NGDLE, the Wave of the Future

The research summarized in this report shows that the LMS is now a standard component of the campus digital learning environment: Almost every higher education institution deploys at least one, if not multiple, LMS platforms. But despite this ubiquity, the LMS is not, by any means, the final chapter in the evolution of the post-secondary digital learning environment. Indeed, the LMS is just the point of departure, and we are now at a stage where things really begin to get interesting.

For over two years, EDUCAUSE and others have been promoting the idea of a next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE)—a digital learning architecture encompassing a confederation of learning applications, tools, and resources woven together by means of open standards. Such a confederation may or may not include an LMS; in this regard the NGDLE concept is agnostic. What is clear is that postsecondary learning is far too diverse to be enabled adequately by a single application or platform. Therefore, it seems legitimate to conclude that any LMS will always need to be supplemented by additional components and resources, resulting in a digital learning environment instead of an LMS platform. This is the crux of the NGDLE idea, and it is essential to evolving our learning environments to add learning enablement to course management.

In the original NGDLE white paper, published in May 2015, we made the assertion that the LMS has been "highly successful in enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself." This assertion is borne out by the findings in this report: Both students and faculty appreciate the LMS for its course management functions but, upon closer inspection, less so for the functions that enable learning. Indeed, these results document the high value that both faculty and students place on face-to-face interactions, which have no need of the LMS. Along with permitting the communication of content, face-to-face interaction seems to be a much stronger vehicle for engagement and the communication of enthusiasm.

These results also remind us that a more nuanced consideration of the lecture is important. All too often the lecture is one-dimensionally dismissed as mere "transmission" of "content." But the imparting of content is essential to learning, and we see in the results here that students and faculty see the lecture as a vehicle also for transmitting enthusiasm for the subject of the course. Sparking enthusiasm in the learner creates engagement, and in learning, student engagement is half the battle.

Further, against the blanket dismissal of the lecture, as noted above, we know that today many faculty are augmenting the traditional lecture by integrating nonlecture learning engagements. Indeed, new designs for lecture hall/auditorium learning spaces are encouraging this creative interweaving. One example is an approach pioneered at Iowa State University well over a decade ago: One auditorium in LeBaron Hall was outfitted with swivel chairs in every other row, allowing the students to form ad hoc, face-to-face discussion groups as a part of the class session. Today many schools are including this feature in their auditoriums and learning-theater designs.

The research described above also contributes to the ongoing exploration of blended learning. The research summarized is suggestive in at least two important ways. First and most obviously, it shows that both faculty and students have an intuition that a blended learning environment—some mix of online, face-to-face, digital, and analog components—is better than environments that rely too heavily or even exclusively on either online or face-to-face components. This intuition makes sense, as it stands to reason that an environment that combines the strengths of heterogeneous components will be more productive and engaging. It is also a sign of the times, when online elements are part of the majority of the things we do.

Second, this research also makes it clear that there is some work to be done to sort out terminology. Over the past several years, it has become common to distinguish between a narrow and a broad definition of the term "blended learning." The narrow definition involves the extent to which "seat time in a conventional classroom" is replaced by "an online component." In the broader sense, blended learning is "a wide variety of technology/media integrated with conventional face-to-face classroom activities."1  This report, and ECAR's research generally, uses the second, broader definition. The preferences expressed by the faculty and students in the ECAR student and faculty studies document the appeal of this broader notion while also underscoring the value of face-to-face course activities.

The clear faculty and student preferences discussed in this report suggest that future research can productively focus on the broader sense of this key term. As stated above, however, this broad definition is likely to encompass the vast majority of courses. This is an area ripe for discussion in the field, since "blending" in this broader sense involves so many factors, such as digital applications and tools, learning space design, and learning engagement designs. The idea of an NGDLE anticipates increasing the variety of elements, both online and off, in the learning environments of the future.

Finally, this expanded sense of "blending" shows why the NGDLE concept is so important. The variety of blends required by postsecondary education is immense, given the wide variety of learners and the rapid pace of change, with respect not only to technology but also to the evolution of teaching practices. To support and keep pace with these developments, the digital architecture for learning must be able to quickly morph and evolve to enable experimentation and innovation. This is the goal of the NGDLE idea2 : a digital confederation of tools, content, and applications, dynamically connected by means of open standards. All this is implied by the broader scope of the term "blended learning," making it clear that a next generation digital learning environment is an idea whose time has come.


  1. Charles D. Dziuban, Anthony G. Picciano, Charles R. Graham, and Patsy D. Moskal, eds., Conducting Research in Online and Blended Learning Environments (New York: Routledge, 2016): 7.

  2. See the issue of EDUCAUSE Review focused on NGDLE.