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Virtual Roundtable

11 Ed Tech Trends to Watch in 2017

The education technology forecast for 2017 could perhaps be described in a single word: change. "We're now on an exponential pace of technological change," said Daniel Christian, adjunct faculty member and senior instructional designer at Michigan's Calvin College. "Several technologies continue to converge, new forms of human-computer interaction are gaining visibility and traction, and more. The next few years will be interesting indeed!"

We asked a panel of five higher ed leaders from across the country, including Christian, to assess education's top tech-related trends for the coming year — from artificial intelligence to Generation Z. Here's what they told us.

Our Panelists

Susan Aldridge
Senior Vice President for Online Learning, Drexel University (PA); President, Drexel University Online

Gerard Au
Associate Vice President, IT Services, California State University, San Bernardino

Daniel Christian
Adjunct Faculty Member and Senior Instructional Designer, Calvin College (MI)

Marci Powell
CEO/President, Marci Powell & Associates; Chair Emerita and Past President, United States Distance Learning Association

Phil Ventimiglia
Chief Innovation Officer, Georgia State University

Virtual/Augmented/Mixed Reality

Daniel Christian: We are on the precipice of major changes in how we interact with our computing devices. Numerous companies with deep pockets — including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Sony and others — have been researching and investing in new forms of human-computer interaction (HCI) such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR). The consumer-based products from these companies have already significantly influenced the types of hardware and software that institutions of higher education have used to deliver their learning experiences.

But to give you another idea of how potentially huge this entire area is, let's look at Magic Leap. Magic Leap is a privately owned company that hasn't really produced anything for us to purchase — yet. But already, Magic Leap is valued at $4.5 billion! These new forms of HCI will likely have an enormous impact in the near future — significant changes in how we use and interact with computing devices.

This prediction is all the more compelling when we think about combining AR/VR/MR with cognitive computing and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies (such as machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing and chatbots).

Some thought-provoking questions include:

  1. Will remote workers be able to be seen and interacted with via their holograms (i.e., attending their meetings virtually)? What would this mean for remote learners?
  2. Will our smartphones increasingly allow us to see information overlaid on the real world? (Think Pokémon Go, but putting that sort of technology into a vast array of different applications, many of which could be educational in nature.)
  3. How do/will these new forms of HCI impact how we design our learning spaces?
  4. Will students be able to pick their preferred learning setting (i.e., studying by a brook or stream or in a virtual Starbucks-like atmosphere)?
  5. Will more devices/platforms be developed that combine the power of AI with VR/AR/MR-related experiences? For example, will students be able to issue a verbal question or command to be able to see and experience walking around ancient Rome?
  6. Will there be many new types of learning experiences, like what Microsoft was able to achieve in its collaboration with Case Western Reserve University [OH]? Its HoloLens product transforms the way human anatomy can be taught.

Time will tell, but we should expect to see some major product announcements in 2017, with continued enhancements — and new affordances — to follow in the next few years.

Marci Powell: The potential of Magic Leap is tremendous for education particularly if it can deliver on what it promises. We can expect many institutions will partner with companies like Magic Leap, VRTUL or Microsoft and/or use third-party apps to implement virtual and mixed reality.

Extensive costs for VR design and development drive the need for collaborative efforts. This is highly indicative of the types of partnerships we will see trending in 2017. The example Daniel gives, Case Western Reserve University, demonstrates a collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic and Microsoft to create active multi-dimensional learning using holography.

Fortunately, we will also see the development of more affordable high-quality virtual reality solutions. Augmented reality is already much more affordable and allows us to see computer-generated content such as graphics, video, sound or GPS data over the real environment. Ecogotchi, for example, is an AR game developed by the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences [Austria] that teaches about sustainability, the environment and living green. Whether using AR for a gamified course or to acclimate new students to campus, the trend will continue into 2017.

Artificial Intelligence

Christian: Those of us working within institutions of higher education need to put AI, machine learning and deep learning on our radars. Also, we need to keep pulse-checking where natural language processing (NLP) is being integrated into applications. For example, NLP is already used in personal assistants such as Siri, Cortana, Alexa and others. One has to wonder: What are the teaching and learning implications when NASA unveils a new "skill" for Amazon's Alexa that lets you ask questions about Mars? And let's not forget that IBM's Watson, with its cognitive computing, continues to make inroads within the world of higher education as well.

The growing use of chatbots is also something to put on our radars. These sorts of applications might be especially helpful in addressing prospective students' questions about a given college or university. Or they could be useful in seeing the status of a student's financial aid package. Or, chatbots could help current students pay their bills, obtain information on the next semester's course offerings, etc.

Powell: The trend toward using AI in higher education will be multifaceted. We must prepare students for careers in or to work alongside the AI industry. We will also see universities finding ways to use AI to streamline processes and save money.

A good example of this is Deakin University in Australia. It used IBM Watson to create a 24/7/365 online student advisory service to improve the student experience. This resulted in a 5 to 10 percent reduction in inquiries managed by staff, with more than 30,000 questions answered by AI in the first trimester. With the amount of time saved, the staff was able to handle the more complex questions.

We should also expect AI to be used for learning and assessment. Tools like the Virtual Learning Assistant developed by Cognii enable universities to provide students with one-to-one tutoring. Using natural language processing, machine learning and cognitive computing technologies, Cognii allows for open-response questioning, instant feedback and conversation until the student masters the concept. It then provides instant scoring at human-level performance.

Gerard Au: Our campus operates a 24/7 Technology Support Center and partners with Blackboard Student Services to provide technical support during evening hours. While the center provides most basic desktop and LMS support, it does not provide support for other offices such as financial aid, admissions, parking services, advising, etc.

With AI and machine learning technologies becoming more mainstream, campuses can leverage these technologies to provide 24/7 assistance to all user groups in many different campus offices. Through the use of natural language processing, systems are able to understand and answer most common questions and provide users with just-in-time responses.

In addition, the need to prepare computer scientists, engineers and cybersecurity students to develop and secure these technologies will grow at a very rapid pace and could be challenging to higher education. These programs often require a significant amount of resources to support.

Gaming and Simulation

Susan Aldridge: Gaming technology is fast becoming an immersive and interactive tool for teaching and learning. To be sure, gamification makes it possible for students to actively learn by doing — both individually and collaboratively — through repetitive and thought-provoking practice, within a safe and multisensory environment, designed to simulate real life.

These virtual game worlds provide a unique opportunity to apply new knowledge and make mission-critical decisions, while identifying obstacles, considering multiple perspectives and rehearsing various responses. Likewise, they typically incorporate some sort of immediate feedback or reward system, which studies have found stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain — a neurotransmitter known to increase motivation and engagement. Moreover, as the technology improves, it is being rapidly deployed for designing educational games and simulations in just about any discipline you can name.

To give one example, Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health Professions collaborated with Tata Interactive Systems to develop a simulation-based learning solution for online students pursuing a certificate in forensic trends and issues in contemporary healthcare. This program is designed to provide healthcare professionals with the requisite expert knowledge and practical skills to conduct comprehensive, sensitive and legally sufficient clinical assessments in the aftermath of violent crime. And it incorporates sophisticated simulations to ensure that students have plenty of opportunities to translate classroom skills into real-world practice.

For instance, a 3D virtual crime scene, complete with multiple "clues" and continuous feedback, empowers students to conduct a vulnerability risk assessment. There are also realistic simulations that reinforce effective strategies for interviewing victims and offenders to elicit details of the crime, along with a playback feature for reviewing and improving performance.

Blockchain and Credentialing

Christian: Blockchain becomes highly relevant to institutions of higher education when it's discussed around the topics of credentialing and badging. (Steven Norton provides a useful definition of the technology in his Wall Street Journal article, "CIO Explainer: What Is Blockchain?") In essence, Blockchain could become the technology that enables learners to maintain lifelong, cloud-based learner profiles. Such profiles could constantly amass credentials and badges from all kinds of institutions and programs (whether brick-and-mortar or digital/virtual/online). A potential employer could use an automated bot or spider to search these web-based profiles in order to find its next freelancer or employee.

Already we can see where this could take off in Microsoft's purchase of LinkedIn in 2016, which had previously acquired in 2015. If a person takes certain courses at, his or her LinkedIn profile reflects this. Microsoft's push into artificial intelligence could easily play into creating a marketplace where employers are matched up with qualifying/competent employees. Institutions of higher education will likely be one of the common sources that "feed" data into these profiles.

Adaptive Learning

Phil Ventimiglia: Georgia State is making significant investments in adaptive learning in 2017. We are in the process of leveraging open educational resources (OER) as learning materials in combination with adaptive courseware for many of our core undergraduate classes, such as economics, history, political science, chemistry and biology. Adaptive materials enable students to learn in a "choose your own adventure" format, where they can interact with information at their own pace and discover individual learning pathways. The goal is to meet each student's personalized education needs and support student learning, with the assistance of automated and predictive course feedback that is available to students as well as instructors.

Powell: We will definitely see an increase in integrating open educational resources to enrich courses. Now that we are at a point where we can take the data collected and apply cognitive science with algorithms, we can create individualized learning paths in new and unique ways.

A forerunner to watch is Osmosis, developed by two Johns Hopkins University [MD] medical students. Using their backgrounds in neuroscience and computer science, they developed a web and mobile learning platform with an intelligent formative assessment system that is now being used in hundreds of medical schools.

By knowing a student's schedule and course materials, the system recommends content and generates quizzes. If a student has a class next Tuesday on myocardial infarction, the system will text a link to a video that prepares him or her for class. After class is over, it sends a quick quiz to see what the student learned. Based on his or her answers, the system adapts the learning by providing links to OER or other content that reinforces the concepts.

We can expect Osmosis to expand its platform across other disciplines in 2017.

Internet of Things

Au: While Internet of Things (IoT) technologies grow exponentially and are widely used in the consumer field, there is still a lot of untapped potential for higher education, particularly in the area of smart cities and smart campuses.

While some infrastructure systems such as sprinkler controls and light controls are already internet-connected, many are not. Parking space notification/monitoring systems and building alarms are couple examples of how campuses can improve operations. In addition, future iterations of IoT will have more intelligence built in; there will be less human interaction to "turn on/turn off" something, or have something pre-programmed.

Combining IoT technology with different APIs or web services, one can issue sequential commands to perform complex tasks that once required many human interactions. On our campus, faculty are working with students on creating and securing a cellular network-controlled rover to use for emergency exploration, such as to assess the aftermath of an earthquake.

Powell: As the trend toward the Internet of Things grows in 2017, we will see higher education continue to adapt or create IoT degree and certification programs to meet the changing job market. A couple of examples fall under the IoT subcategory of "new intelligent things," such as drones and robots.

It is projected that by 2025, there will be more than 100,000 drone-related jobs. This will drive program development similar to the way hacking drove cybersecurity degrees in the last decade. Institutions like the Unmanned Vehicle University [AZ] are already addressing the market by granting doctorate and master's programs in Unmanned Systems Engineering and a certificate in UAS Project Management. We can expect institutions to look for opportunities to increase enrollments as Amazon launches its "drone highway in the skies."

Christian: The Internet of Things — or the Internet of Everything (IoE), as some like to call it — will likely have an enormous impact on our world. Though it will take us a few years to get there, there will be an increasing number of machine-to-machine (M2M) based communications — from the connected devices in our homes and cars, to our wearable devices, to the infrastructures within our cities, to the devices used in industry and manufacturing. (Thus, courses that address how to develop/program such devices and glean the resulting data from them will be increasingly in demand.)

As an example of where M2M-based communications could come in handy within higher education, picture a faculty member walking into a classroom. The systems within that room sense who walked in and instantly implement that particular faculty member's personalized/customized settings for that learning space: The lights automatically dim down, the screen drops down, the projector comes on and the appropriate course appears in the LMS.

Or, from the students' perspective, will video-enabled beacons — such as Estimote's new Mirror product — enable students to pre-load their content for a class discussion, and then when they come into an active learning classroom, an app would be launched which could then present their content to the nearest display?

Digital Literacy

Ventimiglia: While previous generations first experienced technology at work and then found ways to make use of technology in their personal lives, today's students first experience technology for entertainment and social communication. This path to technology leaves a gap between students' perceived ability and the skills employers expect from graduates. To increase digital literacy at Georgia State, we are incorporating lessons that encourage students to solve real-world problems using available technologies across our core undergraduate curriculum. For example, learning in an English composition course how to create a blog and read basic web scripting, or learning in a history class how to visualize and map information that explains the impact of demographics on an event. The intent of this integration is to help students become self-directed learners, who know how to find up-to-date information and put together available technologies to create new solutions, in whatever field they enter after graduation. Additionally, offering opportunities such as hackathons, maker sessions and opportunities to digitally publish outside of class provides students ways to further grow the digital skills they learn in class.

Christian: The ability for today's students to craft rich, multimedia-based communications is becoming increasingly important. Visit any well-trafficked website and you will likely find such communications (and evidence of the skills that created such content). Also, students who can create such content and post that content on their WordPress-based blog can then become their own TV station, their own radio station, addressing a global audience. While this is nothing new, I'd guess that there is a low percentage of our faculty members who are currently integrating assignments into their courses that require students to create such media-rich content and communications. The issue is not just that faculty would need to find the time to get trained on how to create such content themselves, but also that they would need to develop the ability to accurately grade such content.

Generation Z

Au: The technology expectations of mobile natives (Generation Z) are much different from previous generations, including millennials. While everything "on demand" is key, concerns over privacy have diminished. Generation Z prefers to have their digital experience tailored and have useful information presented to them according to their behaviors, past experiences, etc.

While this ties into other topics such as Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, it portrays a fundamental change in how higher education must deliver services to incoming students. These changes would affect a wide range of campus operations, ranging from dining services (how students would order meals from their mobile devices), to account or computing resource provisioning (receiving all software or virtual desktop resources based on course needs), to course enrollment (the expectation that students' schedules and required courses are all sorted out for them).

Ventimiglia: As students' technical expectations increase, we're experimenting with virtual desktop infrastructure to provide the technical tools and software they need at scale. Providing access to computing as a service can leverage the decreasing cost of ubiquitous lightweight computing devices, such as smartphones, tablets and notebook computers, while providing students powerful computing environments that they can reach from anywhere.

Learning Inside and Outside the Classroom

Ventimiglia: Formal and informal learning spaces are going through a fundamental redesign as we look at how student learning extends outside of the classroom. Our formal classrooms are becoming increasingly collaborative spaces as we develop more digital learning content for students to consume outside of class and as we flip the in-class learning experience. We are moving away from traditional lecture spaces to interactive spaces with flexible and movable furniture and collaborative technology, such as multiple large-screen displays that enable students to work and learn as teams.

Outside of class, informal campus learning spaces continue this theme of interactivity and collaboration. Makerspaces with digital creation tools — such as 3D printers, virtual reality headsets, circuit boards and more — are being created so that students from every discipline can apply what they learn through collaborative building experiences outside of class. For example, at a new makerspace now underway at Georgia State, students will be able to do everything from exploring innovation and invention by creating technical prototypes to developing VR experiences that provide deeper insight into historical events, in order to better understand and analyze elements of their studies.

Aldridge: Another tool for informal, collaborative learning — robotic telepresence — facilitates an experience that is flexible, seamless, immersive, interactive and personalized. While online education is still, for the most part, asynchronous or self-paced, a growing number of online instructors see the added value in connecting distance learners with their on-campus counterparts for synchronous group discussions, projects and other hands-on activities.

This robotics-enabled approach is particularly beneficial when it comes to providing virtual experiences that would normally require a physical or onsite presence, as is the case for online nursing students who need to master certain clinical competencies. To meet that challenge, Duke University's [NC] School of Nursing is using telepresence robots to engage advanced-practice online nursing students in high-fidelity, lifelike clinical simulations.

Manufactured by California-based Double Robotics, these devices are built on a giant wheel caster with an adjustable pole; an iPad mounted on top; and videoconferencing software to enable communication. Students use their tablets, computers or smartphones to remotely control the device, maneuvering it around the room while panning or tilting its screen in basically any direction.

And by creating a virtual physical presence, online graduate students now have a unique opportunity to develop their coaching, problem-solving and communications skills, as they furnish clinical guidance in patient care to onsite undergraduate nursing students.

IT Support and Training

Ventimiglia: Technology is becoming so widespread in helping provide effective learning solutions that it is difficult to say what is instructional technology and what is simply instruction. At Georgia State we've recently opened a center that spans support across the spectrum of faculty needs, from exploring teaching techniques to using digital instructional tools to engaging in scholarship and research. The center is co-supported by Faculty Affairs and our instructional support and technology teams to provide seamless assistance across the faculty experience. We'll continue to expand the services offered to streamline the faculty experience there in 2017.

Christian: We need an entirely new paradigm for how content is created and delivered within higher education.

Over time, we have loaded up professors' plates with one expectation after another (i.e., teaching, advising, doing research, attending departmental and/or committee meetings, creating and delivering content, etc.). But we rarely remove anything from those plates — and students' expectations are increasing. For example, let's consider that students are often exposed to rich, interactive media and games. We expect that faculty members should also be delivering that kind of material. But they might not have the time, talent, background or interest to create such content. Can we expect faculty to keep adding more skills to their plates?

No, we've reached the end of that line — the end of that paradigm. We must now move toward implementing a more team-based approach, in which multiple specialists contribute to the production and delivery of the learning experience. And we need to do it very soon: New entrants continue to come onto the post-secondary landscape, and they will begin to address the gaps (i.e., the unfilled needs) for a new generation that's accustomed to high-production-value content and engaging experiences.

Powell: I agree with Daniel: It takes a team. Incoming students continue to be more technologically demanding with high expectations. Likewise, faculty can't continue without understanding new technologies and getting proper support. With the complexity, we should expect a trend toward creating or further enhancing innovation centers and offices of teaching and learning, to handle the rapidly changing technology needs of faculty members. The innovation centers provide a way for faculty to get their hands on new technologies to better determine what will work in their courses or programs. The teaching and learning centers provide the hands-on development support.

New Learning Models

Christian: New technologies have historically had an impact on employment and the workplace: They have forced people to reinvent themselves, to adjust to the realities of the changing marketplaces. In the next several decades, people will increasingly have to reinvent themselves multiple times throughout their careers, and extremely quickly!They will need to come away from their learning experiences with skills that will be immediately marketable/applicable. Yet the systems of accreditation that we have in the United States (for institutions of higher education) are inhibiting us from keeping up and being as responsive as people need us to be.

Looking Back

Read our 2016 take on the hottest ed tech trends: "9 Ed Tech Trends to Watch in 2016."

We will need to:

  1. Rethink and change our accreditation systems to be far more responsive to peoples' needs;
  2. Offer less expensive options;
  3. More effectively and strategically use a variety of technologies;
  4. Change the way we teach and how our student teachers are being taught; and
  5. Consider moving toward team-based methods of creating and delivering content — including the use of students on such teams.

Those of us working within higher education must do our part to ensure a just society, where people of all backgrounds and socio-economic standings can obtain the responsive, up-to-date educations that they need to quickly reinvent themselves — over and over again.

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