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.