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4 Trends That Will Recharge Higher Ed IT in 2016

These ideas and technologies are jolting the education segment from the outside in.

We performed a broad survey of the New Year's predictions that are so abundant each January. And setting aside the expert forecasts that locally sourced meats and seafood are at the top of the food trend, print books are back in vogue and the "lob" will take the place of the "bob" in celebrity hair styles, we delved in to identify the trends that will most impact technology leaders and professionals within education. Here we offer four topics that surfaced among multiple visionaries.

We Embrace Virtual/Augmented Worlds

Heavy adoption of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are at the top of many prediction lists. "2016 is the year these puppies will actually roll out to the general public," declared Yahoo Finance reporter Andy Serwer. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) featured some four dozen exhibitors serving this segment in two separate marketplaces, "gaming and virtual reality" and "augmented reality." The Consumer Technology Association, which runs that event, expects sales of headsets to reach 1.2 million units this year.

Google already offers Cardboard, its truly low-end (once you have the phone) VR product. In 2016, however, it will be joined by Microsoft, Sony, HTC and Facebook (with its Oculus Rift division), all of which are expected to release their own powerful headsets that transport users virtually into programmed worlds.

Beyond the obvious glee to be experienced by VR-using gamers, there are other uses worth considering, according to design and strategy firm Frog Design. Burn patients at the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center are undergoing clinical trials that use VR in pain reduction. During wound care, such as bandage changes, the patients can immerse themselves in specially designed virtual worlds as a distraction.

VR can also connect "otherwise isolated people and groups," Frog Design wrote in its "Tech Trends 2016" report. "Rather than getting lost in virtual fantasy, we find ourselves more deeply connected to reality." One example of virtual immersion: A VR cam in a refugee camp provokes greater empathy (and generates more aid) for people stuck in long-term fenced settlements.

AR, which mixes virtual reality with the physical world, will continue gaining ground too. One example of AR in action includes Reify, which is creating a physical music platform app that changes sound into something that a user can "hear, see and hold." Another is the 3D-printed Holomonster "sculpts" by Dejarik Creations used to mimic the holochess game played in the latest Star Wars. And, as this Los Angeles Times article notes, we may shortly see amusement parks adding VR headsets as an optional upgrade to allow riders to augment their experiences on rides.

Threat Intelligence Permeates Security

Even as experts predict the growing threats posed by the Internet of Things and increasingly connected vehicles, the basic problems of cybersecurity aren't going away either. End users will continue allowing their devices containing sensitive client data to be stolen and their network access to be socially engineered. Data breaches will still hit big-name targets, resulting in the potential seizure or exposure of millions of customers' personal details. And the notion of encrypting everything that crosses the wire internally or externally will still be uncommon.

Trend Micro anticipates more organizations being pushed into the spotlight through systematic targeting by "hacktivists," who want to damage the reputation of their victims (such as what happened with Sony in 2014). For a similar reason, ransomware too is expected to pick up dramatically — not just among individuals but also in business — in what the security vendor is calling the "year of online extortion." "We will see a significant increase in successful ploys designed to persuade employees to transfer money to a cybercriminal-controlled account," researchers stated.

In response, 2016 will bring changes on the security front. In environments where organizations are using cloud-based services and open APIs to allow others to integrate with their systems, no longer is it enough for security administrators to put full faith on perimeter defense or rule-based security. For that reason, according to Gartner, organizations will start using predictive modeling to help them play more active defense.

This isn't a new expectation by the consulting firm. Two years ago, Gartner predicted that by this year a quarter of large, global companies would adopt "big data analytics" in some form for at least one security or fraud detection use case — and would achieve a positive ROI within six months of implementation. By combining and correlating information from multiple sources, the idea goes, the enterprise would be able to see a "bigger picture of threats," including "advanced threats, insider threats and account takeover."

In line with that, Haiyan Song, senior vice president for security markets at security vendor Splunk, expects that "organizations will begin producing their own threat intelligence," as reported by Information Management. In fact, cybersecurity operations will grow and become a "competitive advantage," she told the publication.

Caring for the Customer

There's nothing new about setting off down the "customer obsession path," according to Forrester Research. What is new is the level of importance given to the customer experience in 2016. As Senior Vice President Carrie Johnson wrote, "The level and quality of contextual, personalized experiences will be a key determinant of who wins mindshare and share of wallet." She recommended getting rid of the "IT clutter holding back your strategic work to win, serve and retain customers."

Forrester Analyst Brian Hopkins predicted that spending in the area of business technology — "the things that let firms win, serve and retain customers" — will double in 2016 compared to spending in other areas of technology investment.

In an environment that focuses on customer experience, one area for investment will be "hyper-personalization," as VentureBeat observed. This is what happens when you compile data about your customers ("without crossing the line") in order to create a fuller picture of who they are and better serve them.

Therefore, predicted Computerworld, we'll begin to see marketing and IT departments "forging partnerships" to develop new use cases for engaging with customers and prospects; cooperating to "ensure successful implementations"; and improving "overall marketing effectiveness."

A result of that cooperation could be more emphasis on the "ambient interface," in which, as Webmedia Group explained, information automatically surfaces via algorithm just as the user needs to know it. "What makes ambient design so tantalizing," Webmedia wrote, "is that it should require us to make fewer and fewer decisions in the future ... a sort of autocomplete for intention." One result will be a shift in content away from the device in use (resizing a page to fit the right display) and toward context (what the user is doing, when and where). "The goal should be capturing our always-divided attention, rather than making sure a page fits neatly onto our latest mobile phones."

Present Tense Replaces Future Tense

Now that 2016 is here, perhaps it's time to replace prognostication with something simpler: breathing. The idea of taking a break from the job to focus on your breathing may come across as anti-productive, but institutions (Harvard and New York University among them) are increasingly introducing mindfulness into their business school programs. The purpose, according to its fans: to help you refresh your brain; reduce stress and anxiety; find a measure of balance; deepen your thinking; and get you away from responding via auto-pilot and to notice the tiny changes around you as they occur from moment to moment.

As Chade-Meng Tan recently wrote for Harvard Business Review (HBR), he introduced mindfulness at Google "to help people put down that mental baggage and approach each new situation with a present, focused mind." Even a single "mindful breath" can make a difference, Tan explained. He referenced one colleague who follows that "six second" process before walking into meetings, allowing her to "[reset] her body and mind."

In a long-running series of articles with titles such as "Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain" and "Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity," HBR offered lessons on how to apply mindfulness in the workplace. As one article reported, health insurance company Aetna found that a structured mindfulness program allowed participants to gain 62 minutes of productivity a week — "an estimated $3,000-per-employee increase" for the company each year.

"When you first get to work in the morning, spend two minutes a day starting a ritual of doing nothing except watching your breath go in and out and being aware of your surroundings," advised authors Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan. "If you want to be a forward-thinking professional, stop thinking about the future for a moment. If you want to do more today, sit down and practice being aware of your breath and the fact that you have access to meaning right now."

Now there's an idea whose time really has come.

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