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5 Higher Ed Tech Trends for 2012

In 2012, higher education institutions will look to improve the learning experience through analytics and personalized learning environments, while reducing costs with digital resources and cloud technologies.

Washington, DC-based Gilfus Education Group has released its annual list of the top five trends in education innovation for 2012, which included three focused on higher education technologies:

  • Prestigious institutions will launch online experiences designed to be as unique as those available to students on campus:
  • "Dynamic and flexible learning experience engines" will emerge to replace learning management systems (LMS); and
  • Tablets will surge as a means of delivering courses and e-learning media.

"What's happening, especially with the prestigious institutions and the large state universities, is that because technology is evolving so much that those institutions are investing an incredible amount of money, despite their own budget cuts, into crafting online learning experiences that are as unique as the on-campus experience so that there is a true distinction and a true value that can warrant the higher tuition dollars and preserve the prestige of the institution," said Frank Ganis, a general partner at Gilfus.

"I think the thing we'll see in 2012 is the increasing use of learning analytics to better personalize the learning environment," said Karen Cator, the United States Department of Education's director of technology. "Basically, these products that are adapting to the learners, products that are returning to the learner the next thing based on data and analysis of that data."

But there are other trends to watch for in the new year.

"I think 2012 will see an expansion of a variety of ways of getting access to the materials that students need for learning," said Cator. Some of these trends are not new to colleges and universities, but they are becoming much more visible and embedded in the higher education experience.

E-Textbooks in 2012
Ganis said he believes 2012 will be a banner year for digital textbooks on college and university campuses.

"We have clients who are large university systems who have declared that, come fall 2012, that's it, that's the preferred format," said Ganis.

Retailers are also getting into the e-textbook game. In September 2011, Amazon.com  began offering digital textbooks for on-demand rental. Students can download the e-textbooks to their Kindles, PCs, iPads, BlackBerries, or Android-based devices. Highlighted text and margin notes made directly on the device can then be saved in the Amazon Cloud for access even after the rental expires.

"I think the trend is towards--I wouldn't call them e-books, I'd call them 'digital learning environments,'" said Cator. She explained that e-books are digital representations of books, with text and pictures. "But when we think about the expansion in digital books or digital learning environments, it also includes not just the text and pictures, but also video and Web sites and simulations, visualizations, and environments where you're testing yourself and lots of other kinds of things that would be important."

Open Resources
Another trend to watch is open educational resources.

"Higher education is further along in thinking about open education resources and the kinds of things that can be licensed for use and reuse. I think that's something we'll definitely continue to see in 2012," said Cator.

The California Senate is currently considering a bill that would nudge colleges toward using open education resources in the form of free online textbooks for the state's 3 million college students instead of print books as a means of saving them money. If passed, the bill will establish the online California Digital Open Source Library, which will house the 50 most commonly used books for required lower-division courses. Similar to Flat World Knowledge, students and teachers will have access to free digital versions of the books with an option to buy printed versions for $20. The resources will fall under a Creative Commons license, which means they'll be open for reuse and customization.

California is not alone in this endeavor. In 2011, the state of Washington developed a plan for an Open Course Library that will contain online texts for 81 of the most popular courses. Forty-two courses are already completed. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare initiative also publishes almost all of the university's material for its students.

The Online Classroom
Textbooks won't be the only educational resource that will see increased online delivery in 2012. The classroom itself will also exist online more than ever before.

Ganis noted that at any large university, there are often certain core courses that are broken up into 10 or even 20 sections during any semester. While there will still be live classes, many students will experience the class via live or recorded video delivered online. While this may not sound like anything new, Ganis said the way it will be done is.

"Because there is just one professor and every student gets the same knowledge and information, there is no longer any advantage of having one professor over another and there is a lot more flexibility."

The difference will be in the new technology available and the higher production values of both the live broadcasts and the recorded videos.

"It will be high production value because the professors won't have the burden of producing the content: they will have the support of some very talented designers," said Ganis. "So, that's really going to shake-up the educational system starting fall 2012 and I think we're going to see it propagate very quickly."

Mobile Devices
Mobile computing will continue to grow on higher education campuses as more and more students access online lectures and other learning resources with their smartphones or tablets.

"In terms of becoming a much more exciting experience, mobile devices are certainly playing a role," said Ganis. "Certainly we can do easy things with mobile devices and it's already being done, like podcasts, or students taking pictures or videos and incorporating that into the classroom experience."

And ed tech companies appear eager to help schools take greater advantage of the potential offered by these devices. Desire2Learn's Mobile Web platform, for instance, enables students to access course materials, calendars, bookmarks, and other learning materials through their Blackberry, Android, or iOS devices.

Cator believes that handheld devices coupled with social media will create greater collaboration and learning opportunity in the coming year.

"We have, in the past, been thinking about social networking just for socialness and we now can think about leveraging the same ability for people to connect to each other, but specifically to do school work and to learn together," said Cator.

Campuses Move to the Cloud
With so many resources and learning opportunities moving online, and pressed by the need to reduce IT infrastructure costs, more and more campuses will take advantage of the benefits provided by cloud technologies.

"I think what's interesting about cloud computing is that it allows resources to be available from a variety of places so it enables the improvement of content," said Cator.

"The truth of the matter is that the way many college and university budgets work is that they can't depreciate the equipment fast enough before it becomes not so useful. So what a lot of schools want to do is get out of the hardware and technology stack business, focus on content, and put as much in the cloud as possible," said Ganis. "It's just starting and will continue to increase. And as the equipment becomes depreciated, it will accelerate the movement to the cloud."

Ganis said that technological innovation is "all driven by Moore's Law," which states that the number of transistors that can be cheaply placed on a chip doubles approximately every two years, "and universities can't keep up with the technology. With budget cutbacks, rising costs, and the need to change outmoded business models, many institutions are candidly realizing that if they don't rapidly pursue smart innovation, they may severely undermine the future continuity of their schools."

About the Author

D.A. Barber is a freelance science and education journalist. He can be reached at dbarber@dakotacom.net.

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