What trends are shaping ed tech in 2014?

Education technology is booming right now. Between the constant innovation of startups in the space and the giant companies working to improve their products, there has perhaps never been a more exciting time in the space than the last few years.

As several companies and organizations work to provide everything from personalized learning to improved access to educational content worldwide, 2014 should prove to be no less exciting — if not even more so. Several of these technologies will see some overlap in goals as they work to improve education, and still more will probably look very different a year from now. 

These are the education technologies to watch in 2014.

MOOCs: Best suited for vocational learning — or enhancing the classroom?

Two years on from The New York Times' "Year of the MOOC," plenty of questions remain unanswered regarding the massive open online course. Despite their massive potential to disrupt higher ed, quantifying their success has thus far been something of an issue. Completion rates haven't been impressive, but do conventional course metrics like completion rates still matter in that format? Some argue that they don't.

Regardless, MOOCs still find themselves trying to prove their worth, and those backing them have differing opinions on how that might happen. Following the disappointing completion rates and a widely covered stumble in a partnership with San Jose State University, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun announced in November that he sees MOOCs taking a turn toward vocational learning, though that turn plus a paid model may seem too close to some like several of the for-profit learning companies currently under federal scrutiny for unproven outcomes and alleged unsavory federal aid practices. Thrun further detailed his vision in December, saying he saw the entire college process fitting "into a weekend," a suggestion that certainly wasn't music to the ears of anyone at a traditional university.

Meanwhile, edX founder Anant Agarwal, speaking at CES' TransformingEDU conference last month, said he sees MOOCs facilitating the traditional campus learning experience in a blended, active learning environment.

One thing is certain: You can expect to see MOOCs remain the elephant in the room for higher ed as they continue to figure out what does and doesn't work for the model. So far, those that introduce students to complex topics through the mirror of popular culture seem to work pretty well, or at least grab attention.

MOOCs, campuses, and more increasing their mobile presence

An increasing number of consumers are accessing a variety of content via mobile, and the education sector isn't immune to this. As you might expect, the number of educational apps available is ever-growing. Apple reports a whopping 65,000 ed apps serving a number of different purposes in its app store alone, and you can't forget about those on Google Play, either. 

Coursera, the other MOOC provider in the "big three," launched its own iOS app in December with a promised Android release on the way. Though it's still basic and requires users to use a laptop or desktop to post in discussion forums, view reading materials, or complete assignments, don't be surprised to see those capabilities incorporated in a future update — or to see edX and Udacity follow suit. Another marketplace for online learning, though not a MOOC provider per se, Udemy expanded its mobile offering to Android in January and, just over a week later, announced its two-millionth student. Of course, the expansion to Android, the world's most widely adopted mobile operating system, should help it expand its student base far beyond that.

Campus-based apps are also on the rise. Campus Tap's mobile app, for example, helps students manage class schedules and workloads while providing professors with analytics from features like automated attendance, as well as communication tools. Blackboard has also entered this space with its own campus-based apps under the Mosaic name. Its apps provide everything from campus maps to alumni portals.

As you might expect, education social networks and other web-based tools have also made the natural move into this space. EduClipper, which is something of a Pinterest for educators, recently unveiled its free iPad app. That network alone has over 200,000 users and has been incorporated into over 4,500 classrooms. 

"One-stop shop" is the new name of the game for LMS providers

The current trend in learning management systems seems to be toward an all-in-one platform approach. Blackboard Learn, for example, now combines social media features, analytics, and a library of tools that can be used to incorporate a variety of content into class materials. Desire2Learn, Pearson's Open Class Exchange, and others have taken similar approaches. Blackboard and Desire2Learn have also made moves into the MOOC space, and Blackboard just last week announced that it is even planning to integrate an online bookstore into its LMS.

Higher ed LMSes aren't the only ones with all of the one-stop shop bells and whistles. Alma, an LMS and SIS solution launching this week, makes curriculum management, gradebook, report cards, student records, and data analytics functionality all in one place. Furthermore, it provides its core features free. Paid add-ons include custom report cards, custom report building, state reporting, SMS text messaging and automated voice calls, advanced class scheduling, and records migration and support services. Additionally, Engrade, which began as a student-created gradebook, also offers a one-stop platform in the K-12 space and was announced Tuesday as the latest acquisition of McGraw-Hill Education.

Adaptive learning will experiment with automatic essay grading

Though there's some debate over what exactly constitutes adaptive learning, and whether or not it is the same thing as "personalized learning," it remains one of the hottest segments of ed tech today. While platforms in this segment have long been capable of offering and adapting to instant feedback on multiple choice and other basic question formats, a solution for grading exams has long been absent.

Admittedly, it's a difficult task to pull off and many have resigned themselves to believe that a computer could never do the job as well as a human being, who can understand context and emotion and plays on words and other complex things of that nature. Essays, after all, are much more nuanced than a letter or a "True" or "False," and those who question the practice say a computer would really only be "reading" a piece for correct grammar, spelling, and structure at best. 

Vantage Learning CEO Peter Murphy says his company has a competent solution for grading essays, though — one that uses hundreds of algorithms and has shown results in encouraging students to revise their work. Will this be the year that big ed publishers and platforms like Knewton begin to experiment with similar technology in their own adaptive learning solutions, at least for simple short essays?

Specialized robots and apps enhance K-12 special ed

It's easy to overlook the benefits of technology for special needs students, but a number of new technologies are aiming to revolutionize classrooms for these students, as well — particularly those with autism. One such company, RoboKind, recently introduced an autism intervention program called Robots4Autism, which uses humanoid robots and developmental instruction. The robots can make realistic facial expressions and body gestures while also tracking a student's face with its eyes, delivering lessons consistently with non-threatening interactions. Meanwhile, visual learning apps like BrainParade are working to reach special needs students and make physical picture cards obsolete with stunning, high-definition virtual picture cards.

According to data from the CDC, one in 88 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Statistics cited by RoboKind say that the number of U.S. children identified on the spectrum rose from 100,000 (about 10 per district) in 2000 to around 1 million (about 10 per school) in 2012. As researchers continue to work to better understand these disorders, adopting tech to facilitate the needs of students diagnosed with them will become a bigger concern for districts and schools. And this tech could also help reduce the cost of university research, as well.

 

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