Review of the Horizon Report 2016 Higher Ed Edition

The New Media Consortium (NMC) recently unveiled the latest Horizon Report 2016 Higher Ed Edition.  A copy is posted here in the LearnTechLib Digital Library along with copies of previous Horizon reports.

Horizon 2016 In A Nutshell

Each year, a group of over 50 international experts prepares the report following a modified Delphi approach. 2016 expert panelists come from the US, Canada, Columbia, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Germany, Denmark and UK. Their collaborative online workspace is available for review as the Horizon Report Wiki.

The 2016 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.

Horizon Report 2015 and 2016 Editions at a Glance: Similarities and Differences

Readers of the 2015 edition will recognize familiar themes – 11 out of the 18 topics were presented in the same or similar form in the previous year. In other words, this year’s issue is comprised to 60% of last year’s predictions, which creates a strong sense of déjà vu that is not usually expected in a trend report. I actually double-checked that I was reading the correct version. Once you delve deeper into the topics, however, there are many, subtle changes to the way trends are framed and depicted, that reflect how technologies progressed or transformed over the past year.

With so much congruency between editions, it is worth noting which topics no longer made the list:

  • ‘Teaching Complex Thinking’ and ‘Rewards for Teaching’ are no longer depicted as challenges.
  • ‘Proliferation of Open Educational Resources’ and ‘Cross-Institutional Collaboration’ vanished from the trend timeline.
  • ‘Flipped Classroom’, ‘Wearable Technology’ and ‘the Internet of Things’ dropped off the technology radar.

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. As the report notes, this can take many forms, from virtual laboratories to flipped classrooms.
  2. Growing Focus on Measuring Learning: Measuring learning through data-driven practice and assessment has moved from the mid-term horizon, and is now seen as a short-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. Goals of measurement are “to build better pedagogies, empower students to take an active part in their learning, target at-risk student populations, and assess factors affecting completion and student success”.
  3. Redesigning Learning Spaces: This former short-term trend is now placed on the mid-term horizon. It describes the effort of reconfiguring learning spaces to better support collaborative forms of teaching and learning and increase learner engagement. Interestingly, this trend offers the possibility to transcend face-to-face and classroom environments by creating infrastructures for polysynchronous learning. “Polysynchronous learning refers to a mix of face-to-face, asynchronous, and synchronous channels of online communication; participation by students in diverse locations is cited as a key benefit. It requires physical classrooms to be designed to enable students to seamlessly communicate with others face-to-face and virtually”.
  4. Shift to Deeper Learning Approaches: Pedagogies that foster deep learning instead of surface learning strategies are seen as a mid-term trend. Deeper learning approaches favor hands-on and student-centered experiences, giving students more freedom to be creative without rigid guidelines.
  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 foresees a process of complete institutional overhaul as another long-term trend. Signs that higher education is undergoing a long-term transformation are internationalization, global competitiveness, focus on employability, advances in interdisciplinary programs and emerging business models. “An interesting take on this trend has been described as adopting the “Education-as-a-Service” (EaaS) model, a delivery system that unbundles the components of higher education, giving students the option to pay for only the courses they want and need”.

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. As the report states: “an overarching goal is to cultivate the pursuit of lifelong learning in all students and faculty”. However, teachers and learners need guidance on how to incorporate and validate informal learning experiences, i.e., through social media and open badges.
  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. While data-driven approaches to effectively facilitate individual learning pathways exist, teachers, institutions and learners lack experience with leveraging these tools and redefining their role.
  4. 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”.
  5. Balancing Our Connected and Unconnected Lives: Balancing learners’ connected and unconnected lives is a wicked challenge. Higher education institutions must help learners understand how to balance their usage of social and mobile technology with other developmental needs. How to navigate the ‘abundant sea of digital tools’ is an open question: “While there are plenty of studies and articles discussing healthy amounts of screen time for children, there are no agreed-upon models for adults when it comes to learning”.
  6. Keeping Education Relevant: The formal four-year degree is still the hallmark of employability, but does not guarantee employment –a wicked problem, in the report’s terminology. As employers feel recent graduates lack the skills needed to be successful in the workplace, increasing vocational education and training (VET) may provide a better match of employer needs and educational goals, especially when blending it with traditional college experiences.

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.

  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.
  2. Learning Analytics and Adaptive Learning: Within the past year, this technology trend moved from an adoption timeframe of 4-5 years to the short-term horizon. A growing number of learning applications adjust 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.
  3. Makerspaces: Makerspaces, community-oriented workshops that engage learners in problem-solving through hands-on design and construction, are still projected as a mid-term trend. 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. Augmented and Virtual Reality: Augmented reality incorporates of digital information into real-world spaces, allowing users to interact with both physical and digital objects. Both augmented and virtual reality have become simple and available on the mobile devices we already own. Virtual Reality enables users to step into an immersive, computer-simulated alternate world. As a low-cost solution, Google Cardboard has facilitated the spread of virtual reality in education. Augmented reality experiences can be delivered via mobile apps using GPS data on smartphones or tablets. Interestingly, augmented reality was first mentioned in the 2005 Horizon Report on the far-term horizon. Now it is still characterized as a mid-term trend, indicating that it will reach mainstream within 2-3 years.
  5. Affective Computing: The ability of computers to simulate emotional behavior and to recognize patterns of facial expressions or voice modulation that signify emotional states is characterized as having potential to impact the education sector as a long-term trend. Potential is seen for learning programs that recognize boredom or frustration and respond accordingly. “The ultimate goal of affective computing is to improve and apply these technologies to create context-aware, emotionally responsive machines that cater to even the most subtly communicated needs”.
  6. Robotics: Robotics are not a new technology: There is a long history of machines built for engineering as well as for assistive purposes, and the field is continuously advancing. Contemporary robots are increasingly sophisticated and can perform a compelling array of simple, useful, and complex tasks. Their use as educational tools is still sparse, but promising enough to be characterized as poised on the far-term horizon.New outreach programs are promoting robotics and programming as multi-disciplinary STEM skills that can make students better problem solvers”.

Overall Impression

The Horizon Report provides substantive input for strategic discussions around educational technology, curricular planning, and organizational development in higher education on a global scale. Last year’s edition was translated into Chinese, German, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Spanish.

Of particular interest in the 2016 edition are the potential tensions between different trends and visions the reports puts forth:

  • ‘Focus on Measuring Learning’ vs. ‘Shift to Deeper Learning’: On the hand, the report urges learning organizations to consider the potential of data-driven decision making, and assessment that feeds back into computer-assisted personalization of learning content. On the other hand, it asks educators to think about ways to promote deeper learning through PBL, which the report equates with project based learning. While assessment and data-driven approaches not necessarily equate with root memorization and multiple choice quizzes, open-ended, problem-oriented learning environments usually tend to align better with qualitative feedback and are less likely to produce streamlined data trails.
  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), Learning Analytics and Personalized Learning vs. Balancing Our Connected and Unconnected Lives: The report emphasizes the merits of learning analytics, personalized learning and ubiquitous access to learning materials and assignments through personal mobile devices – in and out of the classroom. However, it also cautions that learners find it difficult to disconnect from social media and engage in deep, meaningful classroom discussions while being connected to their mobile, social media profiles.

In some sections, in particular around competence-oriented curricula, employability and workforce orientation, the depiction of trends appeared to lack balance: While overall the Horizon report offers an open research tableau for educational technology, it also pushes agendas. The scenarios are often tailored towards one specific perspective or vision of the future – i.e., start-up culture, entrepreneurship, ‘unbundling’ of university services. The report is strongest when it brings up a new question or framework ‘on the horizon’ for further investigation by the community, without advocating for a particular solution.

Further Resources

Want to delve into a specific technology? Below are selected papers from the LearnTechLib Digital Library that allow you to further your understanding of trends and their applications.

Yuen, T., Stone, J., Davis, D., Gomez, A., Guillen, A., Price Tiger, E. & Boecking, M. (2015). A model of how children construct knowledge and understanding of engineering design within robotics focused contexts. International Journal of Research Studies in Educational Technology, 5(1),. Consortia Academia Publishing.

Smith, S., Tillman, D., Mishra, P., Slykhuis, D., Alexander, C., Henriksen, D., Church, R. & Goodman, A. (2014). Building Multidisciplinary Connections: Intersections of Content, Creativity, and Digital Fabrication Technologies. In M. Searson & M. Ochoa (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2014 (pp. 2506-2510). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

Almoosa, A. (2015). The Era of BYOD: Augmented Reality Apps in Higher Education. In Proceedings of E-Learn: World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2015 (pp. 1684-1689). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

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