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Virtual Roundtable

8 Ed Tech Trends to Watch in 2019

From artificial intelligence to STEM education, these technologies and topics are worth paying attention to this year.

Our Panelists

Andy Jett
VP for Strategic Planning & Academic Resources and CIO, Baker University

Orlando Leon
CIO, California State University, Fresno

Kathleen Lueckeman
CIO, Maryville University

Theresa Rowe
CIO, Oakland University

What technologies and trends will have the biggest impact on higher education in the coming year? We asked four university IT leaders to weigh in on the top issues in ed tech and share what they're seeing both on the horizon and in their own institutions. Here's what they told us.

1) Learning Analytics and Student Success

Andy Jett: How students learn, and how technology interfaces with student learning, are so important to assuring learning is happening and assuring the quality of academic programs. Until recently, we were relying on lagging indicators of that learning, such as end-of-course assessments. With real-time learning analytics, faculty can pivot their instructional methods as a class progresses and transform a struggling student into a thriving student.

Theresa Rowe: I am most intrigued with heat maps that show active interaction with online content and immediate low-stakes assessments. The potential is for immediate intervention when student interaction with content is low or quick assessments indicate that the learning materials failed to yield evidence of learning. We have a recent tradition that analytics is something that is trended over time, but that approach does not offer much for a student in the course right now. Changing our thinking to real-time learning analytics (as described by Andy) is essential to making a difference for a currently enrolled student. We need to accelerate analysis and response. Imagine ongoing or customized course design evolving over a semester, based on evidence of interaction and success.

Orlando Leon: Fresno State has moved away from the concept of using "big data," toward using "unstructured" data (i.e. card swipe data, printing data and other behavioral data) in addition to "structured" data (i.e. attendance, grades) as indicators to help with earlier prediction of student success. We define "student success" in many different ways, but in the context of CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025, student success means graduating on time, measured primarily by four- and six-year graduation rates for first-time freshmen and two- and four-year graduation rates for first-time transfer students. To move toward this type of data-informed decision-making, we are using tools from a variety of vendors, such as card swipe and printing data inside of Blackboard, learning management system data inside of Canvas, (potentially) wireless location and network data in various systems, student information data inside of PeopleSoft, degree planning data inside uAchieve and advising data inside of EAB. There are a number of analytics success stories around the nation, and while Fresno State is only starting to put these various sources of information together, we have hope that this will be a helpful approach as we make progress toward 2025. On the other hand, relating to many headlines around the nation (and world), I wonder how this makes all of our students, parents and alumni feel as it pertains to information security and privacy.

Kathleen Lueckeman: With so many definitions of the word "success," it's a term that is now used as an umbrella and at times isn't well understood as it relates to the "business" of the university. As referenced by Orlando, student success means compliance with mandates to maintain federal financial aid, government-published metrics and, in some cases, state-specific performance funding. That's different and can be seen, perhaps, as crass compared to the public perception of student success. However, the definitions are not mutually exclusive. It will take a combination of helping students when the need for help is detected and smoothing administrative processes to facilitate persistence and comply with mandates. Technology can support interventions for both — from simple listeners for logins to the LMS, which can alert faculty and advisers so they can talk with students; to automation of SAP suspension alerts and appeals to get at-risk students back on track; to dynamically displayed explanations of the ramifications to requests like course withdrawal, with its requirement to pay back financial aid, and change of major, both of which can cause issues downstream with persistence. In the coming year, I expect to see more schools using automation with their own learning analytics and real-time data to both support success and more easily comply with mandates.

Rowe: Kathy makes a great point about defining student success. Creating a definition appropriate to a campus culture, and having everyone buy into and support that definition, is critical. Limiting the definition to graduation ignores the student's intent; perhaps the student intended to stay one or two years and transfer. The role of successful financial management along with successful academic progress needs to be considered as well. One definition of student success may be "Successfully achieved academic goals," while another at the same institution may be "Successfully achieved academic goals while managing college costs and avoiding unnecessary debt." These two definitions may create conflicting processes if present at the same institution. A simple definition of success may just be "Keeping an enrolled student enrolled through the successful completion of the enrolled semester." That simple definition captures intent and provides a direct focus. The definition of success has to be part of the university's culture.

2) Technology/Innovation Incubators

Leon: Technology and innovation are happening all around us, and we have seen and heard many stories of wonderful ideas that have started and incubated on a college campus. Fresno State is trying to take a proactive approach with its recently created technology innovation team, whose vision is to enhance teaching and learning and support various forms of student success through partnerships with students, faculty, staff and the community as well as local and national technology companies. We have a number of technology innovation projects in progress, involving technologies such as Internet of Things, augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cryptocurrencies and cloud computing. We are actively getting students involved. Two years ago, we partnered with students to start the campus's inaugural HackFresno hackathon event, and this spring will mark the event's third-annual hackathon. This spring we are also partnering with the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to launch Ignite, a crowdsourced incubation program to encourage and support up to three student teams using technology and innovation to bring ideas and concepts toward implementation.

Rowe: The word that stops me here is "incubators." An incubator stands alone. For many of us, innovation is deeply imbedded in everyday projects within the organization, and not a stand-alone activity.

Lueckeman: Like Theresa, I feel the generic word "incubator" seems a misnomer in higher ed. We cannot ignore the significant work done in tech transfer and innovation centers as a team effort. We will see more of these partnerships and, going forward, schools will increasingly embrace academic partnerships with employers to ensure transfer of in-demand skills.

3) STEM Education

Rowe: Our future demands talented scientists and quality scientific inquiry. Given funding issues and a societal attitude that disrespects science, it is difficult to recruit and retain students and faculty with the scientific talent needed for academic success. There are also financial obstacles blocking the creation and maintenance of the labs and tools needed for effective academic programs. The challenges grow as we look at graduate programs; program cuts and lack of deep investment impact the ability to perform quality scientific research and leave fewer opportunities for graduate students. Programs like bioinformatics or advanced cybersecurity require big data cyberinfrastructure or customized sandboxes, and these are an expense beyond traditional IT budgets.

Leon: Our Arts and Humanities dean would remind us that it is the Arts (culture, creation, etc.) that drives much of what goes on in the world, so perhaps it is best to emphasize STEAM — though I totally understand why we talk about STEM so much. I am sure that most of us are prioritizing working with P-12 to raise awareness to help support STEM, especially women in STEM. This is so important, and in the California Central Valley, we definitely see the need to raise this type of awareness.

4) Certificates/Credentials

Rowe: We've known for a long time that many of our students sample credits from several institutions while working on a degree. Traditional universities have rules that make goal achievement in this way difficult if not impossible. Rules such as how many credits can be transferred in, how many transfer credits can count to a major, and the number of credits that must be taken at a home degree-granting institution all work against "orbiting" students. To reach these students and help them achieve their goals, the transcript and degree need to be disconnected from a home university. Or we need to enable degree-granting organizations that accumulate credits from a variety of source institutions, verify the quality of the credits and award degrees, and perhaps do all of that without offering any courses as an organization. Blockchain may open that door; options like Blockcerts may provide that service. Another approach might be that the university outsources online learning components like marketing, instructional design and analytics, brokering several selected presenters/marketers (Learning House, iDesign, for example) for students and gathering the course completions. Maybe the future is two completely separate organizations: one that offers instruction (and there may be many), and a second that aggregates credits from a variety of instructional organizations and assembles them into some sort of credential (badge, certificate, transcript, degree).

Jett: With both parents and students (traditional and adult) focusing on outcomes related to the students' immediate career needs, the integration of certificates or other career-specific credentials will not only enhance the traditional degree, but also — if done right — provide even greater understanding of the connection between degree coursework and actual work skills. I work at a liberal arts university, and for sure we focus on skills like communication, critical thinking, conflict resolution, etc. — and many students admit to not always understanding why they must take some classes that don't have "direct" implications to their planned career path. Imagine if we layered degree-specific certifications and credentials on top of those courses, and students could graduate not only with a degree but also with specific competencies that can be documented through these additional certifications, badges, etc.

Lueckeman: Here's to 2019 tackling the problem of credit articulation and credentialing. It's frustrating that schools have a federally mandated format to report grade data to the Clearinghouse but have not yet collaborated on a network to share this data with each other. Not only would it cut down on manual articulation and GPA calculation, but collaboration would benefit schools in a host of other ways — verified credentials and reverse credit reporting to retroactively award degrees being among the most obvious of them. MIT's initiative and Arizona State University's early work with Blockchain for credentials is something to watch in the coming year.

5) Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Rowe: If AI and machine learning are going to impact education, the impact has to come from fundamentally redesigning every step of the educational process, from recruiting, to admissions, instruction, degree plans, and finally goal completion or graduation. It really is about thinking differently, and releasing the need to do all the thinking by individual or committee. We need to be open to re-imagining every process, but also embrace what AI and machine learning can share or expose. "Looking ahead, we will compete with technology but win with people," said Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon during the company's 2017 Shareholders' Meeting. Connecting people who are knowledge experts and instructors with people who want to learn is a market-differentiating position in a world promoting online learning. Technology has to enable those connections by releasing people from mundane and repetitive tasks; AI and machine learning represent an opportunity to do so.

Lueckeman: Theresa nailed it with the need to mitigate repetitive tasks in favor of more important work — and that AI gives us that opportunity. Since the foundational requirement to use AI is data, universities have an advantage over most companies, in general. Schools already store huge amounts of constituent data, albeit the data is siloed and often spread across systems. Schools with a data warehouse that stores more than just student information system (SIS) data are in a good position for 2019.

Those that do not have a data warehouse may start using their customer relationship management system (CRM) to aggregate this data — sometimes even more easily than using the data warehouse — and have a ready-made system to put that data to work.

In addition to aiding student success in the classroom, AI has a host of overarching use cases that we will see in the coming year:

  • Scoring: Rating and scoring data helps makes it easier to prioritize prospects, offering suggested next steps to staff and making recommendations to donors;
  • Classification: Identification and visual recognition can transform event check-in, geo-fencing and even classroom attendance (so necessary for R2T4);
  • Service: Answering common questions with bots and virtual assistants (natural language processing) makes life outside the classroom easier for students;
  • Automation: Using data and logic for process automation minimizes manual administrative tasks — such as updating the SIS for things like address changes, appeals, overrides, change of major, and more — via student interfaces, bots and NLP;
  • Experience: Providing modern interfaces to constituents keeps departmental silos behind the curtain, ensuring students and other constituents do not have to know the "where to go" and "what to do" so common to administrative bureaucracy.

I believe that the use of AI will continue to get easier to operationalize. Many industry-agnostic, best-in-class solutions are finally being adopted in higher education. Tools like's Einstein Prediction Builder, as the CRM giant says, "democratize" data science, allowing those who know the data well to use it in models that are automatically selected as best for the prediction, with machine learning running in the background to provide interventions, consume results and constantly retrain the model. That means, in my opinion, schools won't need aggregated data sets from the industry-dominating companies that are so popular right now. Instead, schools will have easier access to predictive models customized to their own data, avoiding the inherent skew caused by models powered by more general data sets.

Leon: AI-powered chatbots seem to be the fad these days, and Fresno State is exploring this topic in collaboration with a number of other Cal State campuses. To us, it is more than just creating a thorough knowledgebase of information to be able to answer a variety of questions. We hope we can create AI that can truly be smart and attempt to infer based on context. Georgia State has done some great work on the IBM Watson platform, though the world has also seen at least a couple of chatbots that have not gone well (such as Tay from Microsoft in 2016 and Facebook's 2017 AI experiments). At Fresno State, one of the chatbots we are trying to mature will work with students to try to guide them to be more successful based on behaviors of peers who have demonstrated success (based on grades, for now). Another chatbot will serve as a more straightforward bot, answering admissions and financial aid questions 24/7 via text messaging.

6) Accessibility

Leon: Accessibility, or more broadly, universal design and access, has been a more and more important topic since the late 2000s, and recently the Department of Justice, the Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Education have adjudicated on a few cases that highlight where accessibility will head in the future. The topic touches every service and tool that is digital and used by students and employees. Fresno State and the Cal State system have made steady progress over the past 10-plus years, working on various areas of technology accessibility that now include technology procurement, instructional materials and web. Our efforts include an annual assessment of current progress based on a large number of indicators, as well as a maturity rating for several key areas, with the intent of maturing or maintaining each area year-over-year.

Rowe: As we engaged in compliance with accessibility standards at OU, we broadened our thinking to include universal design for learning. While we are aware of the legal issues and landscape, we are driven by our mission to seek student success in all activities for all of our students, being inclusive in all our endeavors. Inclusive and accessible learning and administrative support activities and materials are created in a partnership between vendor-supplied solutions and university faculty and staff using all solutions in a way that is compliant. This partnership requires everyone to change in a positive and willing way. The inescapable challenge is that inclusive and broad approaches mean rethinking what we are doing and how we are doing it, on many levels. There is a very high cost to any transition, however important that transition may be. We will continue to focus on student success for all, prioritizing efforts for accessibility and universal design for learning principles.

7) Digital Course Materials

Jett: Our university recently engaged Pearson to move one of our schools to a fully integrated delivery of course materials, online tutoring, career services, online labs, etc., at one price point. The effort was designed to make sure every student had their course materials, as well as allow us to more affordably provide tutoring and career services to our online student population. As publishers move away from physical textbook inventories and toward these types of digital delivery models, you will see more and more schools begin to develop partnerships like this to drive down costs and improve accessibility to more enhanced course materials.

Rowe: The fundamental question is should the cost of any learning materials (i.e., textbooks, learning aids, software, etc.) be separate from tuition? We cannot make decisions about digital course materials in a vacuum; the decision must be included in a full review of the total cost of education. It is a long-standing tradition to separate the costs of textbooks from tuition, but textbooks are not what they were in history. Today's textbooks may also be a paywall for access to other related learning materials, and the access code to the paywall may expire at the end of the semester, making the textbook worthless in resale. Textbooks may be updated more frequently, particularly in the STEM fields, making a prior edition unusable for a course — again stopping purchase at a lower cost in the resale market. Digital learning materials, then, may be both positive (providing faster access to updates) and negative (increasing costs). Separating the purchase of learning materials from tuition requires careful evaluation of the learning materials selected for a course. Does the university develop common goals and standards for an effective decision-making framework for faculty to use when selecting materials? To be inclusive and supportive of student success, the university culture must make learning materials equally available and accessible.

Leon: The open educational resources (OER) movement is picking up so much momentum. It has saved millions of dollars for our students, but we have not yet understood the full cost to the university and whether it has been more of a cost shifting rather than a true cost savings. The topics that Andy and Theresa mentioned are very much on our minds when moving forward with OER.

8) Online Education

Leon: The California State University system has invested quite a lot of resources and effort into the Cal State Online curriculum. It did not have the best reputation during its first iteration, but after a re-strategizing and re-branding, it may now be headed in a much better direction. What is perhaps more interesting to consider is the set of factors a university should use in deciding whether it is worth investing more in online and hybrid/online modalities. Fresno State has done some research on the topic to assess whether certain demographics, such as socioeconomic status or first-generation student status, benefit more or less from the greater use of technology or these types of learning modalities. While Fresno State has quite a number of online courses, our major investments of resources are focused on physical learning spaces and in-person teaching and learning.

Jett: I feel that the pendulum that swung so far to the online-only side has begun to find its way back to the center, but by no means are we headed back to all on-ground classrooms again. What we have seen is that students know how online classes operate, and some want more interaction than what most online courses provide — so they are looking for something more. Recently we made the decision to provide every student and faculty member with a Zoom Pro account, and in doing so we have seen many faculty and even whole programs move to a modality that is synchronous but online. This has come in two forms. First, on-ground classes can now extend their reach by using Zoom to synchronously pull in students who may be out with a sick child, may be traveling for work or may be geographically too far to drive in for an evening class. Second, whole programs have seen courses go to a Zoom-only modality: Everyone is home or in their offices but still meeting at a specific date and time, supported by LMS components. Of course, all of this creates new opportunities and challenges for the IT infrastructure, LMS support and online instructional design and support.

Looking Back

Read last year's take on the biggest trends in education technology: "7 Ed Tech Trends to Watch in 2018."

Rowe: Our university president, Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, recently discussed having a "high-tech, high-touch" learning environment. Providing the opportunity to interact and develop relationships with faculty and other students engages the social aspect in a learning environment, and online education must include that social connection. It isn't enough to present talking heads or digital materials. Students want and need interactive relationships, either with advanced communications technologies or blended learning design that includes in-person meetings. A key campus decision may be whether to provide that using university infrastructure and support resources or to outsource to one of the online program management companies. The market for online learning is increasingly competitive, and finding the right solution of online and blended, high-tech and high-touch, is critical for each campus.

Lueckeman: Dr. Mark Lombardi, Maryville's president, often says, "We can let the ongoing wave of disruption break over us, or get up and ride it." Maryville has seen significant growth in online education. Online is a solid part of the educational mix — high school students are already accustomed to the delivery format — and the industry will see more and more online education as we transition to lifelong learning relationships with our constituents.

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