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25 Ed Tech Predictions for 2021

2021 trends

The year 2020 packed a punch unlike any other period in living memory. And while the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for a long time to come, the start of this new year brings an opportunity for us to recharge our hope and energy. How will that play out for higher education, especially in the area of technology? We turned to a number of education and industry leaders to find out what they expect — or look forward to — in 2021. Here's what they told us.

1) We Will Build on What We've Learned

"I believe the spring semester will be one of anticipation for a return to normalcy — which will result in increased displays of frustration, impatience and exhaustion. I am hopeful that planning for the post-pandemic transition has already begun at many institutions, as this is an opportunity to be a bit more proactive than spring 2020's jarring pivot to virtual. I am also hopeful that no one considers simply returning to 'business as pre-COVID usual' — what a missed opportunity that would be.

"We've learned so much: Students, while missing interaction and personal connections, have enjoyed the flexibility of a remote option; staff have responded positively to space for an improved work/life balance; and faculty have been surprised at their appreciation for and commandeering of many features offered within learning technologies.

"I hope we build on what we've experienced this last year rather than simply race back to our perceived safe spaces. A year ago, resilience and adaptability were goals — look at us all now! The living definition of both! 2021 will see unparalleled appreciation for education technology — as a facilitator, as the glue that holds campuses together and as an experience enhancer."

—Paige Francis, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, IT and CIO, University of Tulsa

2) HyFlex Will Provide Flexibility Day-by-Day

"One likely post-pandemic phenomenon is that we will see the hybrid flexible (HyFlex) pedagogical approach being widely adopted, combining face-to-face and online learning. Higher ed has quickly adapted to build or expand a technology infrastructure in classrooms, including workforce readiness, to support HyFlex models where each class session and learning activity is offered in-person, synchronously online and asynchronously online. The approach was developed with a focus on student flexibility, but the benefits also extend to faculty. For example, an instructor, along with some students, could attend class remotely, while other students join physically from a room on campus set up to allow for social distancing and spacing. This would open up new pathways for institutions to reach both traditional and non-traditional students (adult learners), offering flexibility on how to participate for each class and activity.

"The pandemic may turn out to be the catalyst higher ed needed to begin offering more flexible teaching and learning modalities at scale through leveraging the use of technologies and the unique advantages of online learning environment."

—JT Singh, Senior Associate VP and CIO, Information Services and Technology, West Chester University

3) Online Learning Will Get More Effective, More Robust

"Higher ed has been a leader in online learning, and the pandemic provided the opportunity to adapt and evolve that model at scale in a way that will have a lasting impact. Effective online learning is about more than posting assignments and Zoom lectures. As higher education institutions prepare for 2021, we will see an investment in technology, training and flexible curriculum that combines traditional classroom outcomes with certificates, stackable credentials and digital badges that will help educators reach students in new, exciting ways."

—Susan Manning, Chief Success Strategist, Credly, and Co-author, Online Education for Dummies

4) XR Will Provide New Ways for Students to Explore and Experience

"Extended reality (XR) technologies — which include virtual, augmented or mixed realities — allow us to blend physical and digital worlds, providing opportunities for more immersive learning in which students can explore and create in real or imagined worlds from virtually anywhere. At the heart of truly impactful learning through XR is gameful design and engaging storytelling. Leveraging the affordances of XR technologies, these playful narratives provide simulated experiences that evoke both presence, the feeling of actually 'being there' in a virtual environment, and embodiment, the sense that you are 'doing or feeling' the things your avatar does. Additionally, XR offers the ability to visualize and engage with objects in three dimensions, visit different eras, observe time at variable speeds and do things impossible or dangerous to do in real life.

"Unlike many of our current digital methods, XR can engage the whole learner — cognitively, physically and emotionally. And XR isn't just for exploration. Rather, providing opportunities for learners to engage with and create these immersive experiences is a way to develop skills for the future workforce, as well as enhance creative and digital fluency.

"While these technologies are not new, we are rapidly approaching a time in which XR technologies can scale. To do so, institutions must enhance their internal XR creation capacity and remain intentional with inclusive and equitable designs to make these learning experiences accessible to most learners."

—Heather Haseley and Dan Munnerley, Co-executive Directors, Learning Futures Collaboratory, Arizona State University

5) The Gap Between Haves and Have-Nots Will Grow Wider

"The one precedent that will remain constant in the coming years is that college admission is a human process and one that begs for innovation, both from colleges and universities and from the students who seek admission to these schools. How bold we will be in the pursuit of new approaches to this experience remains unclear. My hope is that the disruptions of the pandemic will encourage colleges to re-imagine assessment and students to re-define success and consider the breadth and depth of opportunities that exist in higher education.

"Sadly, I fear that in 2021-2022, despite a heightened awareness of issues of equity, the divide between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' will grow wider and that ability to pay will become an increasing factor in admissibility. We will also see a greater disparity in access to quality information and guidance for high school students. These are areas where we must focus to find solutions and level the playing field."

—Brennan Barnard, Director of College Counseling, The Derryfield School

6) Small Private Institutions Will Gain Traction as Well Suited for Post-COVID College Life

"I believe applicants will consider schools closer to home and the public institutions in their state. Colleges will have to spend more on financial aid in this coming year given that many families likely suffered financial hardships.

"I hope this turns attention on some of the great small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) that have always been committed to trying their best to meet families' financial need. Those I've spoken with during my fall conversations all seem to have a really good plan for managing their population during the COVID era. I think the SLAC's physical plants are well suited for post-COVID era college life."

—Daryl Tiggle, Director of College Counseling, Friends School of Baltimore

7) More Students Will Stick Close to Home

"Fewer students will go to in-person events (interviews, tours, open houses and college-sponsored socials) in the future even when it is safe to visit and have large gatherings. Fewer students will travel far away to attend traditional college campuses. They will stay closer to home. More students will opt for an entirely online degree and forgo the traditional college dorm and residential experience."

—Bob Bardwell, Executive Director, Massachusetts School Counselors Association

8) Students as Consumers Will Have More Options

"Colleges will likely stay SAT optional; colleges will be more aggressive with merit aid to attract students; and the financial difficulties from the prolonged pandemic will impact the college experience in 2021-2022. With all of these issues before us, I do believe that students as consumers will have more and better financial options as colleges will have to work to enroll you."

—Chuck Hughes, President and Founder, Road to College

9) Schools Will Do More Collaboration and Sharing

"In 2021, we will see blended learning becoming commonplace on campuses. Universities and colleges will look to online learning platforms on how to best collaborate and deploy their online programs in a manner that fits seamlessly into their in-classroom instruction. Big pieces of this puzzle include technology, training and sharing.

"I think we'll see more collaboration between universities and tech partners to provide students and teachers with the necessary technology training, tools, hardware and software to ensure they can thrive in any learning environment. Many have learned the hard lesson that they can't assume we're set up at home with a laptop and stellar WiFi. It's a whole new ballgame of teaching, learning and providing access, but one that I think will have more of an emphasis in the future.

"We will also see increased sharing of digital content between universities as they look to build on each others' work to rapidly develop a high-quality catalog of educational experiences available to their students.

—Anant Agarwal, Founder and CEO, edX

10) Blended Will Help Scale Programs, Expand Accessibility

"The shift to blended learning is not a new concept. Institutions have championed digital learning as the bridge to driving education access for all types of students — from providing new opportunities for students that can't afford to live in major cities, to offering the flexibility a working mom needs to get her MBA. In driving accessibility, education systems are learning there's also a significant return-on-investment in blended approaches. In 2021, digital learning will empower institutions to scale courses and programs while starting to relieve the financial burden on students. Armed with innovative online tools and platforms, institutions can chip away at reimagining the education system — expanding accessibility and cutting costs across the board."

—George Moore, Chief Technology Officer, Cengage

11) Higher Ed Will More Easily Pivot in the Future

"This past fall, as colleges and universities sought to keep their learners on track, necessity drove much broader adoption of the LMS and a heightened focus on the virtual student experience. To measure student engagement outside the physical classroom, educators turned to data within those systems to track student activity and monitor students along the path to their desired academic outcomes.

"As our world returns to the new 'normal' these lessons learned are sure to have a long-term impact on higher ed. Widespread, consistent adoption of learning technology will lead to blended learning — the combination of online educational materials with in-person classroom experience— being the new baseline for most courses. This will enable colleges and universities to easily pivot in the event of future health crises or environmental disaster and will deliver the flexibility that students have long desired. In addition, having been given a taste of how student data can positively impact student success, we should see more demand from educators for timely and actionable student data in the classroom (virtual or otherwise) to help shape their teaching and support their learners."

—Ryan Lufkin, Senior Director of Education Product Marketing, Instructure Canvas

12) Attendance Will Drop, Engagement Will Grow

"While 2020 was about remote education, 2021 will focus on hybrid education. For colleges, it's attracting and retaining students at a time when they may be unsure of attending a big-name university and paying top dollar without the on-campus experience. How can institutions tackle these focuses? Meaningful online solutions.

"It's important for educators to have plug-and-play ed tech solutions that are easy to use and integrate well into their curriculum. It will be very important for instructors to see the student learning outcomes from the tools they use. And ultimately, students have to like it. The tools and solutions that are selected by schools in 2021 will likely stick around with them for the next four or five years.

"However, in the future, faculty are not going to require attendance as much as engagement. Instead, they're going to find different ways to engage students to the point where you can be at home or you can be there, where you can watch it online or you can come in to work on a group project."

—Joe Ferraro, Head of Global Sales, Labster

13) Web Conferencing Will Blend Classroom/At-Home Learning

"Two big issues that will be addressed in the coming year are access and accessibility. With some students at home and others in the classroom, it will be important that all students receive the same experience and quality. Addressing this gap will require innovative new features and solutions from video communications services. Those tools that deliver on a high-quality, accessible experience will be poised to succeed. One example: Large-screen monitors that connect to web conferencing systems. Everything written on the panel populates on the web software as an annotation, allowing the in-class and remote students to have the same view. Students can also use the annotation tool in their web conferencing program to share their work with in-class students, ensuring everyone sees the same thing.

"Accessibility also means making sure students have access to the same resources, whether they are attending in-person, remotely or some combination of the two. Higher ed will continue to rely on video communications tools to enable students to safely meet with administrative staff for important services such as academic advising, financial aid and mental health support."

—Anne Keehn, Global Education Lead, Zoom

14) Chatbots Will Become Critical to Student Engagement

"Post COVID-19, education institutions will have to adjust to the 'new normal' — one that is not 100 percent remote or 100 percent analog, but one that takes the best of both worlds to deliver a superior education experience for students. In the 2021 landscape, schools will rely on technology like chatbots and automation more than ever. Once implemented, these tools will help institutions improve teaching models, produce better outcomes for students and ultimately reduce the cost of servicing and teaching students."

Brad Benz, Managing director, Benz Capital, and Education Advisor, Capacity

15) Predictive Learning Analytics Will Evolve

"2021 has the potential to fulfill the promise of many artificial intelligence-driven analytic offerings to ed tech. Educators will be able to pair AI and machine learning models with the social, emotional intelligence of their students to augment curriculums with learning strategies that resonate most with students. With these models, educators have the opportunity to observe learning styles and behaviors in a comprehensive way. Educators can develop teaching strategies that support developmental strengths and sidestep comprehension roadblocks. With AI-guided roadmaps, students will be able to tailor the pace of their curriculum, allowing them to self-actualize learning objectives by consuming content that they are more prone to identify with and execute on.

"Enhanced analytics will further allow instructors to support multiple options for the consumption of course content through process-driven automation, allowing students to take a lead role in how they would like to be taught parallel to outcomes-based objectives.

"Lastly, advances in automation will also allow for constant instructor availability supported by multiple methods for communication (i.e., video, forum, chatbots) programmed to supply immediate feedback to commonly asked questions related to course structure, resources and instructor availability.

"The era of iTeacher hasn't happened yet, but we are definitely getting closer."

—Deep Uppal, VP Innovation and Technology, Public Sector, Information Builders

16) Data Analytics Will Continue Promoting Retention

"First, universities will seek to implement better tech for online learning to not only avoid any mishaps that occurred in the previous two semesters, but also improve student retention. The goal should be to create a high-quality experience for students that aren't able to attend in-person classes.

"Second, data analytics from online learning will be instrumental in helping universities make significant improvements in student outcomes and retention — to identify students who are best suited for their programs, flag those who might be at risk of dropping courses or dropping out and take steps to intervene and get them back on track."

—Andrew Clark, Founder, CEO and President, Zovio

17) 5G Will Spawn the Next Tech Revolution

"5G is the foundation for the next revolution of technology. We will see a new ecosystem of hardware and software to support this underlying technology, and more 5G-compatible devices in the marketplace as new applications and use cases emerge.

"The big prediction for cybersecurity is that everything old is new again. With the 5G ecosystem being built out, we should be prepared to see two big cybersecurity issues: a shared responsibility model for 5G and the security of attached network devices, applications and data, and software applications as a target for adversaries through un-remediated vulnerabilities.

"Standalone 5G will be more secure than any previous network generations. Yet, expanded attack surfaces mean opportunity for new threats as well as proliferation of unpatched existing threats. With 5G, a shared security model, similar to that of the public cloud, is likely to emerge. This should enable enterprises to shift certain functions to carriers and ultimately heighten enterprise security.

"From the application perspective, there should be a focus on advanced software engineering practices. This means an increased emphasis on software quality should be a critical part of the pre-deployment development process. Without a critical focus on software quality, we can expect to see older software vulnerabilities such as cross-site scripting and SQL injection re-emerge as favorite targets for adversaries."

Theresa Lanowitz, Head of Evangelism, AT&T Cybersecurity

18) As-a-Service Solutions Will Meet Operational Needs

"Unfortunately, I would expect to see short to midterm financial instability as institutions recover from the negative impacts of the pandemic — widespread financial instability resulting in budget reductions as well as an increase in compliance costs. Experts are already predicting the number of institutions at risk for closure could reach double-digit percentages. This instability means institutions need flexible and agile infrastructure that enables them to scale up or down as necessary, only using the resources they require at a given time.

"I would hope to see a business model transformation — with institutions leveraging IT to help reduce operating costs while increasing efficiencies and performance and reallocating op-ex into research and academic operations, with IT providing leadership as a trusted business partner."

—Mike Wiseman, Area Vice President, Americas SLED, Pure Storage

19) Higher Ed Will Embrace the Cloud

"We'll see colleges and universities expand digital transformation efforts, from front-end remote working tools to the way they run every aspect of their schools. These institutions will create a data-centric mindset and rely more on quantifiable data measurement around things like enrollment, automated processes on the administrative end and increased transparency and accountability for students and employees alike.

"Think of it this way: Campuses are like little cities. In addition to the teaching and learning services, they have to provide transportation, campus safety, accounting, administration and everything else a city provides to its residents. But what transitioning to a remote environment has revealed is that many campuses ran their administrative end with outdated, paper-based processes. In the coming year, schools lacking a holistic digital infrastructure will put themselves at risk of failure. Their inability (or choice) not to pivot to a completely digital or hybrid model will mean that they can't handle a crisis — whether that's a pandemic or something else. Business continuity is going to be at the center of all higher ed business strategy in the coming year, and digital transformation is the best way to ensure that continuity.

"In the coming year, we'll begin to see institutions adopt cloud products to take incremental steps toward process re-engineering until they reach systemwide digital transformation. This will ultimately facilitate the reduction of information silos and the standardization of data — an essential shared service model to drive efficiency and sustainable growth."

—Linda Ding, Director of Strategic Marketing, Laserfiche

20) Hybrid Cloud Will Support Remote Work and Study

"Higher ed is facing additional budget challenges, as tuition costs and enrollment decline. Knowing this, IT departments will look toward cost-effective modernization solutions that can support their remote workforce and students throughout the academic year. Hybrid cloud serves as an ideal model, as public cloud has been proven to draw unexpected costs, and it will be difficult for organizations to reallocate all of their data on premises. This cost-effective cloud model will be necessary to provide learning environments remotely to all end-user devices, ensuring that our future leaders will have the same academic experience as the generations before them — regardless of physical location.

—John Pellettiere, Senior Director and General Manager for State, Local and Education, Nutanix

21) Schools Will Partner with Business to Close the Gap

"When people experience an alternative way of learning long enough, it becomes their normal. In 2021, virtual learning will become the norm and even the preferred way of learning for many students, increasing the number of students enrolled in virtual post-secondary education versus in-person. This in turn will impact how educational institutions operate and structure their learning — many aspects will need to be reconsidered, from tuition to culture to the cost of maintaining the physical campuses.

"To begin filling the gap between education and the workforce, colleges need to be more responsive to partnerships with business organizations and industries in 2021. Creating these programs will help close the gap and benefit students looking for career success and businesses looking to engage talent and develop their brand. Post-secondary institutions preparing students for the workforce need to react and pivot to feed the industries that are in growth mode, instead of those that are struggling during the pandemic."

—Michael Simpson, CEO, PAIRIN

22) College Experience Will Give Way to Greater Career Focus

"As many universities are no longer able to advertise their 'college experience' in the COVID-19 era, students are reconsidering attending the typical four-year institutions due to high tuition costs, student loans and lack of social aspects. As a result, many traditional four-year universities may risk going bankrupt.

"A new form of continuing education will emerge that offers students opportunities for more focused career skills growth, subject-specific institutions and programs, and a wider variety of options that are tailored to today's workforce and economic climate. We will see institutions refocus their efforts on providing affordable, accessible learning solutions rather than on selling an experience."

—Patrick Quinn, Parenting Expert, Brainly

23) First Responders Will Get AI Help

"Artificial intelligence will make inroads in the emergency notification space. AI has the ability to help manage the barrage of information coming in via phone, text and social media that bombards first responders during an emergency event. It can segment communities based on their responses or other factors, such as their current location, to deliver messages that are contextual and relevant to people based on their specific situation. For example, if there is a potential threat in a specific area of campus, modern emergency mass notification systems can quickly deliver detailed evacuation instructions to those in buildings that are immediately impacted, while alerting those in other locations around campus to stay away from the endangered area until the situation is clear.

"The coronavirus hasn't stifled gun violence — despite the fact that many Americans are largely sheltering at home, the total number of gun deaths in 2020 is … surpassing previous years by wide margins. Heading into next year, major advancements in technology that syncs with existing surveillance camera systems will see wider adoption among education organizations. Modern recognition software enables mass notifications to be sent as soon as a gun is visible, providing administrators with advance warning before a shot is fired. Once a firearm is validated, the administrator can inform all relevant stakeholders by initiating pre-defined safety protocols, an extremely valuable capability in situations where every second matters."

—Dave Fraser, CEO, Omnilert

24) Automation Will Drive a Wave of Spear Phishing

"Spear phishing is an attack technique that involves highly targeted and convincing malicious e-mails that include specific and accurate details about a particular individual or role at a company. Historically, spear fishing is a high-investment and potentially high-return activity for hackers that has required manual and time-consuming processes. That will change in 2021. Cyber criminals have already started to create tools that can automate the manual aspects of spear phishing. By combining such tools with programs that scan data from social media networks and company websites, phishers can send thousands of detailed, believable spear phishing e-mails, with content customized to each victim. This will dramatically increase the volume of spear phishing e-mails attackers can send at once, which will improve their success rate. On the bright side, these automated, volumetric spear phishing campaigns will likely be less sophisticated and easier to spot than the traditional, manually generated variety.

"Regardless, you should expect a major increase in spear phishing attacks in 2021 due to automation. What's more, bad actors know that anxiety and uncertainty make victims easier to exploit. As society continues to grapple with the impact of COVID-19, global political strife and general financial insecurity in 2021, we anticipate that many of these automated spear phishing attacks will prey on fears around the pandemic, politics and the economy."

—Threat Lab Research Team, WatchGuard Technologies

25) Colleges Will Face More Scrutiny on Value Returned

"In 2021 there will be three overall trends. First there will be a continued flight to quality education at a reasonable price. Consumers will be reluctant to pay top dollar if there is not a reasonable prospect for a decent job on the other end. Colleges can expect more questions about dropout rates, job placement and average starting salary. No longer will families just be interested in cost but also what the return might be.

"Second, consumers are going to be increasingly open to alternative pathways such as gap years, software training boot camps and shorter three-year online-only programs.

"Lastly, income share agreements, where the student only pays a percentage of income for college repayment, will continue to expand beyond the early adopter schools like Purdue to a broader set of schools that will need to compete for enrollment."

—Jon Carson, CEO, College Guidance Network

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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