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UNC Launches 'App Store' for Digital Learning Tools

By Marguerite McNeal

Edtech buying decisions can seem like a Rube Goldberg machine. So many moving pieces must work in sync, from faculty research to legal department sign-off to budgetary approvals. The University of North Carolina System wants to make the purchasing process less of a headache for both educators and edtech providers.

Today UNC launched the Learning Technology Commons, a catalogue of pre-approved digital learning products available for purchase by the 20,000 faculty members across the system’s 17 institutions. The Commons is designed to make edtech buying decisions easier for faculty and staff. Vendors will have the benefit of closing deals faster and reaching a wider potential user base.

“Ultimately this will yield more evidence-based decision-making about edtech,” says Matthew Rascoff, vice president in the Office of Learning Technology and Innovation at the University of North Carolina System. “We’ll buy stuff that really works, not just the stuff that’s effectively sold.”

Common Sense

The Learning Technology Commons aims to iron out inefficiencies in edtech procurement. Rascoff recalls overhearing faculty from one UNC campus praise one tool, while instructors at another institution said they weren’t allowed to use it because their legal department thought it wasn’t compliant with FERPA.

With the Commons, faculty will be able to select tools that have already been approved by the UNC system. Any software, app, game or edtech provider can apply to join the network. They must agree to a standard set of requirements defined by UNC, which include agreeing to protect student privacy, comply with relevant laws and regulations, and share pricing at different volume levels. The idea is to make the decision-making process for faculty “feel more like downloading an app on your phone and less like doing a giant RFP for an enterprise planning system,” Rascoff says.

The Commons will especially benefit smaller schools in the system that have had to pay more per capita for edtech. The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, with 600 students, doesn’t have the economies of scale that UNC Chapel Hill, with 30,000 students, enjoys. The Commons will help schools achieve better volume discounts, Rascoff says.

Communities of Practice

The Commons is built on the LearnTrials platform, an online edtech management system that allows users to share and review products. “For faculty it feels like TripAdvisor,” says LearnTrials CEO Karl Rectanus. “They rate products, ask questions and create portfolios.”

The community-driven approach helps the system capitalize on knowledge that faculty build as they use edtech tools across institutions. “We’ll get a more quality-driven edtech ecosystem by letting the best products rise to the top of the heap through a crowdsource mechanism” Rascoff says.

For edtech providers who want to join the Commons, the application process is designed to take less than 20 minutes. A joint committee of faculty and administrators from across the UNC system will review applications. Rascoff, who heads the committee, expects that most vendors will make it through the process and faculty reviews will determine what scales.

UNC held a soft launch of the Commons for 20 vendors last week, and four had submitted applications as of Friday. Rascoff says he hopes it will become a “complete diner menu,” allowing faculty to choose from a wide variety of tools that span disciplines and application types. "It’s more of an ecosystem of applications that will be the technology enablers of instruction rather than one big application in the learning management system," he says.

Edtech providers can apply to join the UNC Learning Technology Commons here


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