Designing Learning Environment Architectures
A desire to customise and personalise learning experiences, combined with the rise of a number of new tool integration technologies has led to a move away from monolithic Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs, also known as Learning Management Systems ‘LMSs’) towards more open and Distributed Learning Environments (DLEs). The various DLE architectures can have very different properties, however, and choosing between them can be difficult.
The Virtual Learning Environment (VLE, also known as a Learning Management System ‘LMS‘) has become a dominant design in digital educational systems (Wilson et al., 2006). While the design may have strengths in the high level of control that it offers educational institutions, as well as the relative ease of deployment of its single system architecture, there are significant limitations to the learning experience it provides. The most important of those are the asymmetric relation between learner and institution, and the dominance of the course as the sole organising principle.
The Personal Learning Environment (PLE) was conceived as way to address those limitations (Wilson et al., 2006). By making use of newer, web-based technologies, a learner can compose their PLE out of a wide range of services, both from within an institution as well as outside of it. That way, the learning experience can become richer, and much more personalised in the way it adapts to the interests and preferences of the individual learner. Not least because a PLE can persist beyond formal learning while studying at an institution and thereafter. At the same time, the more balanced levels of control over the environment can make exchanges between learners, teachers and the institution more open and participatory.
As VLEs started to incorporate technologies that are similar to or the same as the one that made PLEs possible in the first place. More or less formally standardised Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) such as the W3C’s Widget specification (Cáceres, 2011), OpenSocial (OpenSocial and Gadgets Specification Group, 2011) and IMS Learning Technology Interoperability (IMS Global Learning Consortium, 2011a) enable VLEs to participate in the networked architectures that also characterise PLEs. This means that a hybrid between the VLE and PLE concepts is becoming possible, and could address the shortcomings of both. Such a Distributed Learning Environment (DLE) could retain various degrees of central versus personal control or administration, while retaining degrees of personalisation and flexibility (MacNeill & Kraan, 2010). The development of DLEs has been taken forward by a number of projects in the JISC Distributed VLE programme (JISC, 2010).
A wide range of DLE architectures is possible, however, each with different system components, varying degrees of institutional control and different learning affordances. For that reason, a comprehensible and holistic view of how various DLE models could fit into a learning and teaching organisation is a pre-requisite for an informed choice between them.
The Open Group’s ArchiMate standard may help in choosing DLE models. Architect is an open specification related to the widely used Unified Modelling Language, rather than tied to a particular tool. It was designed to facilitate communication about architectures between all stakeholders in an organisation. It is a visual language that aims to help conversations about IT systems, business processes, organisational structure and strategy.
Using ArchiMate to design learning environment architectures, published in International Open Forum Proceedings 24th ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36 Plenary and WG meetings, International Open Forum. Shanghai, China: Ministry of Education Information Technology Standards Committee China e-Learning Technology Standardization Committee (CELTSC), the paper was authored by W.G. Kraan, Institute for Educational Cybernetics, University of Bolton, presented a number of DLE patterns that illustrate the range of possible architectures using Architect. Both the potential of these patterns as well as the utility of the ArchiMate language in explicating them were evaluated.
This variety of patterns also means that more people are likely be able to deviate from the currently dominant VLE pattern, into environments that are better adapted to subject, group and individual needs and preferences, and environments that are more equatable, collaborative and open to participation by all stakeholders.
Nowadays the connected learning paradigm offers new ways to connect things that were previously considered disparate and “un-connectable”: people, resources etc. We need a new architecture that could afford a high degree of usability in the “mash-up” of resources and applications. The architecture for connected learning needs to support and enable unprecedented agility, flexibility, and personalization.
Distributed Learning Environments (from CETIS)