By Jim Groom
I have been talking a bit about the EDUCAUSE Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) paper from 2015 in my talks recently as one possible vision of how loosely coupled publishing platform connecting various toll could be one way to imagine the power of what Kin Lane defines as the Personal API, which frames the importance of getting individuals more control over who and what has access to their online data. The learning management system (LMS or VLE in the UK) remains central to the future of the NGDLE despite our best efforts and judgement, and there is a lot of promising thinking around decoupling the pieces, looking at more cohesive integrations through LTIs and APIs, and generally acknowledging there may be life after the LMS, which for many of us who have been waiting for any such sign for 15+ years—that alone is almost enough. The bar is very low in edtech.
I’m pretty tired of LMS bashing; it has pretty much run its course. I still enjoy it from time to time, but I don’t get nearly the thrill I once did back in 2008 or so. Now it’s just kinda depressing. In fact, Leigh Blackall’s recent post on the process of adopting the LMS Canvas at his University captures this pretty well. How long have we been saying this? These discussions make me feel long in the tooth, as do most things in edtech these days. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by Keegan Long-Wheeler’s presentation at Domains17 wherein he adeptly demonstrated how you can do use LTI integrations from within Canvas. It is premised on two simple tools SSL (via Let’s Encrypt) and Canvas’s redirect tool. The idea being a faculty member can effectively integrate all sorts of small pieces loosely joined cohesively through the LMS.
It builds beautifully on top of Jon Udell’s post from almost a year ago wherein he shares his experience of the LMS while building an app for Hypothes.is. In short, the LTI ecosystem spared him the work of doing a deep dive into the Ruby on Rails framework (what Canvas runs on) to get the Angular framework (what Hypothes.is runs on) talking to one another—the LTI made this possible by simply working like an embeddable script. Yet, for all the promise, there are few and few examples of anything like a robust integration of variou tools from around the web. As cool as these possibilities demonstrated are, they amount to little more than an embeddable script in an LMS post—far from revolutionary in 2017 unless embedding YouTube videos in a WordPress post (achievable more than 10 years ago on the open web) is the end all, be all of future digital learning platforms. I understand much more is possible around the LTI specification, but given there is scarcely a decent tool for integrating WordPress (the most popular publishing engine on the web) into the Canvas ecosystem, I would argue the promise of the LTI is far greater than its adoption and actual use in the two years since the original NGDLE paper was published.
So, what’s the provocation? Beyond the less that overwhelming examples of integrations, my major issue with the vision laid out in the NGDLE article from 2015, was its disregard for how the data supposedly being shared between these systems was being used (and potentially abused) by the various parties involved. Fact is, many of the services focused on personalization and analytics are third-party, commercial services that depend upon data collection for their business model. This opens up a series of very important questions and issues that are effectively glossed over by that article (not to mention the recent follow-up this month that dedicates an entire issue of EDUCAUSE Review to the NGDLE two years on). This stands in stark contrast to a another model for integration of personal data across various systems. The white paper “My Data: A Nordic Model for human-centered personal data management,” authored by Antti Poikola, Kai Kuikkaniemi, and Harri Honko, deals with the same issues facing educational institutions dealing with the NGDLE, but the vision is broader and the focus is not so much on the institution as the individual. It represents the closest thing I have red to a kind of bill of rights around online data:
This model invokes Jon Udell’s discussion of what a personal cyberinfrastructure might look like, and how we would begin to control and manage our personal data in relationship to various entities on the web. In his 2007 talk on the “Disruptive Nature of Technology” he talks about the problem of cohesiveness in the LMS. And while 10 years later he may have a glimmer of hope thanks to technical integrations, what has become of critical importance in the interim is how we manage and control our hosted lifebits (those digital bits we share across various platforms on the web). This question remains crucial, and it is very much the focus of the MyData paper, whereas the NGDLE paper glosses over any discussion of individual privacy, the ethics of collecting student/faculty data, as well as the negotiations around control over one’s personal data. Herein lies the increasingly central issue of edtech, nay our broader digital culture, and is laid out brilliantly by Chris Gilliard’s recent “Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms,” the most recent contribution to EDUCAUSE”s New Horizons column edited by Mike Caulfield:
The fact that the web functions the way it does is illustrative of the tremendously powerful economic forces that structure it. Technology platforms (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and education technologies (e.g., the learning management system) exist to capture and monetize data. Using higher education to “save the web” means leveraging the classroom to make visible the effects of surveillance capitalism.
I think the MyData vision of a “human-centered personal data management” approach gets to the heart of what Udell was talking about in 2007 with an eye towards understanding the evolution of these platforms to “capture and monetize” data as Gilliard points out. There is a need for an intervention in the unchecked collection and integration of data across these platforms given data is “the new oil” lubricating the machine of surveillance capitalism.
The NGDLE approach highlights the possibilities of personalization, but plays down the fact it’s premised on the collection of data to create predictive analytics engines by third-party interest. A huge issue for questions surrounding privacy and owning one’s data. This is where one of recent articles about the NGDLE published in the July 3rd issue of EDUCAUSE Review highlights the a particular rhetoric surrounding this still emergent platform. The article in question, namely Stephen Laster’s “Tearing Down Walls to Deliver on the Promise of Edtech:”
While integration might seem to be the concern of IT departments, in truth it has serious implications for teaching and learning. Technologies that live within closed systems create roadblocks for students and instructors as edtech is used to accelerate learner success and faculty efficiency. The free flow of identity, rostering, and learning data, harnessed in service of confident learners and caring faculty, is what allows technology to move us along Bloom’s journey toward mastery learning.
Amongst calls for open standards and a general sense of the limitlessness of transparency, something I generally agree with, it does trouble me when the Chief Digital Officer for McGraw-Hill Publishing is calling for a radical openness when it comes to the “free flow of identity, rostering, and learning data.” One of the travesties of the term open has been it seemingly uncontested goodness when it comes to edtech. I’ve certainly contributed to that problem, but when we are talking about openness of identity and learning data in relationship to students within systems that, despite the hype, have materialized next to nothing—this sounds more like a plan to make sure those various interested parties gain unbridled access to personal data within the NGDLE—the very opposite of the MyData approach being floated in the Nordic Model.
In fact, I think the LMS is dead, not unlike God. The ritual goes on and its re-invented in small, pointless ways to garner a new set of interests and values, it won’t go away, but it also won’t deliver on any of the Silicon Valley-informed Utopian promises outlined in 2015. Rather, in a worst case scenario, the NGDLE offers a way for institutions to more easily extract and share their learning community’s personal data with a wide range of sources, something that should deeply disturb us in the post-Snowden era. But the real kicker is, how do we get anyone to not only acknowledge this process of extraction and monetization (because I think folks have), but to actually feel empowered enough to even care.