Designing a next generation digital learning environment

This video was first posted on the DLDSC blog
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Presenting on next generation digital learning environments

In October I will be giving a short presentation on the work we’ve been doing on next generation digital learning environments at the RMIT University Learning and Teaching Conference. If you are a staff or student at RMIT University then you can register for free here.

For everyone else I will be making a recording of my presentation available online shortly afterwards.

As part of the conference preparation we were asked to put together a short video introduction that gives people an idea of what will be covered. Here is mine. Hope you like it.

Why University Learning Management Systems are the temporary classrooms of today

This post first appeared at

Be warned, I’m about to torture an analogy. You might want to look away if you’re squeamish.

Growing up in Yorkshire in the 70s and 80s I went to a local high school along with 1800 other kids. To cope with the numbers the local education authority had installed some ‘temporary’ classrooms. They were used long before my  7 years at that school and long after, so it was clearly a new definition of word temporary.

They were cold in winter, hot in summer and damp all year. Nevertheless the teachers made the best of them and they were decorated with student work and made as comfortable as possible.

Now let’s imagine a university in the 21st century decides, as a matter of choice, to make all of its students attend classes in these sorts of learning spaces. But more than this, they decide to black out all of the windows so that no one can see in and they say that there can be no displays of student work within the room. They provide a standard overhead projector in each room and they insist that teaching consists of a 5 minute introductory presentation from the teacher followed by a question, followed by another 5 minute video and so on. Students are only allowed to talk to each other if they go to a corner of the room that has been walled off from everything else. This method of teaching will be the same for every degree program so the artists and sculptors will use a space like this as well as the engineers and physicists. Learning about modern dance and nursing will all occur in these spaces.

This may sound far fetched but that’s often what happens often in university learning management systems. Over the years I’ve seen administrators at several universities attempt to mainstream the use of the LMS through the use of things like minimum online presence policies in which every course has to have an online space in the LMS and, increasingly through ever more restrictions on the configurability of individual learning spaces. The aim is to improve the student experience through mandated standardisation. In fact what happens is that educators already have minimal agency in the LMS (students have almost no agency at all) and they are being given less and less agency as more standardisation is implemented. By agency I mean the capacity of a person to act in any given environment.

There are many reasons why the use of learning management systems is resisted by many university educators even after 16 years of implementation. I would propose that a lack of agency is one of the main reasons. I believe firmly that we should empower both educators and learners to be able to create, share, communicate and learn. That’s not to say that I believe that having a consistent learning experience is not important. I do, but I also believe that this is only important at the program level. Not across all students in the institution. We never expect the experience of nursing undergraduates to be the same as architecture undergraduates so why should we attempt that in online spaces?

I actually believe that we need domain specific online learning environments that cater to the pedagogies appropriate to different disciplines. We can build such spaces quite cost effectively and with much more agency. We’ve just built one for the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University. It’s for theCreative Practice Research program. It’s built from open source software and is custom designed for the discipline. It’s the online equivalent of a high end interactive learning space like the one below:


Because at the end of the day the way we use online learning environments is actually largely a human problem not a technical problem

All of this requires thinking beyond the LMS. We describe the space that we’ve built not as an LMS but as a way of thinking. Because at the end of the day the way we use online learning environments is actually largely a human problem not a technical problem. What we need to do is think of the experiences that we want as learners and educators. As Kate Bowles observed in a comment on a blog post by Frances BellLMS vendors sell on the basis of institutional affordance, not user experience“. Universities need to focus on improving the learner experience and making learners work in the modern equivalent of temporary classrooms is not the best way to do that.

Feature image by Steve MorganOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

How should traditional universities deliver wholly online learning?

I’ve worked with several traditional higher education institutions over the last few years that have been in the process of building a capability for wholly online course delivery. I think it’s worth exploring the ways in which this can be accomplished and some of the pitfalls that I’ve observed. Continue reading “How should traditional universities deliver wholly online learning?”

We need to rethink university IT Services

As is often the case I’ve been spurred into action by a post from Martin Weller about IT services in universities. Specifically Martin describes these complaints about IT Services: Continue reading “We need to rethink university IT Services”

Udemy thinks they’ve “cracked online education” they haven’t. But…

Last week, on the Time web site, Udemy CO Dennis Yang claims to have “cracked online education”. They haven’t of course and this is exactly the sort of glib claim guaranteed to to annoy those that have thought deepest and longest about the ways in which technology can be used in education. There is a ‘but’ though. Whilst Udemy’s claim is overstated they are, in fact, onto something and that something is that Continue reading “Udemy thinks they’ve “cracked online education” they haven’t. But…”

Because universities are more than just girls under trees

I’ve started working with a university again. This week the team I’m working with were introduced to the university’s new Head of Digital and CX. This is quite a new position for the university  and a key part of the role is to help provide the framework for a digital strategy for the university. It was great to be able to hear the current thinking behind the strategy and to have the opportunity to provide some input. Continue reading “Because universities are more than just girls under trees”

20 years in e-learning

In June of this year it was twenty years since I set up my first web server for delivering e-learning courses. I’m using this anniversary to reflect on my experiences in educational technology over the last 20 years. I’ll have a look at some of the things we got right and some of the things we got wrong and why, after all these years, I’m still an optimist. Continue reading “20 years in e-learning”

We need more investment in mainstreaming innovations, not generating new ones

There’s an article on EdSurge today (Here’s a $5M Seed Fund to Support Higher-Ed Innovations Besides MOOCs) that talks about a new fund to promote innovation in highered. I know $5M isn’t a huge amount but the principle just seems so misguided. There is no problem with innovation in higher education. The problem is adopting and mainstreaming innovations across a higher ed institutions. This is where investment is needed. It probably won’t happen though because it’s a very difficult problem to solve and it relies not only on money but on the ability to cooperate as individuals and teams across an organisation. The nature of highered organisations does not lend itself well to this sort of activity. This is one reason why higher ed administrators would rather invest in non human projects such as facilities or buildings or, possibly, in innovations in which the team or individual developing the innovation is small and localised. But if there is no investment in mainstreaming the innovation then it’s just a waste. You may improve outcomes in one small section of the organisation but it won’t improve outcomes across the organisation.

(Featured image by Boegh


MOOCs – Magnificent, Monsters or Malediction

Random thoughts
Random thoughts by

Thanks to Kate Bowles (@KateMfD) for sending me a link to an open Coursesites web site (free registration) that has been created for the MOOC discussion at the forthcoming Universities Australia 2014 conference. Anyone can register and comment in the discussion area and I would encourage those that are interested to do so.

There are six questions in the discussion area; these are:

  • What have been the most significant impacts of MOOCs?
  • What have we learned about teaching and learning from the experience with MOOCs?
  • What impacts do you think MOOCs will have on university business models and who do you think will be most affected?
  • What do you think higher education will look like in 20 years’ time?
  • What questions should we be asking ourselves now about change in higher education?
  • What are the three best articles you have read on MOOCs?

If you don’t want to register on Coursesites and see the discussion there you can always have a look at my random thoughts. They are below:

Continue reading “MOOCs – Magnificent, Monsters or Malediction”