Open Menu Close Menu

Ed Tech Trends

6 Major Barriers Impeding Technology Adoption in Education

Experts identify the most substantial tech-related obstacles to education, ranging from the solvable to the downright wickedly difficult.

Weak digital literacy skills among students and faculty are hampering the effective use of technology in schools. But according to a panel of experts, this problem, as prevalent and pernicious as it may be, is within our power to solve. Some of the other obstacles identified by the panel ... not so much.

The panel of experts, led by the New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative, identified six impediments that are hampering education and the adoption of technology in education in significant ways. The findings were published in a report released in February, the NMC Horizon Report: 2016 Higher Education Edition.

The issues were categorized in one of three groupings: barriers that are troublesome but to some degree solvable; obstacles that are more difficult and will require substantial effort to resolve; and impediments that are so difficult that they may not be within our power to solve ever. Each of the six identified trends has implications for policy, leadership and practice.

Solvable Challenges

Digital literacy is a worldwide problem that affects young and old alike. And despite wishful thinking to the contrary, it's not one that is solving itself as technology propagates and becomes more commonplace. As the researchers noted, while the younger generations may be immersed in digital technology and consider it mundane, they are not necessarily any more adept at using it effectively.

"Students today would appear to be more digitally literate than previous generations because many have grown up immersed in technology-rich environments, but research has shown that this does not necessarily equate to confidence, especially in an educational context," according to the researchers. "The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) most recent survey of adult skills found that millennials in the [United States] placed nearly last in digital literacy as compared to other developed nations. Illuminating this problem is the Rasmussen College study 'Digital Literacy in 2015,' which reports that one in four millennials want to improve their digital literacy, but 37 percent find the Internet 'scary,' more so than respondents aged 35 and over."

Nevertheless, the experts labeled the problem as a solvable one largely because efforts that are already underway to improve digital literacy have begun to bear fruit, while others, such as the TechHire Initiative, look promising.

Education institutions are providing their own solutions as well. "Solving this challenge calls for innovative approaches to delivering digital literacy training to students, and a number of projects are well underway," according to the report.

The researchers cited a number of programs aimed at helping students with their digital skills — beyond learning to use the technology. For instance, "Virginia Commonwealth University's 'UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument' is a blended learning course that takes students through a number of exercises, such as discovering the work of innovators in the digital realm and developing personal learning networks through the creation of Web sites and social media communities. At Ryerson University in Canada, coding is seen as an emerging and important literacy that will cultivate in students the skills needed to define and create the digital tools of the future. In their 'Challenge Accepted' workshops, students learn how to create a mobile app in only three hours."

This is the third year in a row that digital literacy has made the Horizon Report's list of barriers to the adoption of technology in education. Last year it was listed as a solvable challenge as well.

Also carrying over from the previous year's report, blending formal and informal learning was cited as an important but solvable challenge for education.

The idea is that, right now, students' informal learning experiences are not well integrated into formal learning, and this is a missed opportunity to foster experimentation and help develop creativity in students. "Most higher education institutions still exclusively speak the language of course credits, not incorporating prior informal experience as a placement factor," according to the report. "While the blending of formal and informal learning is an intriguing notion, it is hampered by the lack of scalable ways to qualify learning that happens beyond the classroom."

An example cited in the report is a student who's spent years practicing graphic design outside of college, only to be relegated to an introductory course upon enrollment in an academic institution.

But, the researchers noted, things seem to be changing. UNESCO, the report noted, "is setting a precedent, connecting informal learning outcomes to the goal of building societies of lifelong learners in the book Global Perspectives on Recognizing Non-formal and Informal Learning: Why Recognition Matters."

According to the report, "Part of solving this challenge means finding methods for recognizing informal learning at universities and colleges."

Researchers cited efforts at Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland, which actively surveys students for prior experience and integrates that information into the learning plans it develops for its students. Institutions in the United States are also using social media "to connect outside learning practices to formal activities. Indiana University marketing students, for example, use Instagram to share compelling marketing ideas with each other through snapshots and hashtags. Students at Rhode Island College use to select relevant resources and add their own personal reflections, demonstrating how they can be social media producers rather than just consumers." Micro-credentialing and badging have also developed in part as a response to the need to recognize skills that are derived outside of formal educational settings.

But, the researchers noted, both academic institutions and employers will need to view informal learning in a more positive light in order for the problem to be addressed.

6 Technologies With Impact

The Horizon Report researchers also identified the six technologies they think will have the greatest impact on education in the next decade.

  1. Bring Your Own Device (near term)
  2. Learning Analytics and Adaptive Learning (near term)
  3. Augmented and Virtual Reality (mid-term)
  4. Makerspaces (mid-term)
  5. Affective Computing (long term): In the context of education, affective computing is the use of programming to recognize the physical signs of human emotions and use those to respond appropriately. For example, a learning tool might recognize the signs of boredom in a student from facial expressions (yawn), body language (hunched shoulders) or other signs and take appropriate action to restimulate the student's interest.
  6. Robotics (long term): Robots are just beginning to be used in academic settings as tools for learning (such as in medicine) or as aids for special needs students, such as those with spectrum disorders, for whom humanoid robots may help "develop better communication strategies and social skills."

Difficult Challenges

The researchers also identified two challenges that they categorized as "difficult." That is, problems that we understand but whose solutions remain elusive.

Both of the difficult challenges identified in this year's report were carry-overs from the prior year's report: competing models of education and personalizing learning.

According to the researchers, "New educational models are bringing unprecedented competition to traditional models of higher education in which students typically receive on-campus instruction by faculty or teaching assistants per credit hour over four years. Institutions are increasingly looking for ways to provide high-quality offerings and more diverse learning opportunities at lower costs."

While in the past MOOCs seemed to be the harbinger of doom for traditional education models, "competency-based education, coding boot camps and general unbundling of products and services are also disrupting existing credit hour systems and degree programs," according to the report. "As these new pathways arise, there is a growing need for education leaders to frankly evaluate the models and determine how to best support collaboration, interaction, and assessment at scale. It is clear that simply capitalizing on emerging technology is not enough; the new models must use these tools and services to engage students on a deeper level and ensure academic quality."

Personalized learning, meanwhile, is more of a mixed challenge. It's undeniable that efforts are underway to differentiate instruction based on the unique needs of individual students, and certainly technologies have been developed to help solve the problem. But, the researchers noted: "Compounding the challenge is the notion that technology is not the whole solution — personalized learning efforts must incorporate effective pedagogy and include faculty in the development process."

Wicked Challenges

The most difficult problems cited by this year's expert panel — those considered difficult to define, let alone to solve — were both newcomers to the list.

The first, balancing our connected and unconnected lives, focuses on the need for institutions to develop within their students an understanding of how to balance the use of technological tools with their other "developmental needs" in order to "prevent students from getting lost in the abundant sea of digital tools."

According to the researchers: "The proliferation of always-connected devices, particularly mobiles, has made conducting research possible anywhere. With technology usage, however, there is a fine line between convenience and addiction, especially when it comes to taking advantages of the social networking and communication features. A survey conducted by Baylor University [TX] found that college students spend between eight to 10 hours daily on their smartphones, with many agreeing that they are wasting their time or have become overly dependent. There is freedom in being able to communicate with peers and find information any time, but if these online activities are not balanced properly with self-reflection and analysis, technology can become a crutch — an excuse not to engage in the kind of critical thinking that leads to meaningful discovery and deep understanding."

So far, the burden for finding the proper balance, if such a thing exists, has been on the student. That will need to change. But how?

There are no conclusive answers, though there have been efforts in this direction, including a call to action for policymakers that developed out of last year's Global Education Industry Summit in Finland. That call to action stated that nations as a whole need to "develop national agendas that champion transformative technology use while avoiding institutions simply becoming 'a marketplace for commercial self-interest of any corporation.'"

But perhaps the most vexing problem of all is the final wicked challenge, one that hits right at the heart of higher education: keeping education relevant.

The challenge, as the researchers noted, is that there's a greater and greater disconnect between education and the impact of that education on students' lives. "Today, a college degree no longer guarantees gainful employment. The Economic Policy Institute recently found that Americans under age 25 are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as other age groups," according to the report. "This issue is not localized; rising youth unemployment rates and labor market research about the global skills gap leave many concerned that current higher education systems do not prepare learners for the workplace's rapid modernization."

While there has been a greater emphasis placed on technology- and engineering-related disciplines in recent years, and to some extent vocational training, it would be a mistake to sacrifice the humanities and social sciences in any move to graduate more students in fields that are perceived to have greater potential for employability.

"Some global leaders have acknowledged the skills gap, and are advancing reforms that encourage higher education institutions to remedy this issue. President of Japan Shinz┼Ź Abe recently announced a new economic growth strategy; this was followed by a decree from Japan's Minister of Education that forced national universities to shutter social science and humanities departments, or risk losing funding from the federal government. This move has generated significant backlash from those who champion the humanities' steadfast role in post-secondary learning, citing their value in forming a well-rounded worldview. Some experts point to reasoning used in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics extolling the humanities as the middle ground that helps humans navigate society with practical wisdom to advance 'the common good.' In other words, they argue that scientific knowledge alone is not enough to address the multidimensional social problems people face today."

Further, the researchers argued that leading academic institutions are beginning to merge the humanities with STEM and other disciplines: "While skills training is an important theme of this challenge, much attention has been paid to the idea of merging the humanities with scientific disciplines to inform broad perspectives. At Harvard University [MA], the Project on Purpose and Values in Education has created co-curricular programming that helps students reflect on big questions of meaning, value, and purpose. Using best practices and resources from this project, Harvard faculty can integrate social and moral inquiries into technical subject matter, enabling learners to effectively advance the common good through any career path. As part of its Common Curriculum, Yale-NUS College [in Singapore] emphasizes the powerful dynamic between liberal arts and science for solving 21st century problems. Through courses such as 'Scientific Inquiry and Quantitative Reasoning' alongside 'Comparative Social Institutions and Literature and the Humanities,' learners form an extensive knowledge base to drive critical thinking about global dilemmas."

The complete report, NMC Horizon Report: 2016 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.

6 Major Trends in Education Technology

The NMC Horizon Report: 2016 Higher Education Edition identified six trends that are likely to affect colleges and universities within the next decade in terms of how they adopt technology: two in the near term (trends whose impact will be felt in the next one or two years); two in the mid-term (three to five years out); and two in the long term (more than five years away).

  1. Growing Focus on Measuring Learning (near term): There's a renewed focus on assessment, and with it comes the need for institutions and policymakers to craft policies that will protect student privacy while at the same time capturing data that can be used to help improve outcomes.
  2. Increasing Use of Blended Learning Designs (near term): Blended learning is increasingly seen as an effective way to deliver instruction. "Supportive institutional policy can foster the creation of successful blended courses," the researchers noted. "Advancing blended learning requires the promotion of scalable innovative course designs."
  3. Redesigning Learning Spaces (mid-term): New forms of teaching may "necessitate new classroom configurations. More universities are helping to facilitate emerging pedagogies and strategies, such as the flipped classroom, by rearranging learning environments to accommodate more active learning."
  4. The Shift to Deeper Learning Approaches (mid-term): Encouraging active learning inside and outside the classroom can lead to deeper learning in which students are able to make critical connections between subject matter and the real world.
  5. Advancing Cultures of Innovation (long term): According to the researchers, "There is a growing consensus among many higher education thought leaders that institutional leadership and curricula could benefit from adopting agile startup models. Educators are working to develop new approaches and programs based on these models that stimulate top-down change and can be implemented across a broad range of institutional settings."
  6. Rethinking How Institutions Work (long term): Related to one of the "wicked challenges" facing education, "Changes in higher education are upending the traditional notion of the university and transforming the paradigm for how post-secondary learning works. These developments are being fueled by a growing body of research that highlights the disconnect between the demands of the 21st-century economy and what college graduates are prepared to do when they leave academia."
comments powered by Disqus