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The 6 Technologies That Will Shape Higher Ed

Game-based learning, learning analytics, and the "Internet of Things" are three of six technologies that will have a profound impact on higher education in the next one to five years, according to the latest NMC Horizon Report released by the New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative.

The annual NMC Horizon Report--this year released jointly by NMC and the Educause Learning Initiative--focuses on the key technology areas that researchers identify as applicable to teaching and learning and likely to have a major impact on educational institutions within the next five years, broken down into the technologies that will have an impact in the near term, mid-term, and longer term. The report also identifies "critical" challenges facing education in the near future.

For the NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition, researchers and analysts identified six technologies that have the potential to break down linguistic and cultural barriers, make education more affordable and efficient, open up new modes of learning, improve students' chances of success and satisfaction in school, and connect us with the everyday objects in our lives.

"Identifying the key emerging technologies for learning is vital at a time when all institutions are forced to make very careful choices about investments in technology," said Malcolm Brown, director of the Educause Learning Initiative, in a prepared statement. "The Horizon Report goes beyond simply naming technologies; it offers examples of how they are being used, which serves to demonstrate their potential. The report also identifies the trends and challenges that will be key for learning across all three adoption horizons. This makes the Horizon Report essential for anyone planning the future of learning at their institution."

"Campus leaders and practitioners across the world use the report as a springboard for discussion around emerging technology," agrees Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium, in a statement released to coincide with the report. "As this is the 10th year of the project, the report also offers an opportunity to think how some of these technologies have unfolded over time. What we see is that there continue to be long-term channels along which educational technology is evolving. These have affected, are affecting now, and will continue to affect the practice of teaching and learning in profound ways for some time."

Near-Term Technologies: Mobile Apps and Tablet Computing
According to the report, mobile technologies are changing the nature of computing for end users and developers, shifting away from "large suites of integrated software" and moving toward free and cheap apps--"small, simple, and elegant" pieces of software that generally do one thing or just a few things well.

"The potential of mobile computing is already being demonstrated in hundreds of projects at higher education institutions, according to the report. "At the most basic level, many universities and colleges have developed map and directory apps for current students to navigate campuses and for prospective students to take virtual tours or to enhance physical tours. As institutions begin to understand the potential of apps, they have built in features for students to check their grades, or to update them with sports scores or breaking campus news."

On the device side of mobile computing, tablets--led by Apple's iPad--are already having a significant influence on teaching and learning, though the impact of these devices--especially through institution-led student tablet programs--has yet to be understood.

"Because of their portability, large display, and touchscreen, tablets are ideal devices for one-to-one learning, as well as fieldwork," the report's authors argued. "Many institutions are beginning to rely on them in place of cumbersome laboratory equipment, video equipment, and various other expensive tools that are not nearly as portable or as inexpensive to replace."

Mid-Term Technologies: Game-Based Learning and Learning Analytics
Researchers identified two technologies that are, by their reckoning, two to three years from making their real impact felt. They include game-based learning and learning analytics.

"Learning analytics" refers to a combination of traditional strategies used in student retention and methods that pull data from a variety of disparate sources "to create a far more robust and nuanced picture of learning as it happens that can be used to improve both teaching and learning environments."

Learning analytics had been listed as a longer-term trend in the previous NMC Horizon Report. But, as the authors noted, there have been significant developments in this area that have pushed learning analytics forward, including the launch of well funded initiatives to drive development in this area.

Likewise, developments in game-based learning have helped to move this category forward.

"Game-based learning reflects a number of important skills higher education institutions strive for their students to acquire: collaboration, problem solving, communication, critical thinking, and digital literacy," according to the report. "What makes educational gaming appealing today is the plethora of genres and applications associated with it. From role-playing games to online social games to entire courses created around teaching better game design, aspects of game mechanics are well integrated in higher education curriculum."

Long-Term Technologies: Gesture-Based Computing, 'Internet of Things'
Four or five years out are two technologies new to the NMC report: gesture-based computing and the "Internet of Things."

Gesture-based computing is already in wide use in gaming and mobile devices. What makes it particularly meaningful to education, however, is its ability to transcend linguistic and cultural limitations, relying "not on specific languages, but on natural human movements common to all cultures...."

According to the report, ""Devices that encourage users to touch them, move, or otherwise use play as a means to explore are particularly intriguing to schools. Such devices, which currently are primarily illustrated by Android and Apple smart phones and tablets, the Microsoft Surface and Promethean’s ActivPanel, and the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect systems, open up a wide range of uses for learners. Gesture-enabled devices aid collaboration, sharing, and group interactions."

Finally, also four to five years out, is the "Internet of Things," which the researchers described as the evolution of smart objects, "interconnected items in which the line between the physical object and digital information about it is blurred."

The implications for higher ed are, similarly, blurry.

Smart objects in the Internet of Things are made possible through the advent of IPv6. They're small devices that have unique identifiers, the ability to stpore data, and the ability to communicate information with external devices via TCP/IP. The report's authors cited RFID systems for tracking attendance, research subjects, and resources (such as lab equipment checked out by students), as well as classroom technologies like IP-addressable projectors, as examples.

According to the report: "While there are examples, such as the Smart Grid, of what the Internet of Things might look like as it unfolds, it is still today more concept than reality. At the same time, the underlying technologies that will make it possible--smart sensors that can easily be attached to everyday objects to monitor their environment or status; new forms of low-energy radio transmission that can enable the sensor to send its information wirelessly or via electric lines to a network hub; and an expanded address space for the Internet--are all well understood, easily mass-produced, and inexpensive."

Challenges for Technology in Education
In addition to the six technologies identified as emerging opportunities for education, the report also cited five significant technology-oriented challenges facing higher education in the coming months and years.

Those included:

  • Economic pressures from new education models, forcing traditional institutions to control costs while maintaining services;
  • The need for new forms of scholarly corroboration as traditional peer review and approval become more and more difficult to apply in light of new methods of dissemination;
  • The growing importance of digital literacy and lack of digital literacy preparation among faculty;
  • Traditional institutional barriers to the adoption of new technologies; and
  • Technological upheavals that are putting libraries "under tremendous pressure to evolve new ways of supporting and curating scholarship."

The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition is freely available under a Creative Commons license. The full report includes case studies, references, methodology, definitions, and examples. It can be accessed with registration from the New Media Consortium's site.

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