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Higher Ed Trends: MOOCs, Tablets, Gamification, and Wearable Tech

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As tech tools continue to proliferate with new launches and new products, it's difficult to predict what will stick and what won't. A recently released report by the New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) tries to sift through the fads and find the few that will have a real impact on education in the next few years.

What's worth noting? Sometimes what seemed impossible only a few years ago has already become a new trend. The 2013 NMC Horizon’s Report on Higher Education, which brings together international experts in education and technology, attempts to take the pulse of emerging technologies in higher education and predict where the field will move in the near, middle and far term.

The report points to MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, as the big change agent in the higher ed landscape, but it also reaches a little further, bringing 3D printing and wearable technology into the mix.


The panel considered some key factors influencing whether technologies take hold, identifying a move towards “open” content and the ability to share, manipulate, and mold. Even more critical for institutions of higher education is the rise of MOOCs. As more elite institutions align themselves with one MOOC organization or another, university leaders are considering the idea of “micro-credit” as an alternative to the traditional credits given at brick and mortar universities.


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Equally important to information access are skills that employers expect recent graduates to bring with them -- like communication and critical thinking. These skills are often augmented by real-world or informal learning experiences that move beyond the college lecture hall. Acknowledging that the trend of personalization and taking it a step further, the report also notes the increasing importance of learning analytics. Colleges will need to follow a student’s digital footprint to better tailor their educational experience. And all of this means a different role for university instructors. Students have much better access to knowledge through technology which necessitates that professors become mentors, collaborators, facilitators and ultimately not the center of the learning experience.


By and large the biggest barriers to implementing technology in higher education are the institutions and people who run them. Employers increasingly recognize that digital media literacy is an important skill set in the coming decades, but university faculty are neither equipped to teach those skills nor especially proficient themselves in many cases.

Lack of digital fluency is affecting scholarly collaboration, as well. Social media, blogging, link backs and other tech-based publication methods are not well understood or recognized by older, traditional faculty and administration. It’s far easier to continue with the status quo and too often professors trying new things are seen as teaching outside their role. This stodgy mentality stifles innovation.

The panel also found that while there is a hunger for more personalized learning, the demand is not well supported by the technology. The mechanics of earning analytics are still in the nascent stages. Collecting, collating, and understanding the sheer volume of data is overwhelming to most at traditional universities. Many college instructors are not using technology in their research or in their teaching. It would take a larger cultural shift before many technologies could be considered widespread.

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Lastly, the competition that MOOCs are bringing to the long-held university system is challenging the value of higher education. Many argue the competition is exactly what slow-moving universities need to change, but others wonder if the instruction offered by MOOCs reaches the same caliber. “As these new platforms emerge, however, there is a need to frankly evaluate the models and determine how to best support collaboration, interaction, and assessment at scale. Simply capitalizing on new technology is not enough; the new models must use these tools and services to engage students on a deeper level,” the report notes.


Both MOOCs and tablets will be widely adopted in university settings within the year. The popularity of MOOCs like Coursera, Udacity and edX are undeniable with enrollment in some classes exceeding 100,000 students. Unparalleled access excites many people, but raises questions. “One of the most appealing promises of MOOCs is that they offer the possibility for continued, advanced learning at zero cost, allowing students, life-long learners, and professionals to acquire new skills and improve their knowledge and employability,” notes the report.

As for tech hardware, tablets fit well with the university lifestyle. They’re light, portable, and allow students to interact with the lesson and their networks at the same time. Competition in the tablet space has increased, driving down the price and pushing the limits of capability. The report predicts tablet manufacturers will continue to offer more robust options for less money.


A big prediction here is the rise of games and gamification to encourage students to participate with material in deeper ways. Educational gaming might seem like old news to some, but most often gaming comes up in a K-12 context. Now the same benefits are being applied to older students and more complicated subjects. Most of the excitement centers on gamification – integrating mechanics of games into non-game situations to inspire creativity and productivity. The strategy works well for many businesses and is gradually making its way onto college campuses.

Similarly, the report predicts that learning analytics will find a foothold in higher education in the next few years. “Student-specific data can now be used to customize online course platforms and suggest resources to students in the same way that businesses tailor advertisements and offers to customers,” the report said. Universities are already using big data to improve advising and help offer advice and strategies to struggling learners to improve retention. The data can also help universities to better allocate resources, fill holes and accurately understand how well they are serving students.


The rise of the Maker movement has helped launch 3D printing back into the NMC Horizons predictions where it first appeared in 2004. The emphasis on design learning and DIY culture make 3D printers appealing.


Wearable technology will take off on college campuses as thin film technology makes it possible for screens to mold around body curves. And these devices aren’t just cool. “Wearable devices are also proving to be effective tools for research because they use sensors to track data, such as vital signs, in real-time. Although wearable technology is not yet pervasive in higher education, the current highly functional clothing and accessories in the consumer space show great promise,” the report says.

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