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3 Learning Content Trends to Watch in 2014

When ed tech leaders have a conversation about trends, you can usually expect at least one of them to mention MOOCs. In fact, massive open online courses are one of several areas where technology is having a tremendous impact on learning content; the sheer variety of available learning resources is causing educators to rethink the traditional college lecture and textbook.

We asked five experts to take the temperature of current learning-content trends for 2014. Here, they assess the "hotness" of MOOCs, e-textbooks and open educational resources, and explain the reasoning behind each rating

Meet the panelists: Phil Hill (@PhilOnEdTech) is an educational technology consultant and analyst who has spent the last 10 years advising in the online education and educational technology markets. He is also an author, blogger at e-Literate and speaker, and he has become recognized in the ed tech community for his insights into the broader education market trends and issues. Rey Junco is an associate professor of library science at Purdue University (IN) and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. His research has focused on informing best practices in using social technologies to enhance learning outcomes. He blogs at Social Media in Higher Education. Malcolm Brown has been director of the Educause Learning Initiative (ELI) since 2009. Previously, he was the director of academic computing at Dartmouth College (NH). Adrian Sannier is a professor of practice in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Engineering at Arizona State University. Previously Sannier was senior vice president for product at Pearson. From 2005 to 2010, he served as CIO and a professor in the Division of Computing Studies at ASU. Ellen Wagner is executive director of WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies), a division of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. She is also a partner and founder of Sage Road Solutions, providing advisory oversight for industry intelligence and enablement services and solutions practices. Previously, she was senior director of worldwide e-learning at Adobe and senior director of worldwide education solutions for Macromedia.

Ratings Key
Hot ****
Warm ***
Cool **
Cold *


**** Ellen Wagner: MOOCs have sparked realizations that learning experiences come in all shapes and sizes, and that course completion might not be the only end goal. This is the year of the MOOC-as-community, not the MOOC-as-the-course. The "hotness" of MOOCs is less about the MOOCs themselves and more about the fact that they have shown us that we can all be more creative about how we create distributed, online learning experiences and how we engage with our wide variety of stakeholders.

**** Rey Junco: MOOCs are pretty hot, yet I'm quite troubled by the trend to push MOOCs as a way to provide educational opportunity. On the one hand, a MOOC can certainly help someone with few resources to attend a degree-granting institution and access organized educational content. Yet there is a strong movement to flip the classroom by offloading content to the online space and focusing on engagement and process during offline class time. I see these trends as being on the same continuum yet moving in opposite directions — for if we believe that engagement is an important factor in the educational process, then the "haves" will enjoy more access to engaging educational experiences, while the education of "have-nots" will be comprised almost exclusively of content.

*** Adrian Sannier: Just a little over two years old, MOOCs rocked the ed tech world with their rapid rise to prominence. MOOCs delivered global scale classes from blue chip brands and the investment capital has poured in with the promise of disruption. However, in the last year low success rates and questions about quality have driven some to wonder if MOOCs aren't already headed into the trough of despair. Over the course of the next year, expect MOOCs to be understood less as a radical educational panacea and more as an extreme point on the continuum of online learning where the amount and quality of human attention a student experiences will differentiate one experience from another. Also, someone's going to have to address the issue of who is ultimately going to pay for all this (besides investors). I expect that conversation to heat up this year, too.


**.5 Malcolm Brown: Curiously, the "career path" of e-textbooks has been somewhat rocky. Their potential has been compromised by the tug of war of the various players' interests (schools, publishers, faculty and students). The evolution of e-textbooks (and e-books generally) has been hampered by developers clinging to the old model of the physical book. It's amazing how poorly e-books are designed, as though the design were an afterthought. Over the long term, the e-textbook is an inevitability, but its progress will continue to be at a modest pace.

** Wagner: E-textbooks have made it clear that there are alternatives for providing learning content that support direct instruction and save students money. Yet today's e-textbooks are often nothing more than a paper book that has been scanned as a PDF and "shoveled" online. They are a transitional content delivery technology, living somewhere between printed paper textbooks and interactive multimodal learning experiences that will eventually take better advantage of interactivity, contribution, connectivity and collaboration. Clearly the shift from paper to digital is a big one and introduces a variety of logistical shifts — e.g., one purchases book licenses for periods of use rather than buying tangible book objects that live on a bookshelf forever. However, "shovelware" does not fundamentally change pedagogy or practice in profound ways.

* Phil Hill: I think that the low adoption of e-texts by students, the cratering of the e-text market (see Kno, Chegg, Inkling, etc.) and control-driven business models (sure you can go digital, if you force every student to adopt) are fairly obvious by now. The real opportunity is in courseware and natively digital content options, rather than converting flat texts to digital readers. Digital content will be huge, but as conceived as e-text, it's not hot.

* Sannier: Despite the success of e-reading generally, the e-textbook revolution that should be riding this wave of device ubiquity just hasn't materialized. So far, e-texts are another way to read textbooks. Some people like them, other people don't. But no one seriously expects the e-text to be effective for a more diverse set of students than paper books, or to somehow drastically reduce the time it takes students to master college algebra. Even if students eventually use tablets to do most of their reading, don't expect the e-text to have much impact on the cost of education or its effectiveness. They will probably help reduce back pain.

Open Educational Resources

** Brown: OER is still struggling to enter the mainstream. It's a bit like accessibility: It's the right thing to do, but it seems to require additional time and effort, and time is the one thing our devices seem to subtract from us rather than restore to us. It appears that the rate of progress of OER will be even more modest than that of e-textbooks.

** Sannier: Without question, OER might help contain textbook costs and help increase accessibility, particularly globally. Curation — the cost of sorting through all the material available to find the most valuable pieces — continues to be a challenge, although maybe someone will get that right next year. OER will continue to grow and put downward pressure on price, but there's no reason to expect that replacing published content with the free variety will do much to improve student outcomes. Some technology approaches that do promise to move the needle on student success — like machine learning and big data — will require ongoing investment to create and maintain, and so lie outside the reach of OER.

**.5 Wagner: It is hard for me to think of OER as a trend that wanes from hot to cold. OER represents a dramatic shift in how we think about licensing content, content attribution and content use. OER is saving U.S. postsecondary students millions of dollars in textbook costs. It is transforming multinational publishing companies. It is a fundamental component of how we are going to approach higher education practice and policy in this country. I appreciate that it has been on the education scene for long enough that it is not as shiny bright as other big ideas. However, it is too foundational to let it get lost.

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.

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