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Report: 6 Technology Barriers in Education

Technological illiteracy and lack of supports for faculty members are critical problems facing colleges and universities. But they're solvable. Unfortunately, according to a new report released this week, much more difficult challenges loom for education.

The report, the NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition identifies major trends in education technology, significant barriers facing ed tech and technological trends that will help shape teaching and learning in the near future. Horizon Reports are released annually by the New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative.

The NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition identified six critical obstacles higher education faces in the context of technology, in particular barriers that could hinder technology adoption in the coming years. Researchers categorized the problems by the ease with which the might be solved, from solvable to difficult to downright "wicked."

Solvable Challenges
The two most significant solvable challenges identified in this year's report are the low digital fluency of faculty and inadequate rewards for teaching.

The problem of faculty technological literacy (or lack thereof) is compounded, according to the researchers, by insufficient — or, at best, inconsistent — professional development.

"Faculty training still does not acknowledge the fact that digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession," according to the Horizon Report. "Despite the widespread agreement on the importance of digital media literacy, training in the supporting skills and techniques is rare in teacher education and non-existent in the preparation of faculty. As lecturers and professors begin to realize that they are limiting their students by not helping them to develop and use digital media literacy skills across the curriculum, the lack of formal training is being offset through professional development or informal learning, but we are far from seeing digital media literacy as a norm. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that digital literacy is less about tools and more about thinking, and thus skills and standards based on tools and platforms have proven to be somewhat ephemeral."

The researchers also cited the relative lack of rewards for teaching as a challenge, albeit a solvable one, as research is ranked as a higher priority than teaching by universities.

"Adjunct professors and students feel the brunt of this challenge, as teaching-only contracts are underrated and underpaid, and learners must accept the outdated teaching styles of the university's primary researchers. To balance competing priorities, larger universities are experimenting with alternating heavy and light teaching loads throughout the school year, and hiring more adjunct professors."

The report cited several steps that should be taken (or in some cases are being taken) to alleviate the problem and change the culture:

  • Governments need to "develop strategies that are informed by current research, with the ultimate goal of fostering an academic culture that financially rewards the quality of interaction in its classrooms";
  • Doctoral and graduate students can be required to undergo training to make a greater impact on students;
  • Professors can participate in pre-service and in-service training; and
  • Universities must alleviate the competitive, research-driven pressures on faculty by reevaluating their missions "so as to uphold excellence in teaching as a core tenet, which will transform the rigid process of gaining tenure."

Difficult Challenges
Higher up on the difficulty scale are competition from new models of teaching and the issue of scaling teaching innovations. At this level of difficulty, the problems are understandable, but the solutions have proved thusfar to be elusive.

"New models of education are bringing unprecedented competition to the traditional models of higher education," according to the report. "Across the board, institutions are looking for ways to provide a high quality of service and more learning opportunities. Massive open online courses are at the forefront of these discussions, enabling students to supplement their education and experiences at brick- and-mortar institutions with increasingly rich, and often free, online offerings. At the same time, issues have arisen related to the low completion rates of some MOOCs. As these new platforms emerge, there is a growing need to frankly evaluate the models and determine how to best support collaboration, interaction, and assessment at scale. Simply capitalizing on new technology is not enough; the new models must use these tools and services to engage students on a deeper level."

Wicked Challenges
At the top of the difficulty scale are two problems the researchers characterized as "wicked." These are problems whose solutions are not only elusive but whose parameters are somewhat difficult to define.

The first of these is expanding access. It's estimated that globally there will be an increase in higher education attendance of about 25 percent in the next 12 years — from 200 million students now to 250 million.

With 50 million new students, that means that four new universities would have to be constructed somewhere in the world every week with a capacity of more than 20,000 just to accommodate the influx of new students.

"In Africa alone, the continent would need to build four universities with capacities of 30,000 people every week just to accommodate the students reaching enrollment age by 2025," the researchers argued.

On top of that, the researcher wrote, the fastest-growing jobs will require some sort of postsecondary degree.

Online learning is one of the solutions cited by the researchers.

"Online learning is seen as a key strategy for increasing access to higher education. Although most of the new online education providers are based in the United States, their offerings are provided in many local languages in recognition of the over two-thirds of students that live abroad.

"In response to the gaps inherent in different cultures,... Queen Rania of Jordan has established a foundation that will, as part of a partnership with MIT and Harvard University's edX, create Arabic versions of the courses offered on that platform. The Queen believes MOOCs have the potential to democratize education, especially among young women. In Africa, MOOCs are seen as a low-cost solution to providing college educations to countries with low college degree attainment rates. The nonprofit Generation Rwanda is currently developing a university based entirely on teaching assistant-facilitated MOOCs with starter courses from Harvard University and the University of Edinburgh."

The second "wicked" challenge is "keeping education relevant." Higher education, according to some, is not keeping up with the times. And wile there's little risk of universities dropping off the map anytime soon, there are some "parts of the university enterprise, however, that are at risk, such as continuing and advanced education in highly technical, fast-moving fields. As online learning and free educational content become more pervasive, institutional stakeholders must address the question of what universities can provide that other approaches cannot, and rethink the value of higher education from a student's perspective."

The complete report, NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition, is available under a Creative Commons license and may be freely downloaded from NMC's site. Additional details, including work not published in the final report, can be accessed on the Horizon Report wiki.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.


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