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Virtual Roundtable

9 Ed Tech Trends to Watch in 2016

Four technology and innovation experts discuss the hottest trends in higher ed tech this year.

What should be on your education technology radar? We asked four higher ed leaders to opine on everything from accessibility and competency-based education (CBE) to wearables and virtual reality. Here's what they told us.

Our Panelists

Bryan Alexander
Consultant and Futurist; Senior Researcher at New Media Consortium

Jonathan Blake Huer
Director of Emerging Technologies, Ball State University (IN)

Jack Suess
VP of IT and CIO, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Michelle R. Weise
Executive Director, Sandbox ColLABorative, Southern New Hampshire University

1) Makerspaces

Jonathan Blake Huer: Makerspaces are great for building collaboration and a must for campuses. But, in reality they are an administrative change that results from the convergence and democratization of technology. Rather than photography or video or 3D printing being relegated to specialized fields such as art or film or architecture, these technologies are now widely available. Since makerspaces and other interdisciplinary innovation spaces can be implemented at relatively low cost, the opportunities now exist for everyone to describe and communicate beyond the written word in evolving forms of scholarship.

Bryan Alexander: Makerspaces offer campuses a variety of benefits. They model a peer-based pedagogy, which is one we're grappling with as we head away from sage-on-the-stage. Our formal teaching can learn from this relatively informal practice. Maker pedagogy also models blended learning, as practitioners rely on digital (often mobile) devices for information and for sharing results.  Makerspaces serve as test beds for new technologies and practices, such as 3D printing, rapid prototyping and design thinking. We can think of them as perpetual piloting zones. Makerspaces  may also offer faculty and staff a less digitally saturated environment for working and exploration, which can appeal for personal reasons. 

Off campus, makerspaces support connections to the local community — especially to elders, as students can interact with skilled people to learn from their life experience. Artisans, welders, woodworkers, knitters, tinkerers of all sorts can contribute to the campus environment through a makerspace, improving town-gown relations. Faculty and staff can benefit from these connections as well.

Jack Suess: I agree that makerspaces have become more common. What we see is based on discipline — there is a great deal of variation in makerspace needs. What Mechanical Engineering needs for instruction is different from Art and Information Systems. We have been doing a partnership with our library to offer basic makerspace services to students, such as 3D printing.

What has been interesting on campus is seeing how these efforts are being integrated into research. Over the last three years we have had three successful National Science Foundation proposals for major research infrastructure, and this has allowed us to develop a room-scale 3D scanning facility and an immersive 3D visualization facility, and to advance our high-performance computing environment to do the computation necessary to support the other efforts. What we want to do is move from 3D printing to 3D fabrication. The idea is to construct multipart devices and use technology to go from design to visualization and then fabrication.

2) Competency-Based Education

Huer: The important thing to remember is the technology is not the hardest part. Moving all the administrative infrastructure away from the credit hour (or redefining what the credit hour means) is a fundamental shift that technology is driving, but primarily it's not a tech problem. The availability of CBE as a serious form of education has not yet reached the public consciousness. I think in the near future, CBE, blended learning and other forms of education will become a bigger factor in differentiating institutions and will attract students who want a particular mode of learning, not just a major.

Michelle R. Weise: Although I agree that technology is not the factor — particularly given the inordinate constraints of working within the current system of federal financial aid disbursement — technology, nevertheless, is still a crucial component. The major upside to delivering CBE online is the potential to modularize learning in ways that are simply unavailable to offline providers. Although some institutions have experienced success in collaborating with companies to mitigate workforce shortages, such programs are simply not scalable. When learning, however, is broken down into competencies — rather than by courses or by subject matter — modules of learning can be easily arranged, combined and scaled online into a multitude of stackable credentials or programs, for a wide variety of industries. We get an incredibly flexible architecture from modularization. Over time, I hope that more online CBE providers will move into building pathways that don't necessarily end in degrees. There are more ways than one to set students up for success and enable social mobility. Alternative learning pathways and even micro-credentials will be particularly compelling for a growing set of non-traditional students, who seek on-demand access to critical education for our ever-evolving knowledge economy.

3) Virtual Reality

Alexander: The pedagogical uses for VR date back to the 1990s: i.e., visualizing complex or inaccessible objects, from the interior of molecules to ancient archaeological sites. Pedagogical uses of Second Life drew on those years of experiment and experience. This means that new VR projects aren't starting from scratch when it comes to learning. The trick now is for computation to reach the point where VR is affordable and accessible. Google Cardboard has done major work in lowering the access bar for consumers, but production costs are high. Hardware is complex and expensive, and most computers can't handle the high computational power demands. Indeed, it might take a couple of generations of hardware development for VR production to become as user-friendly and available as video is now.

A further twist is the use of VR for digital storytelling, which we now recognize as a major form of digital media. We know that VR can make settings very compelling, including basic representations of characters. Perhaps the next stage will see the application of lessons and tropes from computer gaming.

Suess: I think 2016 will be looked back upon as a key year in VR; however, during 2016 I expect that this will be more niche-focused than mainstream. There are two reasons that I think we will say this is a watershed year: First, the Oculus Rift will be released, and I think this will generate a lot of gaming excitement and PR. Second, one of the undergraduates in our entrepreneurship program has launched a company, EduPal, that is working with Google Cardboard in the classroom. While his company is still young, the fact that we are seeing undergraduates start to develop VR products gives me hope that some of the barriers that Bryan noted are beginning to break down.

Weise: What is perhaps most exciting about this technology is that it won't simply be geared toward the wealthy. As Bryan and Jack mentioned, we already have a cardboard version of the Oculus Rift or HoloLens. You insert your phone into the cardboard viewer, play an app, and can be transported to another part of the world or to a different planet. On a Google "Expedition," students in South Africa can visit the Great Wall of China or go on a virtual field trip to Verona to see where Romeo and Juliet lived. Imagine how powerful learning will be for students when they can immerse themselves in foreign places and contexts. A student who is learning Spanish could don an Oculus Rift, HoloLens or Cardboard — all of a sudden, she's transported to Barcelona and has to make her way from the Barri Gòtic to the Parc Güell. Having to perform and survive in this "other" world, she would understand immediately the importance of learning the language. Imagine 3D versions of Joanna Cole's The Magic School Bus: Students could find themselves exploring the ocean floor or lost inside the human body or in a blood cell, a beehive, or a plant cell.

4) Data Analytics and Machine Learning

Weise: Data analytics can serve as a catchall, but it's certainly not hype. Our ability to use data predictively will only get stronger with time. Just as Watson was able to get smarter and smarter about answering Jeopardy questions, we'll be able to teach machine learning systems to improve over time, and we'll also get better at harnessing data to know how to serve our students better. I think institutions like ours that have teams dedicated to data analytics or ones that partner with vendors that specialize in data analytics understand fully how powerful data can be in enabling instructors, advisers and coaches to tailor their conversations and personalize interventions according to their students' needs.

Suess: This is an area I have been spending a great deal of my time on in 2015 and one I have committed to producing results on. I see great opportunity in machine learning. I took a graduate class in this last spring and found it very approachable. The tools I used, R and Python, are making machine learning techniques easier than ever to use. Once you understand which algorithms work best for different problems and how to evaluate the models you produce, this becomes very easy to apply within higher education. My focus for 2016 is applying machine learning techniques in support of predictive analytics for student success in a program of study and college completion. 

Of course, once you produce predictive analytics, the challenge is figuring out how to use the predictions to improve outcomes. For UMBC, we are looking to integrate this information into our system for Interactive Planning & Advising Student Success (IPASS). We want to use this predictive information to allow students and advisers to make better decisions. What is exciting is seeing vendor solutions that use machine learning and do predictive modeling; companies such as Blackboard Analytics, Civitas, EAB, HelioCampus and PAR Framework are making predictive analytics much more approachable for all institutions.

Learning analytics is an area that I'm also excited about. UMBC has been an early adopter and we have seen some benefit. What excites me most is that vendors are finally starting to implement the IMS Global Caliper Analytics standard. As this happens, it will make it possible to get insight into how students use and interact with different learning tools and content, which is not possible today. As a result, I don't believe 2016 will be the year that learning analytics goes mainstream, but 2016 might represent a turning point.

5) Accessibility

Suess: I recently participated in a work group that is looking at the next-generation digital learning environment (NGDLE), and accessibility was one of the areas we discussed. What came out of that discussion was two points: first, how important this is for higher education, and second, that we need to step back and think more holistically about accessibility. Accessibility should be a cornerstone of personalization and we all want personalization. I may want my default font to be larger or I may want the volume on video to be louder, or I am a foreign language speaker and I may want captioning in another language other than English. These efforts shouldn't be implemented on a tool-by-tool basis but should be done holistically. The group discussed the draft standard from IMS Global on Access for All (v.3.0) that allows people to set preferences that will be shared across other applications. We came away believing that this approach offers the best opportunity to benefit everyone, but especially those with disabilities, by integrating accessibility into all tools and content in a way that can be personalized. What is required is to get campuses providing feedback on the Access for All standard and then joining together to get vendors to adopt this effort.

Huer: At Ball State, I feel we do a particularly good job with accessibility. The challenge of an entrepreneurial university is balancing the desire to push boundaries and innovate for faculty, students and staff while making sure we leave no one behind. Accessibility is one of the areas where a lot of tech companies have made significant progress in inclusion. It just doesn't get much attention (I was really pleased to see the brief accessibility shout-out in Apple's holiday ad this year). However, unless we build the product ourselves, we're relying on vendors to deliver. The challenge in accessibility moving forward is vetting products as we move to a more open learning ecosystem. The questions become: Who's responsible for accessibility? The vendor who creates the plug-in? An LMS certification process? What if the software is free in the first place? Does the school assume responsibility? As various technologies mature, they will be held to a higher standard of inclusion. I think we've reached the point where "it's coming" is no longer an acceptable answer.

6) Mobile First

Alexander: Mobile devices will continue to impact teaching and learning in multiple ways. First, continued negotiation over the role of mobile devices in classrooms. Second, growing use of mobile for off-campus work (home, community involvement, study abroad, research, etc.). Third, possible realization that underserved populations use mobile more than the typical college audience; we could see more mobile-first design to meet that group. Fourth, a widening gap between the post-mobile Web (designed with handhelds in mind) and the software universities rely on (ERP, LMS, library tools, etc.).

Suess: We are undertaking a major effort to move to advance mobile. We know from research done by ECAR that smartphones are almost universally available on most campuses. Our data points to a greater than 95 percent adoption rate. In focus groups we did with students in early 2015, we heard students ask us why our services aren't mobile-friendly when everything else is. We have to make the transition to a mobile-first strategy. Saying that, we are first focusing on mobile devices for student services. We believe that an app with integrated Web browsing provides us the best way to deliver the right personalized content based on a person's location, time, preferences and roles. We have worked with a local vendor to develop our app, and all Web efforts since 2014 have mandated a responsive design. With that in place, we want to expand to teaching and learning by adding more software and license content that crosses devices — from e-textbooks to software tools to scientific tools such as Wolfram Alpha. I believe by providing compelling content and tools we will see more faculty accept mobile devices in their classroom.

7) Wearables

Weise: I'm going to borrow from futurist Raymond Kurzweil, who says it well in hisTED talk: "What used to take up a building now fits in our pockets. What now fits in our pockets would fit in a blood cell in 25 years." Imagine those wearables for the classroom of the future!

Alexander: For 20 years, computing focused on desktops. For the next decade we migrated to laptops. Afterward, we haven't settled on any single device format. Instead, we've disintegrated computing and distributed it around our bodies and personal spaces, into watches, phones, tablets, light laptops (Chromebooks, Airs), fitness trackers, head-mounted devices (GoPro), glasses (Google Glass, Cardboard, Oculus Rift), circuits woven into fabric, jewelry (Disney MagicBand), room controllers (Kinect, Echo). Devices are growing in number, variety, range and function, while often shrinking in size, cost and ability to surprise us.

Implications for teaching and learning are starting to appear. Wearables afford more opportunities for data capture, including personal information (walking, sleeping, heart rate) and media capture, which can key into many different academic fields: health and sports sciences, media studies, urban planning, the fine arts and writing. Data capture also enables editing, composition and sharing, so a student obtaining information can work on it, then share with colleagues, instructors and the world at large via social media and classware. 

But many of these uses are new because either the technology is recently developed or it simply hasn't reached academic use in large numbers. The challenge for faculty is to select specific wearables and connect them to curricular and pedagogical purposes. The challenge for campus IT is to support an ever-growing number and variety of devices, each bringing with it its own ecosystem and connection to the world.

Huer: Wearables will be commonplace in the classroom. From the high-end Apple Watch down to the lowest-cost Fitbit, a lot of students, faculty and staff have access to wearables of different kinds. (Personally, I got two different wearables for Christmas.) To echo Bryan, the question is how they can be used for scholarship outside of a few specific majors (health-related mostly). I think the demise of Google Glass for both social and technical reasons caused some people to pause, but wearables will continue to proliferate in highly specialized ways. The challenge will be connecting them all together, to an LMS, and which becomes the dominant platform.

8) Video

Huer: "Video" is a misnomer that reinforces traditional beliefs and misses the potential. Video in the classroom is still largely a one-way medium. The group with the knowledge (faculty, institution, etc.) makes a video (or worse yet, "captures" a lecture) and then replays it online. But even at the highest Hollywood production quality, it's still a "sage on the stage" model. This is not where students are. Students have fluency in Vine, Periscope, Snapchat, etc., and are communicating with video and other forms of media at level far beyond the basic concept of video. It's interactive. It's engaging. It's two-way. When they go into the classroom, whether in-person or online, it seems primitive. It's like asking faculty to go back to typewriters and Wite-Out. What we have lacked until now is the integrated infrastructure to bring short-form media into an LMS, assess it, and communicate back using the same medium. As learning management systems move into the cloud and provide more opportunities for integration, I hope we can finally engage everyone in a media-savvy way that builds on the traditional reading and writing.

Alexander: I agree with Jonathan. There's a struggle going on between the TV model (broadcast) and the YouTube version (users as producers).

Looking Back

How do our 2016 ed tech trends compare to last year? Read our 2015 roundtable: "9 Ed Tech Trends to Watch in 2015."

9) Wireless Infrastructure

Huer: It's not a new trend, but I really think it's interesting to see how all of this relies on wireless infrastructure. A mobile cloud wearable CBE course isn't going to work if the network is saturated. A student could have five-plus WiFi connected devices (laptop, phone, tablet, camera, watch, drone, etc.) for a single assignment. Imagine that in a classroom. I think it'll be interesting to see how this affects future planning.

Suess: In the last two years, our peak bandwidth usage was September 2014 when iOS 7 was launched. We peaked at 7.5 gigabits of traffic going to Apple, mostly over wireless! We were lucky that we had completely revamped our wireless the summer of 2014; otherwise our wireless infrastructure would have melted down under the load. Last year we gathered a lot of statistics and noticed some challenges in our lecture halls, especially as classes are using flipped video. This past year we have been adding additional access points in lecture halls and large spaces to try and stay ahead of demand. 

I expect WiFi will become more mission-critical as WiFi calling becomes accepted by all cellular providers — we then expect that voice traffic will increase and latency will become even more important. One aspect we are trying to promote with users is using Eduroam for our wireless authentication. We are making steady progress in this and hope to make this standard for all wireless by the end of 2016.

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