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6 Key Ed Tech Developments on the Horizon

From mobile learning to virtual assistants, these technologies are deemed by the latest Educause Horizon report to be "important to teaching, learning, and creative inquiry in the future."

man looking through telescope with horizon in background

The most important developments in technology for higher education these days also happen to be the most buzzworthy. Mobile learning, analytics, mixed reality, artificial intelligence, blockchain and virtual assistants have all been hot topics in ed tech, and they all "have the potential to expand access and convenience, foster authentic learning, improve the teaching profession, spread digital fluency, leverage data, and spur further innovation."
That's according to the latest Educause Horizon Report, an analysis of the trends and technology developments that are likely to impact higher ed in the short-, mid- and long-term future. After releasing a preview in February, the higher education IT association announced the full version of the report today.

The report organized the key ed tech developments by adoption timeline: those forecast to hit widespread adoption in one year or less; those hitting the mainstream in two to three years; and those that will take four to five years to achieve adoption.

First, with a time-to-adoption of one year or less: mobile learning and analytics technologies.

While mobile learning has been around for decades, current trends such as increased access to the internet, ever-more-powerful mobile devices and worldwide growth of smartphone ownership are pushing the technology to become a "vital part of the entire learning experience," according to the report. In particular, "the increased use of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) has enabled mobile learning to become more active and collaborative," the report pointed out, adding that "creating this quality mobile learning experience takes a lot of effort, however, and as a result remains in the early stages of adoption." Other important themes driving mobile learning forward include connectivity and convenience, anywhere/anytime access, content creation and sharing, interactivity and collaboration with other learners.

"Analytics technologies are a key element of student success initiatives across institutions and a driving force behind the collaborative, targeted strategic planning and decision-making of higher education leaders," the report noted. These are "dynamic, connected, predictive, and personalized systems and data" that go "beyond static, descriptive analyses of student learning, grades, and behaviors." In order to tap into the power of these kinds of data and have a real impact on the student experience, institutions must develop "advanced analytics capabilities through innovative leadership, new computational technologies and systems, and a highly skilled workforce equipped for understanding and effectively sharing and using large and complex data resources."

Next, with a time-to-adoption of two to three years: mixed reality and artificial intelligence.

Mixed reality, an umbrella term for virtual reality, augmented reality and a blend of the two, enables immersive, experiential learning "by dramatically expanding the range of tasks and activities with which a learner can gain experience," the report said. Perhaps MR's biggest potential for learning and assessment is its interactivity, allowing learners to "construct new understanding based on experiences with virtual objects that bring underlying data to life." More experimentation is needed, however: "For MR to be meaningfully integrated into teaching and learning, it must become familiar to the instructional designers and instructional technologists on campus so that they can help instructors integrate MR into their pedagogy," the report asserted.

Artificial intelligence, or the use of "computer systems to accomplish tasks and activities that have historically relied on human cognition," has a number of potential applications in higher education — particularly its ability to "personalize experiences, reduce workloads, and assist with analysis of large and complex data sets," the report said. The caveat: "Concerns over equity, inclusion, and privacy temper enthusiasm for adoption." Still, a growing number of higher education institutions are "partnering with industry to create AI-driven solutions for the purposes of reducing college costs and allowing students to personalize their learning experiences to best meet their needs." Use cases include AI chatbots for boosting student engagement, using algorithms to customize course content for students, AI for institutional data mining, and AI-enabled tutoring.

Finally, with a time-to-adoption of four to five years: blockchain and virtual assistants.

While "broad adoption of blockchain in higher education remains at least several years out," colleges and universities are "investigating ways in which the technology could be used for areas including transcripts, smart contracts, and identity management," the report said. By far, most of the current work with blockchain in higher education centers around transcripts and records of achievement. "The capabilities of digital tools have prompted alternatives to traditional transcripts that include much more detail and even artifacts about a student's learning," the report noted. "Blockchain could extend that model, creating a permanent, detailed record of formal and informal learning that allows individual users to control what is included in their learning record and who may access that information." That includes "information about courses and degrees, certifications, badges and other microcredentials, co-curricular activities, internships and employment, and other competencies and credentials," which could "follow students from one institution to another, serving as verifiable evidence of learning and enabling simpler transfer of credits across institutions."

Developments in automated speech recognition and natural language processing have brought virtual assistants to the forefront (one need look no further than the popularity of Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa), and they are "already capable of meeting basic student needs related to campus information and support services," the report said. Several U.S. universities have piloted Amazon Echo Dot devices, for instance, to "provide students with information ranging from academic advisory services to help with financial aid." And, the report continued, "as the capability of interacting through natural conversation increases, educational uses for learners of all languages multiply. Virtual assistants are expected to be used for research, tutoring, writing, and editing. Similarly, virtual tutors and virtual facilitators will soon be able to generate customizable and conversational learning experiences currently found in a variety of adaptive learning platforms."

The Horizon Report is based on insights from a global panel of 98 experts across the higher education landscape who have experience piloting or implementing emerging ed tech, have presented or published in the field, or who have held advisory roles on a campus or in their sector. A comprehensive look at the panel methodology and discussion is available here. The full report is openly available on the Educause site.

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