How to Build an Effective Learning Ecosystem

Implementing technology to scale your 21st-century learning model.

GUEST COLUMN | by Beatriz Arnillas

For the last 10 years or so, educators have explored ways in which technology can support new teaching methods and strategies to improve student engagement, increase graduation rates and raise performance so that all students are ready for college, career and life.

Most Frequently Mentioned Strategy

One of the most frequently mentioned strategies is the concept of personalizing the learning process. However, the challenge has been that there are too many definitions of “personalization.” At a presentation last year, Michael Horn, cofounder and fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, suggested that we tackle this lack of agreement by discussing specific dimensions of personalization and building consensus within each school or district on learning priorities.

He discussed various components to personalization, such as pacing and paths, student choice and voice, social-emotional learning, authentic learning focused on solving real problems and making learning visible with student-directed learning. Other 21st century learning strategies include competency-based learning, deeper learning, using learning science to design models, “learning-to-learn,” and emphasizing the need for assessment as learning in addition to assessment of learning.

Districts Working Hard

Districts across the country are working hard to provide the digital environment and tools to support these new learning strategies. Part of the problem is that technology environments still lack the coherence required for most of these models. The way to fix this is to ensure there is strong leadership in the district. Holding a vision for instruction and learning is critical. Curriculum and IT must work together. In designing an effective digital ecosystem, this is non-negotiable.

Here are some recommendations for building a learning ecosystem that supports easy access to resources, meaningful and transparent data to support student learning and effectively scales across the district:

Start with the end in mind: Be clear about your school or district learning strategies and models. Once you agree on the desired models, determine which technology tools and resources can help you design the environment that supports them.

Mean what you say: Establish clear definitions of terms. For example, a platform (or system) is not an app, and an automated loop is not a flexible path. If we are not clear about the differences, we might purchase and implement the wrong solutions and that gets expensive. Research what other districts have done before finalizing your district’s glossary. This ensures that definitions are commonly understood by both educators and providers.

Redesign your procurement process: Even small districts have leverage here. Vendors are open to districts advising them on how products and systems need to work.

While Redesigning

During your redesign, here are a few things to consider. 

Include your edtech experts in decisions about learning resources. They know whether the digital formats you’re considering will support your strategies.

Insist on “systems thinking.” Districts cannot afford to have platforms and publisher content working in isolation. Design your learning ecosystem before you buy separate systems and resources piece meal. Understand what you already have and whether you can consolidate systems. For example, some SIS also have good special education and health management functionality— even gradebook and reporting capabilities. And a good LMS can supply all your learning and assessment needs.

Don’t work alone. Now there are effective consortiums to support the needs of every school or district, no matter the size. Consider joining an open integrations consortium such as IMS Global. In that environment, small organizations can partner with larger ones, which gives all districts, large and small a voice.

Enable resources and data integration as you need it. Never have a phone or online meeting with only your providers. If you need digital content in your LMS, include the LMS representative every time you talk with a publisher. You will avoid useless finger pointing, which is just an excuse not to deliver the materials in the way you need them.

Tell all suppliers HOW you need their product before you sign a contract. Telling a publisher that you only support OneRoster® for authentication and LTI® or Thin Common Cartridge (TCC®) for seamless access to content inside your LMS library after the contract has been signed will not work and is not fair to the provider. Use integration language in your RFPs and do not accept responses from publishers who will not commit to delivering resources as instructed.

Once you choose the learning model for your district, using these recommendations as guideposts will help your district team scale an effective digital ecosystem to support teachers and students.

Beatriz Arnillas is the senior educational advisor for itslearning Inc. and has just been recognized as one of the two recipients of the IMS Global 2018 William H. (Bill) Graves Leadership Award. Arnillas received the award alonside fellow educator Lenny Schad, chief technology information officer for the Houston Independent School District (HISD), for the work they did together in Houston.


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