The annual NMC Horizon Report looks at the near-term opportunities and headwinds affecting teaching and learning.
By: Jean Dimeo
Change is afoot in higher ed. And while short-term shifts offer examples of tactical and pragmatic responses to new technologies and learning methods, over the long-term higher ed leaders will need to set their sights on advancing cultures of innovation and increasing cross-institution collaboration to keep up.
That's according to the 2018 NMC Horizon Report, which shares six trends, challenges and developments in educational technology that are likely to impact teaching and learning in the next five years.
In the near term, the report notes, analytics and new learning spaces are gaining importance as colleges and universities look for ways to measure and improve student outcomes. Institutions will implement adaptive learning technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) in two to three years. For mixed-reality and robotics, adoption is four to five years out, according to the report, which was produced with research from the now-defunct New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative. Adoption of analytics to parse student data captured from a variety of sources is already underway.
For all the promise new technologies bring to education, campuses also play a role in addressing the broader challenge of advancing digital equity and revamping organizational models in the workplace, the report notes. In addition, today's political and economic pressures "create a wicked challenge" that is difficult to define and even more so to solve. Rethinking instructors' roles within the technological expansion is another challenge.
What this means
Ed tech continues to increase its impact on every aspect of campus. In particular, institutions are increasingly turning to powerful analytics tools to dissect the abundance of student data available to improve retention and graduation rates. And as seen by the successes of Georgia State University, which enrolls a large share of low-income students, effective analytics can significantly boost student outcomes.
The use of big data and cloud computing, as well as the expansive (and sometimes unpredictable) inroads made by online learning, are among the most important technology-driven changes in higher education, according to a trend review by Educause.
Colleges and universities are finding new uses for data, including to recruit students and to predict dropouts by monitoring them once enrolled. However, experts note that while colleges acquire abundant data, they need to coordinate its compilation and use more effectively.
While higher ed has embraced data and computing technologies, it continues to be slow to adopt more advanced technologies like AI, augmented and virtual realities and adaptive learning — all of which can be complicated to understand and integrate. Colleges also must hone their response to continual technological change to attract students and top-notch instructors, streamline operations and cut costs.
For some institutions, implementing, expanding or refining the use of some technologies could help stave off the elimination of degree programs and departments — and even the closure of their doors forever.
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Tech supports innovation, but does innovation support tech?
A recent survey found technology played a critical role in institutional transformation, but change in tech itself is less of a priority.
By: Hallie Busta
Higher education leaders agree that innovation is key to solving their institutions' top problems, but a recent report from Learning House and the Online Learning Consortium finds differing views on what exactly it means to innovate in higher ed today.
And while technology factors heavily into institutional transformation, respondents indicated experimenting with technology was a lower priority than enhancing approaches to more perennial issues such as improving student outcomes as more nontraditional learners enter college, lowering the cost of attendance and creating new degree tracks and credentials.
The report, The State of Innovation in Higher Education, was based on a written survey of more than 100 academic administrators and phone interviews with nearly a dozen. It sought to examine how innovation occurs in higher education; find common barriers to success; and recommend ways to encourage innovation as well as tackle related challenges.
Innovation, according to the report, is defined as the "implementation of new initiatives in order to drive growth, increase revenue, reduce cost, differentiate experience, or adjust the value proposition." However, there is a disconnect around what that entails. The report found that while most respondents (90%) say they include innovation in their strategic or academic plans and believe they are "very successful" at innovating, fewer than half (40%) have earmarked funds for such efforts.
Technology is an important part of innovation, with just 2% of respondents saying it didn't factor into those efforts in some way. Often, innovation requires implementing new technology to achieve the desired improvement. One-third (32%) of respondents said innovation at their institution is "almost completely driven" by new technology, while more than half (56%) said such efforts sometimes use new technology that requires training.
While technology plays a role in innovation, respondents indicated it is not an area at their college or university within which transformation often occurs. Technology (7%) ranked behind nontraditional programs (21%), teaching/pedagogy (19%), academic affairs (17%), traditional on-campus programs (9%) and retention (8%) as the No. 1 area of the institution within which respondents said innovation is most prominent. About one third (30%) ranked it among the top three, however.
That is reflected in respondents' top three goals for future innovation, where experimenting with emerging technology (18%) came in well behind priorities such as ensuring student success (68%), creating new degree programs and alternative credentials (32% each), decreasing costs (32%) and developing new teaching methods (31%).
Yet respondents didn't suggest their current approach to technology was holding them back from innovating. One-third (34%) of respondents ranked cultural factors such as faculty behavior and a risk-averse institutional mindset as the top barrier to innovation. One-fourth (24%) said the need for more resources, such as funding, manpower and technology, was the top barrier. And one-fifth (18%) said structural factors were the primary concern.
How artificial intelligence and virtual reality are changing higher ed instruction
Emerging technology is proving to be a boon in the classroom, but early adopters have found that setting clear uses and objectives is key.
By: Natalie Schwartz
Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) are rapidly expanding opportunities for teaching and learning, and they are giving college administrators new and different ways to track student outcomes. From teaching with VR to tracking student success with AI, here are a few ways colleges and universities are using new technologies to conduct research, teach students and create smarter campuses.
Learning with VR and AR
Virtual and augmented reality tools can provide students with experiences that would be otherwise too expensive or even impossible to replicate in the real world, from exploring the inside of a cell to traversing faraway planets, said D. Christopher Brooks, director of research at the Educause Center for Analysis and Research.
At Hamilton College, for example, these tools are changing the way the 1,850-student liberal arts institution teaches human anatomy. Students there can learn about the body via simulations of human organs in virtual reality, said Ben Salzman, an instructional designer for the college. And even though such tools are primarily used to enhance student learning, they can double as cost-cutting measures. In the case of some virtual anatomy courses, dissections can be performed at any time without the need for an expensive cadaver.
Virtual and augmented reality programs can also help learners work on soft skills. At Penn State University, researchers have built an immersive augmented reality program called First Class in which future teachers can engage with simulated students in a virtual classroom setting. And — just like real students — they may get bored or act out, providing teachers the opportunity to practice handling difficult or novel situations, said Kyle Bowen, director of innovation for Teaching and Learning with Technologyat Penn State.
"It really takes, in many ways, a village to get a 3D project off the ground."
D. Christopher Brooks
Director of research, Educause Center for Analysis and Research
Launching 3D programs on campus can be a lengthy process, Brooks said, and colleges should be aware it may take significant manpower and time before they see the benefits.
"It takes time to get your software up and running, learning the technology, understanding how to work it, how to program it, and then it also takes time to redesign courses and assignments," he said. "It really takes, in many ways, a village to get a 3D project off the ground."
Brooks recommends creating support systems in advance for 3D projects so they can be scaled as adoption grows. To gin up enthusiasm for VR after substantial investment, he suggests keeping the technology in accessible spaces for faculty and students to use.
AI's growing role in the classroom
AI has become a bit of a buzzword, and the hype surrounding it has created divisions in higher education. Some believe AI will become a critical tool in improving student outcomes, while others think it may result in formulaic teaching and put learners' privacy at risk.
Breaking through faculty resistance to AI involves helping them understand that it will not replace their core responsibilities but instead "supplement the work we already do," said Jennifer Sparrow, senior director for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State.
The university has developed several prototypes that implement AI for uses such as helping create courses, assembling textbooks from open-source materials and automating quiz and test production. These tools aren't meant to be a finished product but instead create a starting point that faculty can tailor to their needs, Bowen said.
In the future, faculty may be able to gather data about how much class time was spent on a specific topic by analyzing audio recordings, much in the way Fitbit users can now dissect stats from their runs, Bowen added.
"This is about [giving] the faculty access to the tools that will allow them to be more creative, more engaging, have more conversations and ultimately be more human," Sparrow said.
"As soon as we open [AI] up and let it be free rein ... without an understanding of what we're doing or trying to do, we should be wary."
Director of data integration, Walt Disney World
Colleges are using AI tools outside of the classroom as well. Saint Louis Universityand Arizona State University, for example, have installed Amazon's voice-enabled assistant Alexa in dorm rooms and are planning to expand its use to other areas of campus.
Proponents of voice-enabled technology hope it can be developed to deepen student engagement, improve retention rates and create smarter classrooms, though for now it's a tool students mostly use for features such as playing music, looking up a definition and setting an alarm.
"This is still a little bit of a novelty," said John Rome, deputy chief information officer at Arizona State University. "As the technology matures, I think in two or three years we're going to be doing things that we haven't even imagined today."
Using AI responsibly
AI is not without its pitfalls, as some panelists noted, and higher education leaders should be careful about how they use it.
Without proper caution, bias can creep into AI technology. Google, for example, has come under fire for some racist and sexist autofill search suggestions, and Microsoft's teenage chatbot Tay was shut down after it mirrored hate-filled speech from trolls on Twitter.
Such risks can stem from several factors including AI pulling from incomplete or one-sided data or learning through bad interactions. To try to avoid these biases, it's important to consider the environment where the AI model will be and to design it to ignore undesired interactions, said Teddy Benson, the director of data integration at Walt Disney World.
"You need to make sure that your environment matches your goals, your data set, your expected results," Benson said. "[AI engines] are in a sense infant virtual babies you need to take care of."
Benson noted how confusing some of the conflicting messages surrounding AI technology can be, with some lauding it as a critical tool and others worrying about its unintended effects.
"As long as we are careful, as long as we encapsulate or control the environment that we wish it to be within, we should be fine," Benson said. "As soon as we open it up and let it be free rein ... without an understanding of what we're doing or trying to do, we should be wary."
How blockchain could transform students' return on investment
The digital ledger technology is finding early use in higher ed to help students more easily track and share their credentials.
By: Shalina Chatlani
When it comes to the power of the internet, higher education is seeing just how disruptive of a force it can be. And leaders are dealing with the weighty impacts — not only in the way digital technology is altering the nature of teaching but also in how it is questioning the value of a brick-and-mortar classroom setting.
Now, a relatively new internet-based innovation — blockchain technology — is gaining popularity. In the long-term, the digital ledger technology has the potential to transform the way institutions provide value to students and their future employers.
What is blockchain?
Blockchain is best understood through one of its more well-known products, bitcoin. The cryptocurrency gets its value from a decentralized network of peers who ensure the transactions are valid. With traditional currency, a central node in the network of cash flow, such as a bank, keeps verified records of balances and exchanges. Paper money is a currency because it is limited and can only be changed under specific conditions. For example, the amount in one's bank account is comprised of a series of entries that can only be withdrawn from or added to.
With cryptocurrency, these transactions still happen in the same way. But instead of a bank monitoring whether the transaction is valid, the network of peers serves as the central authority and has access to the accounts and balances and ensures that each digital coin produced or traded is verifiable. It's much like how users can update Wikipedia pages to improve their overall accuracy.
When a transaction occurs, it is broadcasted to the network via computers. These peers validate the change and add the transaction to a new block of data. The result is a continuously updated and verified accounts balance sheet — or, a chain of blocks of data, the blockchain.
Disrupting higher education
Colleges and universities are recognizing that degrees are much like currency. They are sheets of paper that serve as an exchange with employers to signal the graduate has the skills necessary for the job. The better the degree, the more value a student may have in the workforce.
Yet accessing that information can be a challenge for those outside the college or university. With blockchain, institutions can move transcripts into a massive decentralized network where students and employers can more easily see those records and be sure they are verified by the university.
Feng Hou, chief information officer of Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), said his institution's decision to look into blockchain came from an initiative to convert college-owned technology into student-owned technology — with one of those areas being digital credentials and transcripts. CNM, working with blockchain company Learning Machine, developed an open-source platform on which digital diplomas can be recorded and shared in professional networks.
Now, the college wants to open the platform to other institutions to add four-year diplomas to the records, building out the digital currency of verifiable degrees. As of August 2018, CNM offers all of its graduates both a physical diploma and a blockchain one.
Students download a mobile app called a wallet, which contains verification of their degrees and credentials, explained Hou. He added that he wants to build out the cryptocurrency network because as the number of nodes to verify degrees increases, the more valid the database will be.
Some experts contend this type of network could revolutionize the way institutions signal to the workforce that they are producing graduates with valuable degrees. Because such information would be readily available in a blockchain of verified data, with each piece owned by individual users, the institution could step back and not have to worry about infrastructure upkeep.
Not only could this change the way institutions create ties to industry, but it could also eliminate the need for costly, cumbersome and inefficient record-keeping infrastructure.
"We envision a system where companies can communicate directly through this blockchain technology and put bids out for specific skills they need and connect to students without any type of bureaucratic system to oversee the records," said Tobe Phelps, senior director of online college at CNM. "We can have employers and students connect directly, where the institution doesn't have to be a middle link. Students will know immediately once they get their degree, there is a potential to get into this job network."
Incentives for participation
Using blockchain requires buy-in from both employers and colleges, and some argue incentives are needed for institutions to be willing to make student records available in this way. That's in part because an open-source platform means everyone's data can be seen.
Community colleges, which often have strong ties to the workforce and four-year institutions, are an ideal place to begin experimenting with blockchain and addressing these and other issues, Hou said.
"From the beginning, we had this mind that we are creating an open-source platform and inviting other institutions to join and build this infrastructure [of records] out," he said. "It is more within our tradition to adopt new technologies, which may not be as possible on a four-year campus. We can be a bit more nimble with this and move a bit faster, and we also have strategic reasons to do this."
CNM faces "fierce competition" from the private sector, among other areas, he said, and so is seeking ways to leverage technology to keep tuition low.
Phelps and Hou emphasized blockchain's transformation potential, as credentials turned into digital currency could also create an environment in which students are incentivized to continue their education.
"The more we can see those students building value for themselves," Phelps said, "the institutions and employers can, in the future, use this to offset tuition as the reward system builds out, and that leads to great potential."
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Yujin Kim, Industry Dive
4 ed tech trends colleges should be ready for
The blockchain and artificial intelligence are among several technologies and practices poised to impact higher ed.
By: Hallie Busta
The way America goes to college is changing. Rising tuition and new workforce development pathways are encouraging prospective students to consider alternative post-secondary education options. Meanwhile, higher education is consolidating, with the remaining colleges taking programs online to reach a wider audience. And technologies such as augmented and virtual reality are reshaping the nature of instruction.
Yet interest in addressing and even capitalizing on these changes has been measured among higher education leaders. Just 12% of college presidents ranked institutional research in information technology as an important area of development in the American Council on Education's (ACE) latest American College President Study, according to ACE President Ted Mitchell during the 2018 Educause convention.
That's not to say transformation isn't quietly underway. "It's currently happening, and right under our noses," said Mitchell.
Here, we explore four emerging areas of higher ed tech that colleges should expect to hear more about.
Digital credentials gain credibility
Private sector partnerships aren't new to academia, which has a long history of working with industry on research and workforce development. Now, however, employers are raising their stakes with courses designed to bolster the pipeline of new workers for their product or technology, specifically. Google, for example, is working with more than two dozen community colleges to offer credit for a five-course, online IT certification. It's among several other companies, mostly in tech, doing so.
"Many of the employers who are doing credentialing are looking to have their credentials be part of pathways in education," said Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and CEO of digital credentialing platform Credly. "Virtually every major tech company is thinking, 'How do we reach people earlier in their career pathways so the credentials they offer become preparation for jobs?'"
Credly recently teamed up with the Education Design Lab to issue nationally standardized credentials for colleges and universities in "21st-century skills," such as critical thinking, intercultural fluency, oral communication and resilience.
Demand for credentials and other shorter-term educational opportunities is expected to continue. Nearly half (45%) of adults in a 2016 Pew Research Center survey said they had extra job skills training in the last 12 months while more than half (54%) said it'll be necessary to do so through their careers to keep up with changes in the workplace.
Where it stands today
Employers want proof prospective employees can do a job, and stackable credentials let participants do so while leveling up as needed. Community colleges will remain an active partner, with a push toward creating an ecosystem within academia and industry in which these credentials can become a currency, Finkelstein said.
Data governance grows
The increasing focus on performance-based funding, along with greater accountability amid today's climbing tuition rates, has colleges collecting more data on students than ever before. College IT leaders routinely speak of the need to reduce or streamline collection points for basic information to avoid duplicate accounts and other flaws that can make the data difficult to parse.
A recent survey by three industry groups — Educause, the Association for Institutional Research and NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education — found 20% of respondents representing IT, institutional relations and student affairs had a robust data governance policy in place. More than double that share (45%) had a policy but said it needs improvement. And 35% don't have one at all.
Such a system, said D. Christopher Brooks, director of research for the Educause Center for Analysis and Research, "really allows us to think about the integrity of the data, who really owns it [and] who really has access to it."
Where it stands today
That 35% of responding institutions said they don't have a data governance policy "should give us pause," Brooks said. Creating a common set of rules for collecting, accessing and managing data could help remove silos endemic to higher education and make the institution more competitive.
Finding the ROI for AI and VR
Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are poised to change the way students learn, but some colleges are waiting for proven ROI elsewhere before investing heavily in these technologies for the classroom.
Such technologies "are still not [really] on the forefront for large universities," said Victoria Farnsworth, executive director of enterprise solutions at Purdue University, whose acquisition of the for-profit online college Kaplan University was finalized in March 2018. "We're focused too much on the operational and not on that next level [of using such technology for learning]. … You'll have to find ROI somewhere else to do that and get the skill set."
Where the technologies are being used for learning, they are fundamentally changing the nature of instruction. Panelists discussed applications such as smart lecture-capture technology that gives students searchable video transcripts of lectures to study; simulated training in classroom interventions for aspiring teachers; and virtual reality environments in which medical students can practice procedures.
"This is about [giving] the faculty access to the tools that will allow them to be more creative, more engaging, have more conversations and ultimately be more human," said Jennifer Sparrow, senior director for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State.
Where it stands today
Cost can be a barrier to full-scale implementation of virtual and augmented reality. Meanwhile, AI is impacting higher education, though its extent is disputed. AI's promise includes making sure students stay on track and early efforts, such as Georgia State University's Pounce chatbot, have proven largely successful.
Learning how to use the blockchain
The blockchain — a digital ledger on which transactions can be recorded and easily shared — has gained the interest of college and university leaders, who are exploring ways to make students' academic histories easier to access and verify.
"Credentials that are issued to students should be vendor-independent and recipient owned,” said Chris Jagers, founder and CEO of blockchain digital records company Learning Machine. "The ultimate end goal is for these records not to be … locked up in any way but actually to belong to the student in a useful format that they can use for the rest of their life."
Learning Machine worked with MIT to pilot blockchain degrees in two of its programs ahead of a full-scale implementation this past spring. MIT decided to explore the blockchain for several reasons, said Mary Callahan, senior associate dean and registrar at MIT, including its tech-oriented student body, a large percentage of international students and the need for immediate records information.
Blockchain holds promise for higher education, but challenges to implementation remain. For one, it replaces a key revenue stream to the registrar's office from credentials verified by the National Student Clearinghouse. Additionally, the industry is still nascent, which makes changes in technology likely. "My advice for any school that's shopping [for a blockchain] is to make sure the credentials you're issuing aren't in some proprietary vendor format," Jagers said.