How can higher education create a next generation digital campus? A call to build a modern digital core in an open-source alliance

In the past few years, I have spoken to vice chancellors, university presidents, CIOs, and deans from the world's largest and most prominent universities. What I found is they share 3 common initiatives to improve the quality of higher education (HED) for students, educators, and administrators:

In the past few years, I have spoken to leaders across the world’s biggest and best universities. From vice chancellors and university presidents to CIOs and deans, there are 3 major and universally common themes:

  1. Strategic visions centered around tailored learning experiences, learning communities, skills and credentials, integrity, at-risk identification, and lifelong learning.
  2. A digital education platform built principally on the Learning Management System (LMS) that, within the context of a course page, knows little more about a student than their student ID and the fact they are enrolled in the course.
  3. A broad enterprise platform with inaccessible or disconnected data around people, identity, records, finance, curriculum, skills, timetable, facilities, resources, software, along with a crawling project to try to integrate them all.

Some leaders may triumphantly tell you they’ve overcome the integration challenge of point 3, but a second and more frank conversation with the CIO will reveal otherwise. The gold standard, at best, is a unified data layer than ingests all other systems one-way for the sole purpose of analytics.

The current state of HED digital transformation

The higher education section is, on average, well behind equivalently sized enterprise in modern digital transformation. Most universities in the world still run their Student Information Systems (SIS) using legacy software running on ageing on-prem servers. A typical workflow goes as follows: A student enrolls online through an enrolment portal. Their student ID is added to an enrolment list for a particular course offering. At 3 a.m. the SIS writes a text file (.csv) to an accessible file location then the LMS reads the file and gives the student access to the course page. This is, quite literally, the extent of digital integration seen by the LMS, which is still today the principal vector for digital education. If you are shocked reading this, then you probably don’t work at a university.

Is the future of education a new modern LMS in the cloud that talks in real time to a new SIS in the cloud? No. There will not be a new big LMS and SIS coming to market: the fundamental paradigm of those systems is no longer relevant. Student Information Systems are different colored horses and Learning Management Systems are different colored carts.

Most universities today with legacy on-prem systems are currently assessing cloud migration plans for their SIS with price tags in the tens of millions. Most have also considered switching from one LMS to another, and rarely is it worth changing.

Don’t recreate the wheel: Build upon modern platforms

For 6 years now, I have been thinking about what kind of future we want for higher education, and what the path is to get there at an institutional level. I believe that the higher education sector, in the same tradition that it leads the world in research, should lead the private sector in digital infrastructure. We lag, not lead. But we have 3 major advantages that can help us gain the lead:

  • We have talented minds
  • We have a structured user experience (education is a vastly more structured experience than that of a knowledge worker)
  • We have a tradition of research and development partnerships

The future we want is not an LMS and an SIS; rather it is built on top of the most modern enterprise productivity platforms, and it is powered by the most modern cloud and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. It is a place for people to create and collaborate. The dozens of siloed data systems at universities need to be, one-by-one, unified on a Common Data Model (CDM), with a common authentication system, on a common cloud, with a common API. This is the foundation of the digital campus.

That system will be capable of provisioning digital environments with structure surrounding the who, what, when, where, why, and how of learning. The communication, productivity and collaboration that occurs will be contextualized with structured analytics that will empower every student with tailored experiences.

Assessing your digital learning platforms  

Let’s look at some specifics. Every university with accredited programs must manage curriculum. This usually involves structured documentation around the objective, assessment schedule and course learning outcomes for a particular subject a student can take. Every university must schedule courses using a central timetabling system that says when and where each class will happen whilst globally minimizing clashes. This is used to generate a timetable of classes with learning environment utilization. How many seats and what facilities does each room have? That is another database. What about the individual course offering? Typically, a PDF is required that sets out the course dates, the teaching staff, pass/fail requirements, the policies surrounding the course, and often the mapping between assessments, course learning outcomes, and program learning outcomes.

  • Who? The identity of the student and authentication.
  • What? The course as part of a program.
  • When? The timetable of lectures, labs, tutorials, assignments, and exams.
  • Where? The learning environment, lab, campus, and library.
  • Why? The course and program learning outcomes.
  • How? The course schedule, books, software, resources, and strategies.

These systems do not talk to each other and are not used to intelligently provision a structured digital classroom. The LMS is not a digital classroom, it is a digital bookshelf: resources for consumption and not creation.

A cross-institutional collaboration to build a unified platform  

I want to go even further beyond the digital classroom and invent the digital campus. Authentically digital, not a skeuomorphic second life. One that functionally enables learning, community, formative experiences, and does so as a digital twin to the physical campus: constantly connected and leveraging the physical assets and enhancing the physical campus in turn: the so-called cyber-physical campus.

Dr. Kellerman speaking at the Innovate conference in Sydney, Australia.

The one thing I am certain of is that no university can build it alone, and that the edtech sector will continue to offer more software (we want less not more) that solves minor endpoint problems without addressing the major structural challenge of data integration. We, the universities, must reclaim our digital estate, and unify our digital campus in the same fashion that our physical campuses have been already. We cannot build these systems from scratch; we must build on top of the modern cloud and services. But what we do build ourselves can be done as an open-source project with greater collective value than what we can buy off the shelf.

Meanwhile, there will be immense opportunity for IT consultants, system integrators and developers to become experts in the platform, and to create next generation experiences on top of a common next generation platform. Like the world of research publication, it will be driven by innovation and global dissemination, not propriety systems, commercialized intellectual properties, patents and trade secrets.

Come hear me speak about this topic at EDUCAUSE 2022  

At this year’s EDUCAUSE, I will be proposing the formation of an open-source software consortium for universities to begin creating and sharing interconnected solutions built on top of the Microsoft Azure and Dynamics 365 platform. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on barely good enough, one-off software solutions by individual universities that could’ve become a shared open-source project worth hundreds of millions of dollars in development value. Many universities already have components that can be shared. A shared software stack offers the only path to realistically unlock the execution of lofty vision statements and future strategies, lifting the tide on our sector as it faces disruptive threats.

Educause 2022 will be held October 25-28 in Denver, Colorado. I will be co-presenting a session with Nick Gilbert and Osama Khan from University of Surrey, and holding an off-site reception to discuss a new cross-institutional collaboration. All are welcome!

Please also feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me @DrKellermann to further discuss edtech and HED topics.