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Building an App Store for Learning Tools

Rather than rely on a single LMS to manage all aspects of teaching and learning on its 17 campuses, the University of North Carolina system created an app store that gives faculty a chance to experiment with cutting-edge tech.

Matthew Rascoff has a name for the enterprise learning management system: a "Swiss Army Knife of mediocrity." As vice president of learning technology and innovation at the University of North Carolina General Administration, which oversees 17 university campuses with almost 225,000 students, Rascoff has observed that the most innovative faculty members at his institution use the LMS the least. Many professors working on experimental efforts hate the LMS and have sidestepped it, he noted.

Rather than rely on a single application to manage all aspects of teaching and learning, the UNC system has moved to an "app store" model it calls the Learning Technology Commons. "This gives faculty control over picking the tools they use and uses the crowd to decide which are the most effective, rather than one RFP committee," said Rascoff, speaking during a Dec. 16 Future Trends Forum video chat hosted by futurist Bryan Alexander.

To explain the thinking behind the Learning Technology Commons, Rascoff cited a blog post by Colorado State professor Jonathan Rees. "He argues that the LMS has become an impediment rather than enabler of digital learning and innovation," Rascoff said, "and that the enterprise model of a single system adopted by a campus and imposed on educators is the wrong way to think about supporting it in scale. That is my premise too." While the app-style economy has permeated other parts of our lives, he added, we are still stuck in one big Microsoft Office-style system in our teaching and learning.

The UNC system set out to develop a better mechanism to use educational technology tools — in a way that follows state law and federal laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); gives some control to IT administrators; and doesn't add too much to their workload. The app store model allows faculty to choose and evaluate their own tools — and by publishing their reviews and results, the hope is that quality apps will rise to the top based on their value for teaching and learning.

Alexander asked Rascoff why he found the app store model appealing. He replied that mobile apps are currently the most competitive and fast-moving sector in technology — and the most focused on user needs. UNC also saw value in creating pre-agreed terms of service, he noted. Just as any app developer has to agree to Apple's terms, it must agree to UNC's standard agreement to appear in the Learning Technology Commons. "That massively reduces the time it takes to do deals with us," Rascoff said. "We offer pre-agreed pricing and terms, and no legal department needs to be involved. That is a big source of the value."

Setting up those terms of service involved the bureaucratic challenge of creating a system-wide committee made up of IT, procurement, legal and educational technology executives. "They helped us craft terms and conditions to get traction with buyers," Rascoff said. "The procurement officials saw this as a way to make things more efficient, so why not try it?" He noted that UNC's larger campuses have already created some standard sets of terms, so why not extend that across multiple campuses? State law drives the terms, he added. The differences are smaller than the commonalities.

The UNC Learning Technology Commons is built on the LearnTrials platform, a research-based, online educational technology management system from vendor Lea(R)n. LearnTrials is used by many K–12 educators and their institutions to discover and manage more than 4,000 products.

"LearnTrials has developed a rubric so we know we are asking faculty the right questions about the app," Rascoff said. "They tell us how long they have been using it and the learning impact in outcomes. We are gathering and sharing meaningful data to inform decision-making. Then we can scale up those apps that are getting results and have efficacy data behind them."

A systemwide committee provides only a light filter of curation on applications in the Learning Technology Commons. "We let in almost any vendor because we want the evaluation to happen on the back end," Rascoff said. "We want the results to speak, not a committee. No committee could master the use cases and make central decisions. We just keep out bad actors. That is what Apple does. The vendors must follow basic guidelines and avoid being abusive. Users decide how many stars they get."

There is no official tech support from the university system for these apps, as there would be with an LMS. "It would be unreasonable to ask IT to support 4,000 tools out there. You are using this stuff at your own risk," Rascoff said, "although many vendors provide support. We recognize that limits usage to faculty who are more comfortable with technology. Vendors are the first line of support. The risks are there, but a bad outcome is that you wasted a few minutes." The alternative is to have a very narrow curated list of apps that are supported and the university forbids you from using everything else. "We are trying to navigate in between those bad extremes," he said.

Rascoff gave one example of a promising app on the commons. Called MobLab, the app is a social science simulation tool that offers both an authoring tool and pre-existing simulations. In a "tragedy of the commons" game, for instance, economics students act as fishermen and simultaneously decide how many hours to fish. A fisherman's catch depends on the number of hours he fishes and the total number of hours fished by all. The more the group fishes, the more the available stock of fish diminishes and the fewer fish one can catch each hour. The game teaches students about common pool resources and how self-interested use can cause harm to others (by creating negative externalities) and result in a tragedy of the commons. Students can explore how regulations, such as taxes or subsidies, can mitigate the overuse of natural resources.

Because the commons was just launched in 2016, Rascoff said the outcomes data is going to take a long time to realize. UNC still needs to get more faculty members using it, he admitted.

In fact, when asked to share some lessons learned from launching the project, Rascoff said he wished he had paid more attention to the rollout in terms of working with IT departments and faculty development centers. "They are the brokers of adoption who can explain the project. We would would love to see more faculty using it. We want to get the CIOs on board. Getting them excited about it is the thing that will determine whether this is successful." He said there is a chicken-and-egg problem with every two-sided market. You need to focus on attracting both vendors and users at the same time to create a healthy ecosystem. "Perhaps we put more emphasis on vendors and not enough on users initially," he said.

UNC would love other universities to be part of the Learning Technology Commons, Rascoff said. "I have been approached by six universities that want to join in or build something similar. I believe there is a network effect of doing it together."

As far as next steps, he said one goal is better integration that allows apps to tie into student information system data. Most student data is locked down in Peoplesoft or Banner, and those vendors' business model is to keep that data as closed as possible, Rascoff added. "Our obligation as a community is to unlock student data so it can be accessed by students and faculty, and with permission by Ed Tech vendors from the marketplace. What we have built is powerful, but we have not solved that integration problem. No student data flows through these apps. That is a big technology impediment. We need to push vendors or build APIs on our own."

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