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3 Ed Tech Trends Stuck on the Horizon (and Why)

man looking through telescope at horizon

It isn't often that forward-looking organizations take the time to look backwards too, but that's exactly what Educause has done in its latest Horizon Report. The association for IT professionals in higher education included a section in the report titled "Fail or Scale," which pulled out three technologies — adaptive learning, augmented and mixed reality and gaming and gamification — that have appeared in previous forecasts, to understand what's happened in the intervening years since they were predicted to have wide adoption. For each, the organization sought panelists who were part of the decision-making for the Horizon Reports at that time or had deep experience with the given technology, and asked them to contribute essays on the topics.

In her essay on adaptive learning, Nicole Weber, director of the Learning Technology Center at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, concluded that the technology "has neither failed nor scaled, but rather ... failed to scale to its potential." As she pointed out, adaptive learning — where technology is used to monitor student progress and then shift instruction at any time based on the data that's being generated from those activities — has appeared in the Horizon Report since 2015, but its time-to-adoption has shifted back and forth since then from a year or less to four or five years.

Weber noted that adaptive learning has already proven to have the "potential to contribute to academic transformation by being part of breakthrough teaching models that increase student completion and success." Yet, quick scaling hasn't happened. One of the biggest reasons, she cited, is the challenge of investment. This technology takes "time, money, resources and vision." Also, those experts weighing in on Horizon Report discussions have suggested that the technologies behind adaptivity are still "in their infancy" and need to become both less expensive and "easier to support and use." Likewise, even if adaptive learning found firm footing in classrooms as a way to shorten the learning experience, that would disrupt the "traditional time-based" model of higher ed in ways that still need sorting out.

Kevin Ashford-Rowe, pro vice-chancellor of digital learning at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, weighed in on the fate of augmented and virtual reality, which use tech to produce fully digital or mixed physical and digital environments, through which students can maneuver and thereby experience the world in an authentic context. Initially, in 2016, AR and VR were deemed just two to three years from broad adoption; last year that timeline was pushed out to four to five years away from adoption.

Why is it remaining so elusive, he asked? First, the tech itself gets in the way. It's uncomfortable to wear big, heavy goggles on your head for very long. But more importantly, Ashford-Rowe asserted, there needs to be a well-defined gain on the educational side for using AR and VR — and that can turn out to be a heavy lift. If the main benefit is giving students authentic experiences — to make them "work-ready" — that means faculty need to be able to identify those components that "determine authenticity" and then, once those are identified, to invest the effort in tweaking the learning experience "to ensure a higher degree of fidelity or authenticity."

Futurist and consultant Bryan Alexander, author of Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education (scheduled for publication in 2020), tackled the topic of gaming in his essay. For three years, he wrote, games and gamification surfaced as a "significant force" in ed tech. Then in 2015 they dropped off from Horizon, seemingly never to be seen again. Alexander cited Jane McGonigal's popular TED Talk from 2010, "Gaming Can Make a Better World," and her subsequent book, in which she promoted the idea that since games can modify user behaviors, gaming techniques could be used to encourage student learning in class through the addition of points, leveling, quests and other aspects of gamification.

Since those heady days, however, gaming "[seems] to have become a niche rich-media tool, used in a handful of classes in a small number of departments," Alexander wrote. What happened? First, there were the budget cuts, delivered most recently in 2008 in the wake of the Great Recession, which meant educational units had fewer resources to dedicate to the support of gaming. Second, gaming never seemed to find that big adoption wave, which meant schools were less inclined "to devote scant resources." Also, compared to consumer gaming, educational gaming has tiny audiences, which makes it time-intensive for instructors to pinpoint just the right games for their courses. And building their own games is out of the question for most faculty because the "enterprise-level" tools that might let them easily do that don't exist. As a result, Alexander observed, "Other forms of rich media may be closer and easier to adapt to academic needs, such as video, videoconferencing and virtual reality."

The full 2019 Horizon Report is openly available on the Educause website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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