What Is A Learning Ecosystem?

So what is in a learning ecosystem in 2018?


In part 1, we looked at how and why a learning ecosystem works.  We talked through what is (and what is not) interdependent about many systems, but we also stressed the importance of people in the equation, with technology acting in a supportive way.  It is extremely important to remember that if technology does not help you do something (faster, better, etc) that you could not do without it, then the technology is there for its own sake.  But we also argued that even if technology does in fact help a few people, but does not connect / assist larger groups or organizations, technology as a stand-alone solution is typically not ideal.  This is especially relevant within higher education. 

Unfortunately, education has been very late to the game in terms of integration, erring on the side of single-point solutions.  This is likely due to the heavily political and siloed nature of the industry.  But with technology changing so rapidly and with more and more integration options available, a learning ecosystem as described in Part 1 is not just possible, at this point it is senseless to work toward anything else. 

So, based on the skeleton of part 1, here is the meat for those bones.  The following list will shift and change over time, although not likely in a mass way at any single point in time.  As new tools come and go, it is optimal that a “plug n play” mentality be associated with your learning ecosystem, which creates a strong case for middleware and other integration solutions.  But, here are the types of tools to consider for a best-in-class College or University Learning Ecosystem:

Must Haves

  • SIS (Student Information System) / ERP (Enterprise Reporting Program) – the source of truth for an institution holding most of the highest-security data such as financial aid, grade, contact info, social security number, etc.   (Ellucian - Banner or Colleague, PeopleSoft, Workday, Jenzibar, etc)
  • LMS (Learning Management System) – a parallel or augmentable delivery system to the face to face classroom, it is important to note that online classes should leverage the same outcomes as their F2F counterparts, the best online classes are far more than a translation of F2F experiences, actually leveraging the power of the web.  (Canvas, D2L, Amplifire, Blackboard, Moodle, Schoology, etc)
  • Portal/Digital Campus – the connection “hub” or “front door” (via SSO) to all people, services, communication channels, and support at the institution, modern portals are far more than a conglomeration of links nor are good portals an overabundance of tiles / widgets; however the best portals are multi-channel experiences (web, tablet, mobile, etc) pushing notifications, clustering people, and providing support options for all.  (Campus, Skooly, ClassLink, Luminis, CampusCruiser, etc)

Advanced Ecosystem Elements

  • CRM (Customer Relationship Management) – a project management tool for managing students at risk, for enrollment, and beyond, the CRM is often associated with other tools that identify flags / triggers which can then be acted upon by staff.  (SalesForce, Zoho, Dynamics365, Sugar etc)
  • Student Success Platforms – a mature organization is iteratively moving forward with the use of behavioral, predictive analytics to further student success and by which to perform algorithmic sorting, predictive modeling, and other heavy duty math to help establish students who are likely or unlikely to succeed.  Some platforms include some degree of CRM (above) whereas others typically feed a CRM.  (Civitas Learning, HelioCampus, EAB, Starfish, Tableau, etc)
  • Integration Middleware – far more common in the banking, healthcare, and other commercial areas, integration middleware platforms allow any/all tools to be connected via full API sets to the platform, making it easy to transfer information as well as data back and forth, as well as plug-n-play tools being added or removed with ease.  (Mulesoft, Dell Boomi, Apigee, Tibco, Jitterbit, Zapier, etc)
  • Tutoring / Writing – once considered only necessary if a school leveraged online learning, most institutions now realize that students need help 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, which means working with various academic help systems that can be integrated heavily or lightly as appropriate.  (Tutor, SmartThinking, Grammar.ly, MyWritingLab, etc)

Other Components

There is a long list of other potential assets used in a learning ecosystem.  However, the next set of tools are often not linked or integrated in a “system” with the tools listed above.  They might be tied to one specific tool (example: an ePortfolio to the LMS), but rarely do they push and pull information or data, despite how helpful that may truly be, between systems.  The following list is not exhaustive, nor does it place value on the solution or concept.  But these common components should represent a lot of the tools and platforms used throughout higher education, therefore considered part of the learning (eco)systems in place:

  • ePortfolio – more and more educational institutions are seeking better ways to measure and represent learning and ePortfolios, with their evidence based, project enabled, outcomes-mapped systems are one way that is happening.  (Foliotek, LiveText, TaskStream, Tk20, etc)
  • Content aggregators – as OER (Open Educational Resources) are finding more success, textbooks (commercial, OER, and low-cost) and other subject material(s) which need to be leveraged beyond insertion into an LMS, are entering the ecosystem space.  (OpenStax, Lumen Learning, OER Commons, Pearson, Cengage, etc)
  • Exam Management – since tests are still used almost exclusively for high stakes, mid/final assessment experiences (instead of as learning tools), there is still a lot of formality around these tools, typically standing alone or plugging into an LMS only.  (ETS, Pearson, GRE, Accreditation / Department specific systems, etc)
  • Engagement systems -  As George Siemens states, “I wonder when it will become illegal to teach by lecture.  No longer worthy of the placebo effect in experiments, the mounting evidence is so clear that active learning strategies are better in every measurable way, I wonder when Do-No-Harm will be invoked in the classroom?”  However active, brain-based learning at scale almost always requires technological assistance.  From crowdsourced academic support like InScribe to Presentation Slide killers such as MeTL or Explain Everything to immediate feedback channels like Poll Everywhere or Clickers to community content tools like blogs or wikis and even starting to include augmented or virtual reality, academics should always be on the lookout for powerful, academic engagement tools to capture and retain student attention.  If there are tools that meet specific, initiative-driven needs, consider ways to integrate them into your learning ecosystem. 
  • Process systems – regarding data, databases, and other processes important to higher education, there are a litany of other tools and assets some schools find crucial to their ecosystem.  From attendance tracking to internship application to forms and websites, there are a lot of other “one off” platforms that can help meet a need at your institution.  Note that a lot of those capabilities are likely possible through the toolsets listed above.  So, noting the importance of connection and integration, institutions should look to see if they can get a lot more for their money as they build out a modern experience through a single engagement, rather than trying to wedge 3 tools together when they don’t have to.  A crucial "systems thinking" component of a learning ecosystem is this: Integration trumps functionality.  In other words, if 85% of your desired functionality can be achieved with a fully integrated tool, or 97% of your desired functionality can be achieved with no connection to other parts of the ecosystem, use the former and avoid the latter.  (Of note, this is why the RFI / RFP process can be so detrimental to an organization's longitudinal well-being from a systems perspective.)  

Tools Demoting Interdependence

By nature, some tools "feel" modern or connective, but in reality promote silos and disconnectedness across campuses.  Any tool in the grouping described above, whereby the tool meets a need but does not integrate back into the ecosystem meaningfully is one that demotes interdependence.  But more specifically, here is an example.

  • Mobile – assuming schools are getting the most for their money with a modern portal that is also a mobile system, specific mobile app for a college or university should not be necessary in 2018.  While “deep linking” between mobile portals and other native apps such as an LMS are very helpful to students, stand-alone, mobile solutions tend to create more silos and disconnected experiences than otherwise.

A Learning Ecosystem Architecture

The following image represents an aspirational learning ecosystem, whereby the technology and infrastructure are designed to best support human actors at every turn.  "Note: the student portal solution (Campus) includes a responsive web and mobile app solution - in other words, supporting the concepts from above, in an ideal ecosystem there is not a separate web portal and campus app.

A quick metaphor that may help you know if you have a learning ecosystem at your institution or not, might be that of a solar system.  You might think of the SIS as the sun, with 3-6 “planets” orbiting via full-API integrations, producing data, etc.  Those planets may have a few moons circling them, via LTI integration, but your learning scientists and student success teams would have the crucial data they need regarding the whole student experience, to help determine support and risk.

Systems thinking means holistic experience and intervention which are dependent upon knowing what is happening both inside the classroom (cognition) and out, including data around personal history (demographics), engagement (affection) as well as grit, mindset, or open-mindedness (conation).  Feeds of that data would be available to multiple stakeholders, including (but not limited to) student success, administration, faculty, staff, and others.  Even students might start to take advantage of the hyper-connected, learning eco-system data to view what they do or how they might transform their own practices.  (I want to get a GPA of ___ in my major.  What do others do so as to make that possible?)  A true learning ecosystem can produce this kind of experience for all stakeholders and this level of data as well.

It is that holistic view of people, technology, support, communication, and more that the learning ecosystem really shines.  Focusing only on one part will likely result in weak metrics and small, incremental changes at best.  A learning ecosystem can help administrators as well as faculty and staff create a better environment for “total” learning by students, but also a more satisfying, collaborative experience for themselves. 

Do you have a learning ecosystem?  Need an audit of your existing architecture?  Want to start moving in that direction?  Contact the Institute for Inter-Connected Education at any time.

Good luck and good learning.