Que sera, sera? Predicting Future Trends in Educational Technology – Horizon Report 2015

Since the New Media Consortium (NMC) released the ‘Horizon Report 2015 Higher Education’ at the beginning of February, the 50-page document has been broadly circulated and commented upon in the blogosphere and on twitter. Reactions vary from appreciative “As always it makes interesting reading” (Grainne Conole) to critical “NMC should be obligated to re-examine its methodology” (Stephen Downes).

About the Horizon Project

Since 2004, the New Media Consortium annually releases the Horizon trend report to identify key issues that are likely to have an impact on education over the next five years. The selection process for the NMC Horizon Report is a modified Delphi process. The Delphi method involves experts in a two-step moderated group discussion to identify possible future developments. This strategy is used to predict the impact of new technological trends or innovations.

From 2004-2009, the New Media Consortium released one single annual edition of the Horizon report. In 2009, the NMC added a K-12 edition to the series, followed by the Museum edition in 2010 and the Library edition in 2014.

Until recently, each report followed the same structure, highlighting six emerging technologies or practices based on time to adoption (one year or less, two to three years, four to five years). In 2013, the report introduced a new section on ‘significant challenges’; and the 2014 edition brought with it a complete structural overhaul, which tripled the number of trends and developments discussed in the report.

2015 Higher Education Edition in a Nutshell

In its current form, the Horizon report identifies 18 topics likely to impact planning and decision-making in the educational technology sector: Six key trends accelerating technology adoption, six significant challenges for technology adoption, and six important technological developments.


2015 Horizon Report for Higher Education – Overview

Six Trends Accelerating Technology Adoption

The Horizon report identifies six key trends that are likely to drive technology planning and decision-making: Long-term trends will influence the educational technology sector over the next five years and beyond, mid-term trends will be influential for the next 3-5 years, and short-term trends are likely to become commonplace or fade away in 1-2 years.

  1. Increasing Use of Blended Learning: In terms of trends in the short-term, the report foresees a rising amount of online and blended learning offerings that complement traditional classroom activities on campus. While blended learning is not exactly a new trend, the report notes changes in its implementation: “Instructors are thinking more deeply about mimicking the types of interactions learners are accustomed to in brick and mortar settings”.
  2. Redesigning Learning Spaces: As another short-term trend, the report identifies the effort of reconfiguring learning spaces to better support new forms of teaching and learning: “Instead of the traditional rows of chairs with writing surfaces facing a podium, universities are creating more dynamic classroom layouts, often with seating arrangements that foster collaborative work.”
  3. Proliferation of Open Educational Resources (OER): As OER is gaining traction across campuses, the report predicts an increased acceptance and usage as a mid-term trend. The broader proliferation of OER hinges on effective leadership: “While data shows that some faculty are integrating OER on their own, institutional leadership can reinforce the use of open content”.
  4. Growing Focus on Measuring Learning: Measuring learning through data-driven practice and assessment is seen as a mid-term trend. As institutions are facing pressure from accreditation bodies and governing agencies to document student achievement and learning outcomes, this process may be facilitated by learning analytics: “The emerging science of learning analytics is providing the statistical and data mining tools to recognize challenges early, improve student outcomes, and personalize the learning experience”.
  5. Advancing Cultures of Change and Innovation: As a long-term trend, the report predicts a cultural shift in institutional leadership and curricular structures towards agile start-up models that foster flexibility, creativity and entrepreneurial thinking: “It will require visionary leadership to build higher education environments that are equipped to quickly change processes and strategies as start-ups do. If these organizational models are designed well, universities can experience more efficient implementation of new practices and pedagogies”.
  6. Cross-Institutional Collaboration: The report predicts increased cross-institutional collaboration as another long-term trend, reflecting the notion that innovation can scale better when ideas are shared between institutions: “The prevalence of consortia underscores a vision of institutions as belonging to part of a larger ecosystem in which long-term survival and relevance in higher education relies on the mutually beneficial partnerships”.

Six Significant Challenges for Technology Adoption

The report lists six challenges that are not charted on a timeline, but categorized as solvable, difficult and wicked, depending on how well we understand the scope of the problem and its potential solutions.

  1. Blending Formal and Informal Learning: As one can learn something about almost anything at the palm of one’s hand, self-directed learning, led by curiosity or serendipitous discovery, has the potential to enrich formal learning in higher education. However, institutions struggle to acknowledge and validate informal learning experiences.
  2. Improving Digital Literacy Skills: As the traditional view of literacy as the ability to read and write has expanded to encompass fluency in using digital tools and online information with aptitude and creativity. In order to improve digital literacy, both students and faculty need support and training.
  3. Personalizing Learning: Universities struggle to design and offer educational experiences that address the individual student’s specific learning needs, interests, aspirations and cultural background. Data-driven approaches to effectively facilitate individual learning pathways have only recently begun to emerge.
  4. Teaching Complex Thinking: Complex thinking describes the ability to understand systems in order to solve problems by deciphering how individual components work together as part of a dynamic unit that creates patterns over time. While data visualization and infographics can make complex ideas digestible for students, the skillful presentation of data has become yet another expectation scientists and researchers need to meet.
  5. Competing Models of Education: As more and more free and low-cost content becomes accessible via the Internet and, at the same time, students face rising costs of tuition, new models of education (i.e., MOOCs, competency-based degree programs) are bringing unprecedented competition to the traditional four-year campus experience: “There is a growing need to frankly evaluate the models and determine how to best support collaboration, interaction and assessment at scale”.
  6. Rewarding Teaching: Since both organizational rankings and individual career trajectories are largely determined by research output, universities struggle to acknowledge talent and skill as an instructor as a valuable asset, which impedes the implementation of innovative pedagogies: “Overemphasis on research has caused a number of negative ramifications, including an excessive dependence on part-time faculty”.

Six Important Developments in Educational Technology

In its final section, the report discusses emerging educational technologies that have the potential to foster changes in education within the next five years – for example through the development of progressive pedagogies and learning strategies, the organization of teachers’ work or the delivery of content. Educational technologies are broadly defined as tools and resources used to improve teaching, learning, and creative inquiry. Currently, the NMC monitors seven different types: 1) Consumer technologies, (2) digital strategies, (3) technologies enabling transformative innovation, (4) Internet technologies, (5) learning technologies, (6) social media technologies, (7) visualization technologies.

  1. Bring Your Own Device: The report states that a growing number of best practice approaches are paving the way for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to enter mainstream with an adoption timeframe of one year or less. BYOD is a digital strategy that refers to people bringing their own laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc. to their learning or work environment, thus enabling students and educators to leverage the tools that they find most efficient: “The link between the use of personal devices and increases in productivity gets stronger each passing year as more organizations adopt BYOD policies”.
  2. Flipped Classroom: As another digital strategy on the short-term horizon, the report predicts the broad adoption of flipped classrooms in higher education. The flipped model shifts the time spent in class from content transfer to group discussions, project-based learning and other learner-centered activities. The lecture-based information delivery takes place before and after class in form of video recordings, podcasts or reading assignments.
  3. Makerspaces: Makerspaces, community-oriented workshops that engage learners in problem-solving through hands-on design and construction, are forecasted to reach mainstream within 2-3 years: “Widespread enthusiasm behind makerspaces in steadily growing”. A growing number of universities are creating informal learning spaces that support the maker movement, offering 3D printers, laser cutters, Legos, sewing machines and other tools.
  4. Wearable Technologies: As another mid-term trend, wearable technologies are poised to see significant growth in the coming years. This consumer technology is expected to spur experimentation in higher education.
  5. Adaptive Learning Technologies: With an adoption timeframe of 4-5 years, the horizon report describes the advancement of adaptive learning. The term refers to smart learning applications that adjusts over time to user data, thus customizing learning experiences for individual needs on a large scale. This can happen by adapting instructional material according to individual user data, or by aggregating data across a large sample of users to optimize curricula.
  6. Internet of Things: Another trend on the long-term horizon is the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT signifies a network of objects that connect the physical realm and the information technology sphere by embedding chips, sensors or tiny processors into objects so that they can transmit information such as age, cost, color, pressure or humidity. Application options in higher education include streamlining processes, automation and data-driven sustainability efforts

Is it Useful?

From Web 2.0 and social media to open education and personal learning environments to Massive Open Online Courses – educational technology research is a trend-driven discipline. Visions of the future in form of technology forecasts and trend reports are common ways for practitioners and researchers alike to stay ahead of the technology curve. At the turn out the millennium future studies in education have seen a definite boom. Various reports, projects, surveys and workshops aim to depict future needs and emerging themes in education, for example the CORE Education’s Ten Trends Annual Report (New Zealand), the Innovating Pedagogy Report (UK), or the European TEL-MAP project.

Among these publications and initiatives, the Horizon report forms an influential resource for educators that are interested in not only learning what the emerging trends are, but also how they might be able to participate in and shape the transformation process.

Que sera, sera

Given the rapidly changing environments of modern societies there is a growing need to know about the development of future technologies and their impact upon societal changes. Reducing risks and identifying opportunities are common motives for studying the future. However, educational technology and technological change are both drivers and results of complex interactions in the context of social, economic, and political forces. Future Studies in the educational technology sector are methodologically tricky and may be compared to forecasting today’s weather:

“Very long-range climate trends, alternative scenarios, or panels of experts are less effective than getting a rich contextual picture of the weather (perhaps from the weather channel) and looking at very recent trends such as direction and speed of weather fronts.” (Coates et al., 2001).

At first glance, one would expect that trend forecasts like the Horizon Report thrive to achieve correct prognosis about the future and that thus their quality is simply measured by the number of correct predictions in a given time frame. However, at a closer look, it is not that simple. The report is conducted to influence and inform strategic planning. Thereby it impacts future developments and may foster or prevent certain developments. Hence, its strength is to inspire discourse within the community by depicting alternative futures for educational technology adoption.

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