IT Trends | Feature

What's Hot, What's Not 2014

5 IT thought leaders take the temperature of the biggest tech trends in higher education.

The start of a new year has long been a catalyst for reflection and prognostication, and at Campus Technology it kicks off an annual tradition: taking the temperature of the top tech trends in higher ed. We asked five IT thought leaders to assess the "hotness" of everything from mobile devices and flipped classrooms to adaptive learning, badges and the LMS — and to explain the reasoning behind each rating.

Are they on target, or did they get it all wrong? Email us!

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 *

Mobile Platforms and BYOD

*** Adrian Sannier: According to a study published this summer by Google, nearly half of U.S. college students bring a tablet to school, and three-quarters of students bring a smartphone. As these percentages grow, the long-awaited market for a new kind of digital educational experience will finally open: an experience produced not at cottage scale, but at global scale. It will be realized with high production value through ongoing investment that incorporates big data, analytics and personalization driven through machine learning — to provide students and their teachers with a much more complete picture of a student's proficiencies and challenges, capable of producing a truly personalized learning path.

**** Malcolm Brown: Information technology departments' normal approach of "let's standardize so we can support you better" will no longer hold in a time when most faculty and students have multiple devices and nobody has exactly the same device and app set. So IT is challenged with respect to its traditional models and its traditional "way of thinking" about what business it is in. Like the library has been doing, IT must make careful decisions about what to outsource and what to run locally. IT organizations will be sorting this out for several years, with no two institutional approaches being the same.

Adaptive Learning

**** Sannier: Proponents assure us that the same machine-learning techniques that pore through humanity's Google searches and Amazon purchases to predict so successfully what we want to know and buy can also be used to help each of us learn in our own way, at our own pace, so that in the end we can all learn substantially more in substantially less time. From Knewton's $54 million in investment capital, to the $75 million paid by the Apollo Group for Carnegie Learning, substantial bets are being placed on the idea that machine-learning algorithms, crunching the click patterns of millions of students, can help each of us learn better and faster. If adaptive learning is going to work, it will work first in subjects like math and science, subjects where student success rates using traditional approaches are a serious challenge, but where right and wrong are easier for a machine to establish. Expect efficacy to be the word of the day, as institutions begin to go public with outcomes this year.

**** Phil Hill: Like MOOCs, adaptive learning can be heavy on hype and light on actual results. For the first generation of online learning, the tendency was to replicate the factory model of education (one size fits all) but just do it online. For the second generation, the ability to use online technologies to create multiple pathways for students and to personalize learning will be a strength that can even go beyond face-to-face methods (for any classes larger than 10 to 15 students). One challenge here is that vendors tend to push automated, data-driven solutions as the only way to go, when the opportunities for faculty-selected or student-selected pathways have at least as much promise.

**** Brown: Adaptive learning is where learning analytics was two years ago: lots of potential, lots of promise, with the vast majority of its future before it. Adaptive learning might well play out in much the same way that learning analytics has: a very important and useful tool, but no miracle cure.

Big Data

*** Brown: Obviously big data is itself not the big deal; it's what you do with the data and the actions you take based on its analysis that is truly the "big deal." There's a great deal of potential for schools to work imaginatively with their data. Schools might want to think twice before simply buying ready-made modules and instead think more specifically about their institutional goals when formulating plans about what to do with their big data.

**** Rey Junco: There have been some amazing strides in big data applications in education over the last year. Until recently, predictive analytics in education has focused on using limited data points from learning and course management systems, and this has limited the predictive abilities of these models. More recently, a focus on examining data already available about students and data sources that go well beyond online discussion board activity has led to breakthroughs in how prediction might work. For instance, CourseSmart uses data from student use of digital textbooks to calculate an engagement index that is a stronger predictor of student course outcomes than previous academic achievement. Such data collection is only the beginning.

**** Ellen Wagner: Relatively few institutions are truly leveraging big data techniques such as pattern recognition or predictive analytics to report on or to evaluate institutional value and impact, even when it comes to issues such as student retention, progress and completion. Nevertheless, expectation of stakeholders from other sectors of the U.S. economy that do depend on big data for proactively anticipating where to focus investment, time and energy are forcing the education community to move toward data-driven decision-making. This comes as demands for more accountability, regardless of the size of the data source(s), continue to grow.

** Hill: I believe that the concept of combining data from multiple sources on a large scale to create unique insights will be very important for education in the long term. But right now the focus is too much on enterprise software solutions to vague problems with ill-defined data. The real potential in the short term is for consumer-driven tools to allow experimentation with new data, which will eventually lead to enterprise-class solutions.

Flipped Classroom

*** Wagner: As someone who has worked in the field of educational technology for a while now, the excitement over the flipped classroom is highly satisfying. Using media to capture repeatable information-transfer tasks so that the value of interactive, interpersonal moments can be maximized has always been the strongest value proposition for leveraging media in instructional settings. I appreciate that flipped classrooms are helping make this direct benefit of media deployment for greater learner engagement more obvious.

*** Sannier: The flipped classroom movement legitimizes the use of a wide range of technologies — from e-texts and instructional videos to MOOCs and the Khan Academy — to replace traditional, in-person delivery of content. As more and more instructors make this shift, it will continue to strengthen demand for quality. Flipped classrooms strengthen the value of certain kinds of instructors — those who connect well with students as individuals, and specialize in providing guidance and inspiration in addition to expertise. As more classes flip, pressure for change will mount, particularly in large lecture classes aimed at general education. This is a trend I see accelerating for some time to come.

**** Brown: The flipped classroom is now an established course model; it's the "flavor" of blended learning that is generating the most buzz. The risk here is to rely too heavily on the model itself; thinking that simply by executing a flip that the course will improve is a variant of "just give them technology and things will improve." The opportunity is to do research into which kinds of flipping lead to improved learning outcomes. San Jose State University [CA] has led the way, as it has begun to discover where it works and where it does not.

**** Hill: It's easy to tell that flipped classroom is a hot topic, because it's already spawned a sub-genre of overheated apocalyptic pushback from some segments of faculty. You can also tell because the term "flipped classroom" has lost much of its meaning. Not all hybrid classes are flipped classes, and not all flipped classes are designed on the same principles. However, there is solid research that some of the biggest potential for improvements in learning will come from deliberately designed hybrid classes, and the flipped version, if done well, leads to more active learning opportunities.

Badges and Gamification

*** Sannier: A lot of new educational technology is serving to unbundle information — adding new layers of granularity to what students have achieved and what they have yet to accomplish. Instead of a C in College Algebra, Khan Academy students review badges that show them all the skills they've mastered, the concepts that still need practice, and specific goals still on the horizon. Badges are helping communicate learning at greater levels of detail for students and teachers, and they foreshadow alternative certifications that can provide employers with better visibility into the actual competencies of potential employees. These certifications have a certain dystopian potential, but I believe they will come on slowly enough to allow us to address very real privacy concerns. Gamification is such a powerful motivator that it must certainly continue to grow in influence, but I think it's hard to do much at cottage-industry scale. As the market for high-production-value adaptive learning experiences grows, badging and gamification will be integral to their design, helping motivate students to amass achievements and clearly communicating their competencies to instructors and potential employers.

** Junco: I'm not sure whether badges as a container for micro-credentialing will survive, but I see a growing need for micro-credentialing in the near-term future. Employers are more and more interested in having data on potential employee skills. But frankly, the way badges are currently being implemented is too rudimentary and will lead to their demise. (Granting a credential for completing a basic activity such as showing up for an event demotes the value of said credential.) Perhaps a better framework would be to consider badges a symbol of attainment of complex skills, assessed through evaluations developed as part of the curricular development process.
When I think about gamifying an educational intervention, I consider how game dynamics might be used in order to teach process instead of content. I've seen way too many educational games that look like board games that serve to repackage content with a shiny new exterior. Not only is this dull, it is bound to create educational ennui in our students, leading them to be less likely to engage in more effective methods of gamification.

*** Wagner: Badges are interesting because they provide evidence of learning, mastery, competency and completion. Increasingly at the center of a growing number of conversations related to school-to-work transitions, professional certifications, degree completion and the like, badges will be getting hotter. Gamification also is very hot these days as educators are trying to better engage with learners to improve success metrics such as student retention and program completion. It promises to help educators shift from talking at people in learning settings to inducing people to engage more deeply in completing tasks through motivational hooks such as rewards and recognition.

iPads and Other Tablets

*** Brown: iPads and tablets are cooling off, as it would have been impossible to sustain the record-breaking rate of diffusion. Overall, we're moving toward market saturation and the technology is settling down into its "sustaining innovation" period. Two aspects of tablets (and mobile technology generally) are significant, and neither one of these two aspects involves the tablet's hardware. First, it is the connectedness of these devices that will count in the future, as our personalized network of devices, aided and abetted by the Internet of things, will continue to "grow into" our household, our cars and many other dimensions of our lives. Second, the true story will be in software, the apps. As [Silicon Valley veteran] Marc Andreessen put it: "Software is eating the world."

* Junco: Giving students iPads and other tablets does not automatically lead to better learning outcomes. It's part of a myth that many in higher education have readily adopted: that throwing technology at an educational problem will automatically produce better learning outcomes. Accepting this myth then absolves institutions from providing faculty professional development to best use these tools in the curricular process. Instead of starting with the learning goals or outcomes, institutions start with the technology (because it's "cool," "new" and/or "shiny") and hope/expect that the learning outcomes will automatically follow. Before investing considerable resources in tablet initiatives (or even worse, requiring students to invest their own resources), we must ask ourselves: What is the goal of using tablets and can those goals be more efficiently and effectively reached without an expensive technological tool?

**.5 Wagner: Tablets are shaking up thinking on how to design learning experiences that take better advantage of mobility, personalization, connectivity and convenience. But it seems that the creative discussions around learning design and distributed pedagogy are running in parallel with the implementation and security questions that IT organizations need to balance. The devices themselves are part of a big enterprise IT conversation that has been burning brighter for a while now. But I don't see them as the creative catalyst that the other so-called "hot technologies" are bringing to this conversation.

Learning Management Systems

* Junco: I'm glad to see the LMS trend "cooling down." LMSes are a perfect example of what can happen when as an educational system we adopt a technology before evaluating all of the possibilities for reaching desired learning outcomes (not that I believe any learning outcomes were ever considered when colleges and universities were first adopting LMSes). LMSes are static, unengaging platforms that are typically also not intuitive to use. For these reasons, faculty and students dislike them. In fact, research shows that students would much rather use social technologies such as Facebook for the "learning" features of LMSes. It's about time we move toward more engaging platforms that help bolster student engagement and social and academic integration.

**.5 Wagner: There is a perception in some circles that LMSes as we have known them — primarily the content and course syllabi, student participation and record management tools — are artifacts of the past. I would suggest that as learning experiences of all kinds migrate to the Internet, and as online learning, blended learning and on-the-ground learning programs all look to leverage digital assets and experience more effectively, we are seeing a new generation of LMS emerge. The need for learning and content management platforms that interoperate with academic planning and advisements systems, CRM systems, social media and student information systems is more pronounced than ever. LMSes as we have known them earn two stars. The new emerging platforms that cover enterprise learning-experience management are closer to three stars.

*** Hill: I'm going to go against the grain and say that the LMS is a hot topic, albeit a boring and frequently frustrating one. While many people recognize that first-generation course management systems do not directly impact learning in most cases (they give administrative benefits by managing classroom chores), we are just now getting to the point where a majority of faculty actually use an LMS in their classes. The systems are finally accepted, and it is hard to argue with the benefit to students of seeing grades and having access to course materials in an organized fashion. The opportunity is for LMS providers (old and new) to keep these benefits while moving past the walled garden approaches that got us here. Ease of use and intuitive design cannot be overestimated as important aspects for future systems.

* Sannier: Am I just stubborn? How can I maintain year after year that the LMS is dead, when the LMS market is so clearly flourishing and expected to grow more than 25 percent annually each of the next five years? Investors are excited about LMSes too. Just over a year ago, Desire2Learn raised $80 million in venture money and Canvas raised $30 million this past June. Even stodgy market leader Blackboard has a fresh new CEO bent on resurgence. If this is dead, then what does hot look like?

The LMS is an established learning technology, a way for individual teachers, one class at a time, to digitally hand out papers, collect assignments, deliver quizzes or post announcements. To the extent that this technology introduced modest efficiencies in the classroom, those (very modest) gains have been fully realized. I don't dispute that more LMSes will be sold next year than were sold last year. I just don't expect them to have any more impact on improving teaching and learning next year than they had this year. Dead.

What About the 'M' Word?

When five higher ed IT experts have a conversation about trends, you can usually expect at least one of them to mention MOOCs. To find out what our panel had to say about massive open online courses, e-textbooks and open educational resources, read "3 Learning Content Trends to Watch in 2014."

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