How Learning Will Work in the Near Future: 12 Features of Next-Gen Platforms

It’s still harder than it should be to create an effective sequence of learning experiences in K-12, postsecondary education, or organizational training. Owing to underinvestment and weak demand articulation, learning platforms are still five years behind the growing demand for engaging, learner-centered, competency-based experiences that result in employability (and other favorable outcomes).

The good news is that progress is being made on a dozen fronts. Next generation learning grant programs like NGLC and Race to the Top are creating focus and awareness. Collaborations like Digital Promise‘s League of Innovative Schools is aggregating demand.

Following are 12 components of next-gen learning and 12 development vectors, groups of organizations on a similar path to next-gen learning, and 12 suggestions for philanthropies that want to accelerate progress.

Next-Gen Components. Next-gen learning platforms will include a dozen core elements:

  1. Learning tools: social, collaborative, productivity, and presentation tools;

  2. Relationship tools: progress monitoring, academic advisory, scheduling, career/college guidance, links to health, youth, and family services;

  3. Content: easy content development and management tools, tagged libraries of open and proprietary content, and intuitive search;

  4. Assessment tools: test and quiz builder (e.g. MasteryConnect), database of performance tasks and rubrics (e.g. Literacy Design Collaborative), peer review tools (e.g., Peerceptiv) and tools that calibrate assessment of performance tasks (see market research);

  5. Super gradebook: combines multiple sources of formative assessment, and achievement analytics featuring data visualization (e.g., BrightBytes);

  6. Profile & portfolio: comprehensive learner profiles (see Data Backpacks for full description) and digital portfolios where learners capture artifacts that represent personal bests;

  7. Personalization: adaptive learning should be easily incorporated and/or learner profiles should drive digital playlists of recommended learning experiences; and

  8. Learning management tools: assignment management and dynamic grouping (e.g., Edmodo), achievement recognition and progress management systems (badges or other micro credentialing strategies).

Successful platforms will become ecosystems with a constellation of four aligned services:

  1. Student services: academic support, tutoring, work-based learning, financial aid;

  2. Teacher services: professional development (e.g., LearnZillion, Bloomboard), lesson and tool sharing (e.g., BetterLesson); behavior management (e.g., ClassDojo);

  3. School services: student information, implementation support, new school development, and school improvement services; and

  4. Back-office service: enrollment, finance, and personnel.

The whole ecosystem should be mobile-friendly because it will often be accessed via smartphone.

Development Vectors. There are also a dozen change forces generally coalescing around these next-gen components (we discussed 10 forces 14 months ago). They include:

1. Updated LMS. Some LMS providers have added personalized learning and MOOC-like features as well as open content: Agilix launched Buzz, Instructure launched, Desire2Learnlaunched Open Courses. Free learning platforms include Pearson OpenClass and Google Classroom. Given Amazon’s acquisition of TenMarks and their aggressive marketing of web services we’ll probably see more of them in the learning space.

2. Social learning. Free social learning platform Edmodo serves 46 million users. LMS platforms are adding social and collaborative features that improve the ability for instructors to utilize dynamic grouping and improve communication.

3. MOOCs. With 118 institutional partners, Coursera offers 900 courses to 11 million learners. It has primarily expanded postbaccalaureate learning but some community colleges are wrapping MOOCs in student services, and emerging low cost ecosystems likely to produce improved completion rates.

4. Anywhere anytime learning. A variety of job training sites starting with Lynda to Udemy support individual learners and corporate clients. General Assembly created a premium experience with talented instructors and a community of entrepreneurial learners.

5. Engagement. Most learning institutions want to better engage students to boost persistence and performance. Summit Public Schools is building an open platform that combines skill building playlists and standards-based projects; so is Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. School networks are collaborating to improve the ability to assess engaging projects.

In HigherEd, Fidelis is supporting learning relationships and Echo360 is promoting active learning.

6. Competency. Where it’s possible to backmap from job requirements, professional training will increasingly become competency-based, and that’s likely to include educator preparation.

In addition to a leading online program, Southern New Hampshire University developed College for America, an innovative competency-based degree program aimed at low wage workers and Motivis, a learning platform to support similar initiatives.

7. Data & assessment. The shift to digital launched an explosion of keystroke data, but today’s platforms are ill equipped to capture and synthesize information from multiple sources. Tablet bundles and online learning providers may be among the early leaders using data to improve learning and measuring learner dispositions including collaboration and mindset. Clarity from BrightBytes is a widely used research-based decision support platform. Secondary and postsecondary schools are encouraging students to build portfolios using apps like EduClipperPathbrite and Google Drive.

8. Adaptive learning. Elementary adaptive learning products including i-Ready and Dreambox are gaining widespread elementary adoption. ALEKS and Knewton are gaining secondary and postsecondary adoption. Current adaptive products live in a “walled garden” of proprietary content but as learner profiles improve, predictive algorithms will be applied across larger content libraries.

9. App ecosystems. A few platforms are attempting to harness the mobile app explosion. Edmodo has hundreds of apps. Fingerprint started by helping parents tame the preschool app market is now helping schools build app networks. Google Apps for Education has enough functionality to be considered an app ecosystem.

10. Ecosystems. The explosion of mobile apps suggests that it may not be a unitary platform that anchors learning ecosystems. It may be an app store and set of interoperability standards that promote a plug and play learning world.

11. Dashboards. First there were data dashboards like Aspire’s SchoolZilla and EL Haynes’ SchoolForce. Then came Summit’s Personal Learning Plan, a personalized learning interface that sits on top of the learning platform. FuelEd’s Peak is a new example of an object repository that sits on top of a legacy LMS and facilitates a modular personalized approach.

12. Personal growth. Watch the interest-based personal growth space for developments in modular mobile learning, quantified self, peer and social supports, game-based strategies, and learner analytics.

Smart planning and purchasing by districts and networks is the fuel behind many of these change vectors. By aggregating demand and improving market signaling, networks can accelerate platform improvements to better serve learners.

Advice. Learning platforms will be foundational to the development and adoption of next gen learning. Most K-12 and HigherEd institutions of learning will belong to networks that share learning experience (LX) features, support services and a platform ecosystem. These networks and ecosystems require large scale investment so it’s important to use the right form of capital for the right job. A recent impact investing paper summarized pros and cons:

  • Public: best at providing coverage and promoting equity; poor at flexibility and responsiveness.

  • Private, non-profit: best at taking a long view and serving vulnerable populations, poor at promoting efficiency and scale.

  • Private, for-profit: best at efficiency and scale; unlikely to target unprofitable segments.

As evidenced by the NYC iZone over the last decade, important innovations can occur when public leaders aggregate demand, when foundations promote equity, and when private enterprise creates and scales innovations.

Philanthropists contemplating strategies to accelerate development and adoption of platform ecosystems can consider four investment mechanisms:

  • R&D: attacking basic problems and exploring new learning opportunities (high risk, high potential return, low certainty);

  • Push: iterating and scaling what appears to be working (low risk, moderate return, high certainty);

  • Pull: used in inefficient markets, pull mechanisms including aggregating demand, inducement prizes, and eliminating regulatory barriers (moderate risk, potential for high return, low certainty) (see Using Prize & Pull Mechanisms to Boost Learning); and

  • Advocate: encourage public investment and adoption.

Following are a dozen examples of investment initiatives in each of these categories.


1. Lay the groundwork for super gradebooks by supporting standards and strategies that would make it easy to combine formative assessment data from multiple sources.

2. Support research resulting in comparable growth measures so that progress made in different learning environments can be easily be compared.

3. Support network and/or platform related research into developmental areas such as motivational profiles, recommendation engines, and dynamic scheduling.

4. Support capabilities demonstrations like predictive analytics and automated scoring (e.g.,Automated Student Assessment Prize).

Push mechanisms:

5. Support groups of new/transformed schools using a common platform (eg. New Tech Network, Summit Public Schools) and commitment to simultaneously iterate the learning environment and platform. Support a competency-based college developing a new platform (e.g., College for America and Motivis).

Pull mechanisms:

6. Support regional programs (e.g. NGLC) which are advancing a common vision of next gen secondary and postsecondary learning.

7. Support a group of districts adopting a common platform and blended learning strategies.

8. Support the New England Secondary School Consortium’s regional work to promote common principles for competency-based learning and their effort to build a HigherEd network willing to accept a proficiency-based diploma.

9. Sponsor a platform demonstration competition (e.g., XPRIZE).

Direct investment:

10. Using grants, program related investments (PRI), or mission related investments (MRI), foundations can back promising platforms (e.g., Girard‘s support for Activate Instruction).


11. Support a blog series, papers, and conferences advancing a vision of next gen learning (e.g.,Educause).

12. Construct a jointly funded project with a state to support low cost platform adoption (e.g.,Canvas adoption by Utah universities).

Informed and aggregated purchasers are the most important market drivers. Continued venture investment in promising companies, occasionally aided by some of these philanthropic strategies, will support continued platform progress.

This blog is part of the Learning Platforms Series brought to you by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned in for the final published project, Getting Smart on Next-Gen Learning Platforms and check out additional posts in the series:

Next Generation Learning Challenges, Literacy Design Collaborative, DreamBox Learning, Curriculum Associates, Agilix, Canvas – Instructure, Pearson, & Fuel Education are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

MasteryConnect, BrightBytes, Edmodo, LearnZillion, Bloomboard, Better Lesson, ClassDojo, Udemy, & General Assembly are Learn Capital portfolio companies where Tom Vander Ark is a partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Robert Clegg

Engagement: Experts in the game based learning space tout the "flow" and engagement of commercial video games. They then extract game dynamics that apply to learning processes. The problem is the commercial games they use as examples have $50M-$80M production budgets.

1. How do we really measure engagement? Do kids spend their own money to play? Are they spending their own free time? Are they staying up late at night to play? Are they virally banding with friends to play? Are they wearing t-shirts and other gear? Or are they just happy to not be doing other boring work in class? Are they captive players?

2. Do you see anyone funding a "Halo" for science education?

2b. EdSurge reviewed Glass Lab's school version of SimCity as an epic fail. Why was that?

3. The prototype bar for getting a AAA educational game up and running is quite high. Who do you see supporting this kind of effort?


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks for your comment Robert. Yes, as you well know, games cost a lot to develop (less than 5 years ago but a lot) and nobody is making any money trying to sell them to schools. No venture backed company could afford to do Halo for science. NSA and NSBA fund some games but most end up orphaned for lack of a business model. Some progress with gasified quests (e.g. and sponsored games (e.g.,

Robert Clegg

Dashboards: Beyond skills, complex learning environments do not lend themselves to simple assessment metrics. Even if they can be broken down into some sort of scaffolding expertise, the data reported to the "dashboard" is not standard. For example, if one studied chess to form critical thinking there would be a number of learning events that wouldn't map to standards. Nor would many teachers understand what those learning achievements really were (assuming most are not chess experts). This would also be true of a railroad game that taught logistics.

As dashboards are being forced to standardize so teachers only need to master one system, how will the innovation and complexity of custom learning environments be captured? Won't innovative information display of complex achievements need to fit the environment rather than a standard display?

Do you see the need to standardize dashboards and assessment information constricting innovation in content development?


Tom Vander Ark

Agree on limitations of dashboards but feel strongly about providing better/broader feedback on what matters.
I'm a fan of 4 outcome categories at (cognitive, content, habits of success, expeditions) and their varied efforts to gather data and provide quality feedback. DSST (Denver STEM network) staff has shared values and a commitment to providing each other and all students feedback behavior associated with those values.
In this post on learner profiles
I discussed the use of student curated portfolios--a collection of personal bests--as another strategy for capturing evidence of what matters.

Robert Clegg

The recent University of Michigan study on assessments and game based learning showed that in-game assessments interfered with the flow of the games. For example, teachers need to see quizzes to measure what a student knows before moving on to the next level. Yet students don't want this interruption as it breaks their engagement and flow. Would you enjoy watching Game of Thrones or any other series that has people binge watching if every 15 minutes your friend next to you started asking you all these questions to see how well you were paying attention?

Do complex and longer form learning experiences require a different form of assessment? And does that type or form of assessment conflict with the immediate needs of teachers to assess incremental progress?


Tom Vander Ark

That's why I hate the action games that use math as a gate (i.e., stop and solve a math problem). I prefer games built around the mechanics of math (e.g., ST Math, Mangahigh).
The use of gasification to boost persistence in adaptive learning systems (e.g., DreamBox and i-Ready) has been quite successful.
Another reason I like SummitPS is they way they mix playlists and projects--short and long learning experiences, one with embedded assessment, the other using rubric assessment.
I think teachers deserve better tools for combining various forms of formative feedback--a super gradebook

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