be wired together at a conceptual level. It should also include some conceptual space for things students use that we don’t know about or need to know about. There are significant risks here if we don’t: We will marginalize creative and valuable academic practice, including supporting risky practice, and we continue to neglect the potential to develop truly useful digital literacy skills in our students.

One example in my own context would be the work that we do supporting the use of Wikipedia in the classroom. I defy anyone to explain to me how learning to write for Wikipedia wouldn’t be an excellent example of working in a digital learning environment (I’ll admit it’s not next generation in terms of technology, but actually that’s kind of the point that I’m trying to make) and I absolutely don’t see why we would need to hardwire Wikipedia into a learning environment beyond providing a URL and some scaffolding for the activity students are undertaking. There are valuable lessons in our Wikipedia activities about working with knowledge on the open web that include how you construct your own identity and how you negotiate and conduct yourself within a community. The ‘realness’ that our students enjoy and find motivating is in no small part bound up in the nature of what they are doing and that it lies outside the system, outside the institution in the ‘real world’.

The open web is a thing. Our students will use services on the open web explicitly because they want to work outside of institutional systems, or because they have their own ways of working that they brought with them, or because their finances or circumstances are constrained and they’re just doing what works, or because we gave them their own domain and encouraged them to. Whilst we don’t need to know all the detail, neither should we turn a blind eye. If we admit that all these things are part of the wider NGDLE our students experience then we also have an obligation to consider what kind of support and advice we can provide to help make smart and informed choices.

Reality Check: Because Maintenance

Educause Review calls for us to be the architects of the NGDLE. I am one of those architects – I have 20+ years of experience building enormous complex systems that integrate things (distributed EPOS systems; enterprise portals; identity and access management systems; edTech). It’s hard, and once you’ve done it is when the real work begins. Because maintenance. Maintenance costs are a stone-cold killer. I’m not talking about the technical integrations, though that’s hard enough. I’m talking about the reality that each LEGO brick in this NGDLE architecture is a moving part (must be Technic LEGO), and they’re all moving at different speeds, shaped by different agendas, communities and commercial realities. Managing the information flow, the release schedule, the updates to training and documentation when change happens – this stuff isn’t sexy innovation, but it’s over 50% of what any team will need to do just to keep the lights on, and it’s the work that is constantly being squeezed to free up more resource for “innovation”. Remember too that our institutions are in the eye of the storm managing this complexity, because they and they alone carry all the risks around failure. When components fail, or change in ways that break workflows, the student experience suffers and our academic colleagues lives are made harder. High maintenance costs and risky student experience just isn’t something that institutions find easy to stomach.

Talking about this makes for a rubbish conference presentation though. So we rarely do.

Will you be ready… flickr photo by kennymatic shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Temporary autonomous zones

“The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” (2)

Very little in this vision for an NGDLE deals with issues of consent and control around data and the potential for the chilling effects of increased data collection. Jim has covered this well in his blog post already, but I’d like to push this element on a little further and pick up again on some of the ideas in Amy Collier’s Digital Sanctuary blog post – particularly our habit of hoarding data. Amy highlighted my institution’s Data Protection Policy as a model of good practice, but to me it looks pretty normal. The European environment is very different and generally data protection regulation is seen a public good, rather than interference from government. In May 2018 the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect and it will persist beyond the enormous act of self-harm that is the UK Brexit. Our different data protection environment already makes life fun when negotiating with non-European vendors and I wonder about the extent to which it will influence the direction of travel of the market in the future versus the extent to which some tools and components just won’t be possible for us to use.

“The biggest change is that institutions will be held far more accountable for the data they hold. As well as records of what personal data exist within the organisation, the GDPR requires a documented understanding of why information is held, how it is collected, when it will be deleted or anonymised, and who may gain access to it.”

“The GDPR introduces new requirements on the way new information-handling processes and systems are developed. Data protection must be designed in from the start; systems must have default settings that protect privacy.” (3)

I’ve also seen a flurry of tweets over the last few days espousing the benefits and values of small simple tools, which is pretty exciting. I’m particularly fond of Alan Levine and Brian Lamb’s SPLOTs (a.k.a. the acronym that defies definition) as they are both simple to use and make a positive principal out of not collecting more data than is needed. JISC also toyed with an interesting idea when they talked about the “pop-up VLE” as part of a recent co-design consultation. There seems to be real enthusiasm and creativity around these ideas at the moment, but I think I mentioned already that maintenance is a thing. In my experience the quickly hacked together doo-da that does a neat small thing at point of need has a nasty habit of becoming the thing on the server 3 years later that nobody knows about and just won’t die.

With that in mind, I have been re-visiting Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, and whilst I probably can’t subscribe to the full breadth of his anarchist vision in my professional practice, it has got me very interested in the idea of simple, pop-up tools that gather minimal data and delete themselves.

I’m increasingly interested in exploring the idea of an NGDLE which includes a suite of small, simple, lightly managed tools that are easy for our academic colleagues and students to pop-up an instance of and use, but which by their very nature are designed to self-destruct. They may or may not collect and share data, they may be less or more well integrated with other systems, they key thing is that they are explicitly temporary zones. Temporary could be a day, a week, a year, several years, it should be configurable, but all of these instances of tools should have an expiry date. We need to think from the very start about how to keep our environment clean and get into the habit of putting our rubbish in the bin when we are finished. I’d also be interested to see whether “ephemerality by design” changes behaviour. Hopefully I am going to have an opportunity in the next 12 months to put some of these ideas into practice within my projects…watch this space

Linkity Links

  1. The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment, EDUCAUSE ELI (2015)
  2. A year to get your act together: how universities and colleges should be preparing for new data regulations, JISC (2017)

(By Владимир Шеляпин (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

13 thoughts on “Some more thoughts on the NGDLE, for what it’s worth

  1. Great post – thank you for taking the time to write it up and share Anne Marie. I have very similar thoughts particularly around the techno/data determinism of much of the current NGLE debate, and the lack of student input. Never heard of TAZs before so thanks for that – a really useful concept. I all have a worry that many of these conversations are forgetting the role of the teacher too. I may need to blog now as my mind is racing.

    1. Hi Sheila – thanks for your feedback. I had to draw the line somewhere and edit down quite a lot even just to get this post out. There’s lots about this NGDLE concept that makes me a bit ranty!

      I agree completely about the role of teachers not being well articulated. I have less of a sense of how many representative academic colleagues have contributed to this – not many I suspect. In the same way as digital literacies for students are absent, nowhere is the cost of supporting academic colleagues factored in. More of the work and risk of integration is pushed into the institution in this model and arguably it’s being pushed down further onto academic colleagues too. It’s potentially a double de-valuing of the role of the teacher in the end. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the N2DGLE article in EDUCAUSE Review in particular, as it tries to marry NGDLE and adaptive learning, with (I think) almost the complete removal of the teacher except as “programmer” of the curriculum in the system. I’m ranting again. Stopping now!

  2. I’d go against interoperability, as it seems to be shaping us as the new buzzword du jour, regardless of how many times we’ve never even seen a SCORM object or used Common Cartridge, but sure let the very rich and powerful IMS backers drive us towards their architectural preferences.

    Because it is telling interoperability always means LTI and not OAuth and what’s the difference – LTI talks back, and that just feels like same old same old. A silo squished flat looks bigger, but it is still a silo

    I also think NGDLE smacks of thought leader cowardice where stuck with these days . Ambigious, sedentary, conservative, scared. Make a call or get off the pot

    1. Nope. I’m sticking with some interoperability because I see how many of my academic colleagues want to do a thing, but can’t because the burden of working out how to get it up and running and get students enrolled with no additional admin support is just too much.

      But that’s important – I’m for interoperability doing what it’s good for – reducing tasks that humans don’t need to do. I’m not for interoperability that removes control or agency or obfuscates away what’s really going on. However, I also have to find a way to do the day job.

      I’d agree with you on the obsession with LTI. There is a more extensive set of stuff we could be talking about here and if we do the conversation gets a whole lot more interesting. (SURFnet have a handy list on P19 of this: Fundamentally though, we are still just debating the best way to plugin to the matrix.

      So yes – this is a conservative vision. It’s technologically advanced to the point of over complexity and at the same time mundane in scope. If we’re such smarty-pants, we can do better than this.

      1. Up and running isn’t made easier by interoperability though?

        Enrolment is a bit red herring – how vital is it?

        1. Pretty important in my experience – not having to worry about how students get in and use a thing seems to be a big plus.

  3. Great post and the concept is something I connect with strongly.

    You hit the nail on the head with edutech being decided on by people who THINK they know what students want and need, when in reality students are neither a homogenus mass nor consulted. Decisions are made based on cost, maintenance, ease of use and importantly workload of the staff running, supporting and using the VLE. It’s usually pick the one that ticks the most boxes, boxes decided by the grown ups on behalf of students who couldn’t possible make an informed choice. Even when we ask for student representation, it’s hard to deny that the situation is intimidating and can influence how much that student is willing to participate freely.

    Who said students even want a VLE or are they happy using the tools they have chosen to suit their needs rather than being forced down a specified path?

    In the same vain, when groups are brought together for projects to introduce technology changes, another group is under represented, people who teach. In my institution, there is little kudos given to teaching versus research and therefore even when an academic member of staff is included, they are rarely one who puts teaching as a priority rather than their daily teaching tasks. The two would bring very different needs and wants.

    Looking in from a different angle though, when we settle on a tool which does some of what we need without compromising the administration, workload or finance of the institution, what other restraints are we playing on the users? If we force this path, are we teaching our teacher to teach inside a box? To restrict their methods to fit into the VLE or worse, are new teachers learning that this is the norm and having their creative and pedagogical wings clipped as they develop as a teacher who teaches a certain way rather than being free to experiment and learn by experiences?

    Maybe the question isn’t about a next generation VLE, maybe the question should be should be using VLEs at all? Do we require VLEs to reduce administration or because they improve the learning experience?

    1. Thanks Eli 🙂

      Unpopular as it is (and you can slap me with a wet fish when we next meet), on balance I’m going to cast a vote in favour of keeping the VLE. I think we can sometimes forget the excellent face to face teaching that still goes on in our institutions. Clunky as VLEs may be, they tend to be good at content management and for a fair of bit of our face to face teaching, delivering some eReserve texts and facilitating some assessment may be the most appropriate level of digital activity.

      However I absolutely don’t subscribe to the idea that the VLE is the only show in town (or indeed has ever been – it’s a deeply revisionist historical argument). VLE is a really rubbish and misleading acronym. Can we kill that instead?

      1. 🙂 no wet fish required. VLEs do make the administration side of life in an institution a heck of a lot easier to manage which is why they took hold.

        It is good to step back once in a while and question the use of technology, both how we think we use it, how and why we actually use it and who we are using it for.

        Even using the term “next gen” is making the assumption that what we have is working, we are nearly looking to build on it.

        I guess what I’m saying is there is not one tool to rule them all, and depending on your organisation and it’s needs, one area or another will have a stronger pull.

        A teacher in a classroom in a secondary school light manage their admin load easier than a uni lecturer teaching multiple 300 student classes and therefore admin and control would be more desirable to the uni.

        Horses for courses, but never stop questioning what we have and why.

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