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

By Dr. David Kellermann, Faculty of Engineering, University of New South Wales

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:

  1. Tailored learning experiences and communities to develop student skills and credentials, integrity, identify at-risk students, and to develop a passion for lifelong learning.
  2. A digital education platform built on a Learning Management System (LMS) that knows more about a student than their student ID and the fact they are enrolled in the course–that helps them know where they need to focus and succeed in the classroom.
  3. A broad enterprise platform with plans to integrate inaccessible or disconnected data such as: staff and student records, financial reports, curriculum, skills, timetables, facilities, resources, and software.

Some leaders may confidently tell you they’ve overcome the integration challenge outlined in the third initiative, but a more frank conversation with the CIO reveals otherwise. The gold standard would be a unified data layer that gathers information from all other systems for the sole purpose of reporting analytics.

The current state of HED digital transformation

Overall, the HED sector is well behind equal-sized enterprises when it comes to modern digital transformation. Most universities around the world still run their Student Information Systems (SIS) using legacy software running on dated on-site servers. Here’s an example of a typical workflow: A student enrolls online through an enrollment portal. Their student ID is added to an enrollment 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 LMS digital integration, which is still today the principal driver 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 that communicates in real time to a new SIS in the cloud? No. There will not be a new big LMS and SIS coming to market as the fundamental model 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-site systems are currently assessing cloud migration plans for their SIS with price tags of tens of millions of dollars. Schools have also considered switching from one LMS to another, but rarely is it worth changing.

Don’t recreate the wheel: Build upon modern platforms

For six years now, I have been thinking about what kind of future we want for HED, and what the path would be to improve digital education platforms at an institutional level. Since the HED industry includes many of the world’s leading researchers, I believe that the higher education sector should lead the private sector in digital infrastructure. 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 a LMS and SIS; rather to build on top of modern enterprise productivity platforms that are powered by the most modern cloud and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. It’s a place for people to create and collaborate. The dozens of siloed university data systems need to be unified one-by-one 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 providing digital environments with structure surrounding the who, what, when, where, why, and how of learning. The communication, productivity and collaboration that occurs will be reviewed 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 while 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 provide a structured digital classroom. The LMS is not a digital classroom, it’s 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. An environment that fosters learning, community, and formative experiences, acting as a digital representation of the physical campus. It will be constantly connected, leverage physical assets, and become a so-called “cyber-physical campus.”

The one thing I am certain of is that no university can build the next digital campus alone. The edtech sector will continue to offer more software (even though we may want less) that solves minor endpoint problems without addressing major data integration structural challenges. Universities must reclaim their digital estate and unify our digital campus in the same fashion that physical campuses have been already. We cannot build these systems from scratch; we must build on top of the modern cloud and services. What we build can be 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 by propriety systems, commercialized intellectual properties, patents, or 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.