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The 6 Major Barriers to Technology Adoption in Higher Ed

Even as technology proliferates in education at unprecedented rates, new hurdles — including limitations of the human mind to keep up with technological advances — are throwing themselves in the way of effective implementation.

The 6 Major Barriers to Technology Adoption in Higher Ed

About the NMC Horizon Report

Each year, the New Media Consortium, in collaboration with the Educause Learning Initiative, pulls together a panel of experts to settle on a list of 18 issues that the experts contend will have a major impact on education practice and policy in the near term, mid-term and long term — six significant trends, six significant developments and six barriers. The experts (79 this year, including 75 panelists and four project leaders) range from NMC and Educause staff to prominent figures in academia and policy from around the world. The process is accessible to the public through the Horizon Project wiki at, and the complete list of participants can be found at

Here's a word you don't hear much anymore: obsolescence. But it's a word that's making a comeback in 2017 in a new and distressing way. Popularly used in a business context (e.g. the planned obsolescence of consumer devices that are designed to fall apart in a few years, like cars and laptops), it's now being used to describe the human mind. It's no longer the technology that's becoming obsolete too quickly; it's the knowledge of technology that's rapidly falling behind advances or changes in technologies. And that obsolescence, according to the New Media Consortium's Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition, is just one of the six major challenges facing technology in higher ed in the coming years.

The Horizon Report is NMC's annual research project that, with a panel of higher education experts, attempts to identify significant and not necessarily obvious technology trends that will impact education in the coming years. Among those trends are those accelerating adoption of technology, those impeding technology and those that are simply educationally significant technology-based developments.

Roadblocks Ahead: Wicked Challenges

This year's report identified six major roadblocks to education technology, either in its adoption or in its implementation. The report divided the roadblocks into three categories: those that pose challenges but that are solvable in the near term, those that are more difficult to solve but are still understandable and those that are "wicked difficult" — nigh impossible even to define, let alone solve.

Falling into the wicked difficult category in this year's report are two issues that did not make last year's list: managing the obsolescence of human knowledge and, perhaps even more difficult, grappling with the changing role of the educator.

On the human obsolescence front, the report explained: "Staying organized and current presents a challenge to academics in a world where educational needs, software, and devices advance at a strenuous rate. New developments in technology hold great potential for improving the quality of learning and operations. However, just as faculty and staff are able to master one technology, it seems a new version launches. Institutions must grapple with the longevity of technologies and devise back-up plans before making large investments. There is added pressure to ensure that any tools selected are in service of deepening learning outcomes in ways that are measurable."

Professional development can only go so far to alleviating this problem, though the report did note a few exemplars. One of those is the Houston Community College system, which provides both technical and pedagogical assistance to adjuncts. As the report described: "Eight Curriculum Innovation Centers work with instructors to integrate the latest technologies into their courses and facilitate engaging learning experiences. Adjuncts receive training on special projects, such as digital storytelling and designing online courses, as well as basic assistance with LMS and grade entry software.  The centers are accessible during set hours or by appointment, providing flexibility for adjuncts to visit the location nearest their home, place of employment, or teaching campus."

Another exemplar noted in the report was Penn State University, which "employs a three-pronged approach for managing knowledge obsolescence among faculty and staff: providing them with emerging technologies for freeform experimentation, bringing together instructional designers and programmers to reimagine how technology can transform classroom activities, and establishing long-term bonds between leadership and faculty to engage in creative problem-solving."

According to Samantha Becker, co-principal investigator for the Horizon Project and NMC's senior director of communications, this particular challenge "converges with integrating formal and informal learning. Not only is keeping up with new educational trends and technologies an important part of formal PD, but educators and staff must (somehow) find the time in the limited free time they have to pursue external learning pathways. I've heard educators, for example, refer to their social media as personal learning networks."

She said it's crucial for institutions to recognize, reward and scale good pedagogy and that these practices need to be a part of an institution's fabric. "When institutions reward research over teaching, it sends a message that devalues teaching," she said. "Establishing programs that identity effective teaching and then allowing those educators to teach other educators is one route. Peer-to-peer learning can be an important part of PD — and of scaling innovative practices."

She added that "cultures that promote experimentation are essential. Institutions are doing a better job of integrating this idea into learning experiences and assignments for students, but what about faculty? Good example: At Columbia University, Teachers College's Gottesman Library is building the 'Learning Theater,' an open-plan educational lab that deploys proven techniques from the visual arts to enable staff to experiment with unconventional collaboration and instructional approaches, constructing mock-spaces in the same manner a set designer does a play."

Intimately related to these issues of pedagogy and experimentation is the second "wicked difficult" challenge in this year's Horizon Report: re-thinking the roles of educators. This has been a major issue in K-12 education for decades, one that has proved contentious for educators in many cases and somewhat difficult to implement given the wide policy swings at the federal, state and local level — coupled with reform efforts that have been at times at cross-purposes with one another (for example the push to let students drive their own learning coupled with a push to tie teachers' bonuses, salaries and even employment to the performance of their students on standardized tests).

Higher education has traditionally had much more flexibility in the ways in which it's been able to deliver education, yet the oft-maligned large lecture remains a prominent fixture.

6 Major Technology Trends in Higher Education

The NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition identified six trends that are likely to affect colleges and universities within the next decade in terms of how they adopt technology: two in the near term (trends whose impact will be felt in the next one or two years); two in the mid-term (three to five years out); and two in the long term (more than five years away). All of the trends cited in this year's report have appeared in past reports as well.

Near term (one to two years out):

  • Blended Learning Designs: This has been a trend cited in every report since the first one in 2012. The researchers noted in the report: "Drawing from best practices in both online and face-to-face methods, blended learning is on the rise at colleges and universities as the number of digital learning platforms and ways to leverage them for educational purposes continues to expand."
  • Collaborative Learning: This first appeared as a trend in 2012, then disappeared for several years, returning in the 2017 edition. The reason for the resurgence has something to do with the cloud, which the researchers noted plays an important role in promoting persistent learning, as well as the rise in adaptive learning and increasing sophistication of student advising technologies.

Mid-term (three to five years out):

  • Growing Focus on Measuring Learning: This is another one that's been cited by the Horizon Project panelists as a significant trend for several years running.
  • Redesigning Learning Spaces: This trend continues from the 2015 and 2016 reports.

Long term (five or more years away):

  • Advancing Cultures of Innovation: This has been cited as a trend in the last three Horizon Reports, though the focus, as the researchers wrote, has shifted "from understanding the value of fostering the exploration of new ideas to finding ways to replicate it across a span of diverse and unique learning institutions."
  • Deeper Learning Approaches: This trend has appeared in three non-consecutive reports (2012, 2016 and 2017). The report characterized it this way: "There is an ongoing emphasis in higher education on deeper learning approaches, defined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as the mastery of content that engages students in critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-directed learning. To remain motivated, students need to be able to make clear connections between their coursework and the real world, and how the new knowledge and skills will impact them. Project-based learning, challenge-based learning, inquiry-based learning and similar methods are fostering more active learning experiences."

NMC's Becker explained: "It's all about the transition from sage-on-stage to educators as coaches, guides and mentors. That is not to say there is not a place and time lectures, but the move toward more active, immersive and hands-on learning calls for a different kind of instruction. These are changes to learning approaches as well as pedagogy, so traditional forms of teaching may not be effective in implementing them."

So why do less effective practices remain? The report noted a significant gap between the values espoused by leaders in academia with their practices: "Compounding this wicked challenge is the contradiction between what higher education institutions value and how they prioritize those values. A Gallup survey of college and university presidents found that 64 percent of presidents place teaching first in importance in faculty roles, and only 1 percent believe that publishing and research are their most important responsibilities. Yet, pundits note that a growing number of faculty appointments are part-time or non-tenure track positions with lower faculty engagement, higher turnover and declining instructional quality, and those with tenure are assessed primarily on their scholarly output rather than their ability to engage students."

The Merely (Yet Extremely) Difficult Challenges

One pip down on the difficulty scale come two new challenges that, themselves, could easily have qualified as "wicked" in that they, too, are on some levels difficult even to come to grips with and are certainly going to be a challenge to solve — if, that is, they are able to be solved at all.

The first is digital equity. In this nation alone, some 30 million people are without high-speed internet. That is compounded with the fact that there's an enormous qualitative gap when it comes to access to technologies, whether that be the high cost of specialized software tools or the high cost of quality computing devices.

Globally, the problem is even grimmer: Only 41 percent of the population in developing countries is online. And, as the report noted, there's a significant gender issue involved as well: "200 million fewer women than men are accessing the internet around the world."

The second difficult challenge in this year's report is closely related: the achievement gap. As the report explained: "While emerging technological developments such as digital courseware and open educational resources (OER) have made it easier to engage with learning resources, significant issues of access and equity persist among students from low-income, minority, single-parent families, and other disadvantaged groups. The one-size-fits-all approach of traditional higher education paradigms, coupled with overwhelming tuition costs, is in stark contrast with an increasingly diverse global student population; more flexible degree plans are needed."

The 'Solvable' Challenges

On the low end of the scale are the two solvable challenges, both of which carry over from the 2016 report: digital literacy and integrating formal and informal learning.

Lifelong learning — much of it informal, delivered through workplace experience or participation in online courses or webinars — has become essential to workers across sectors, and, according to the report, it's become imperative for higher education institutions to recognize informal learning in order to remain relevant. But what exactly constitutes "credible informal learning?"

Coming to a consensus on that is a fairly substantial barrier, yet informal learning is making inroads ina number of ways. For example: "The European Commission is setting an influential policy precedent by recognizing that informal learning validation increases visibility of learning outcomes and appropriate value of these experiences. Their recently published 'European Guidelines for Validating Non-formal and Informal Learning' is aimed at stakeholders, policymakers and practitioners involved in developing and implementing education validation arrangements. The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training has, in tandem, developed a database that provides an overview of how each country is meeting the challenge of validating informal learning. In the U.S., the Department of Education launched Education Quality through Innovative Partnerships, which allows students to leverage financial aid toward several non-traditional offerings, including management in industries like hospitality and manufacturing or mobile and web development; they are also piloting new assessment mechanisms to support and track the outcomes of these new programs."

The final challenge in the 2017 report, digital literacy, another carryover from previous reports, focused this year less on proficiency with technology and more on digital citizenship — though proficiency remains an issue. The report noted: "The productive and innovative use of technology encompasses 21st century practices that are vital for success in the workplace and beyond. Digital literacy transcends gaining isolated technological skills to generating a deeper understanding of the digital environment, enabling intuitive adaptation to new contexts and co-creation of content with others. Institutions are charged with developing students' digital citizenship, ensuring mastery of responsible and appropriate technology use, including online communication etiquette and digital rights and responsibilities in blended and online learning settings and beyond."

When asked whether it was the role of higher education institutions to instruct their (adult) students in digital citizenship or whether this might be a more appropriate pursuit for K–12 schools, NMC's Becker responded, "I think the concept digital citizenship transcends learning sectors. It's true that I've seen some digital citizenship frameworks designed by K–12-focused organizations, but remember: Great trends and practices can come from K–12 and greatly impact higher ed, such as the flipped classroom. Here's a digital citizenship example for higher ed: Students, faculty and researchers are being expected to disseminate their work and share their knowledge/questions via social media. How does one understand the difference between an intellectually provocative tweet and a downright inflammatory one?"

The complete Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition is freely available (along with reports from prior years) at or

6 Significant Technological Developments Impacting Education

The NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition also identified the six technologies they think will have the greatest impact on education in the next decade.

Time to adoption: One year or less:

  • Adaptive Learning Technologies.
  • Mobile Learning.

Time to adoption: two to three years:

  • The Internet of Things: IoT is broadly viewed as a major factor that will impact multiple sectors. But how will its impact be felt in higher ed? Samantha Becker, co-principal investigator for the Horizon Projected, noted: "I think the earliest and most basic applications of IoT at institutions are those that enhance safety and efficiency. Alert systems that send notifications through mobile devices are one way to help protect people on campus (as used at Virginia Tech), and University of New South Wales is already using sensors to lower energy consumption and improve connectivity. In future incarnations, always-connected devices, enabled by IoT, also have the capacity to detect patterns in behavior and performance to target students in need of greater support."
  • Next-Generation LMS: The much-maligned current-generation LMS can be described as limited "in capacity, too narrowly focused on the administration of learning rather than the learning itself." By contrast, according to the report, "Next-generation LMS,  also called next-generation digital learning environments (NGDLE), refers to the development of more flexible spaces that support personalization, meet universal design standards and play a larger role in formative learning assessment. Rather than existing as single applications, they are a "confederation of IT systems and application components that adhere to common standards ... that would enable diversity while fostering coherence."

Time to adoption: five or more years:

  • Artificial Intelligence: Broadly, AI can be a powerful educational tool. According to the report: "As the underlying technologies continue to develop, AI has the potential to enhance online learning, adaptive learning software and research processes in ways that more intuitively respond to and engage with students."
  • Natural User Interfaces: "There is a rising level of interactive fidelity in systems that understand gestures, facial expressions and their nuances, as well as the convergence of gesture-sensing technology with voice recognition. While there are many applications of gesture and voice recognition already, developments in haptic technology, tactile sensations that convey information to the user, are creating new areas of scientific inquiry and application in education," according to the researchers.


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