Six significant challenges for technology in higher education in 2017

What will hold back the use of technology in higher education over the next five years?

February 16, 2017
Technology in higher education
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The NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition came out earlier this week, laying out what its panel of experts believe to be the significant challenges hampering technology adoption in universities in 2017.

In collaboration with the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, the report is produced by the New Media Consortium – a community of hundreds of universities, colleges, museums and research organisations driving innovation across their campuses.

The NMC has grouped the trends in three sections – those that it says are “solvable”, “difficult” or “wicked”. Read on to find out more about them.

Improving digital literacy

Solvable challenge: those that we understand and know how to solve

Being digitally literate is more than obtaining “isolated technological skills”, the Horizon report notes. It is about: “generating a deeper understanding of the digital environment, enabling intuitive adaptation to new contexts and co-creation of content with others”.

“Institutions are charged with developing students’ digital citizenship, ensuring mastery of responsible and appropriate technology use, including online communication etiquette and digital rights and responsibilities in blended and online learning settings and beyond,” the report says. “Due to the multitude of elements comprising digital literacy, higher education leaders are challenged to obtain institution-wide buy-in and to support all stakeholders in developing these competencies.”

Examples of institutions alleviating issues of digital literacy include Western Sydney University library’s tutorials and reflection activities in the area, which “help students develop high-order thinking skills”. The report notes, however, that while many digital literacy programmes are under way, the challenge “remains thorny” because of the need for more “comprehensive ownership and action”.

“Institutions can prioritize their focus on urgent but achievable actions, and incentivize opportunities for staff at all levels to translate their skills to advance the work of the digital university,” it advises.

Integrating formal and informal learning

Solvable challenge: those that we understand and know how to solve

As previous Horizon reports have noted, there is still an increased interest in “self-directed, curiosity-based learning”.

Informal learning encompasses these types of activities, and experts believe that blending formal and informal methods of learning can “create an environment that fosters experimentation, curiosity, and creativity”, the 2017 report reiterates.

“An overarching goal is to cultivate the pursuit of lifelong learning in all students and faculty. Institutions are beginning to experiment with flexible programmes that provide credit for prior learning and competencies gained through employment…or extracurricular experiences,” the report says.

It warns that a “lack of scalable methods of formally documenting and assessing skills mastered outside of the classroom” and “adapting pricing structures and financial aid models to fit new degree options” are impeding progress.

Higher education institutions are uniquely placed to “connect more students” to informal opportunities, the report stresses, citing the example of Humboldt State University Library, which promotes research on the effects of mindfulness, attention and contemplation through its Library Brain Booth, a drop-in space with hands-on tools and activities.

Through its European Guidelines for Validating Non-formal and Informal Learning, the European Commission is setting an “influential policy precedent” by recognising that informal learning validation “increases visibility of learning outcomes and appropriate value of these experiences”.

Achievement gap

Difficult challenge: those that we understand but for which solutions are elusive

“The achievement gap…reflects a disparity in the enrolment and academic performance between student groups, defined by socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, or gender,” the Horizon report says.

While developments in technology have made it easier for students from these groups to engage with learning resources, “significant issues of access and equity persist”.

“The one-size-fits-all approach of traditional higher education paradigms, coupled with overwhelming tuition costs, is in stark contrast with an increasingly diverse global student population; more flexible degree plans are needed,” the report says. “The challenge facing higher education is to cater to all learners’ needs, aligning post-secondary programmes with deeper learning outcomes and the acquisition of 21st century skills, enabled by personalised learning strategies and data-driven student support systems that foster goal achievement and gainful employment.”

Online or blended offerings with “personalised and adaptive learning strategies” are increasingly viewed as a retention solution, the report notes. Examples include the competency-based education method used by Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University, which aims to support completion and job readiness by equipping online students with concrete skills related to their career goals.

Advancing digital equity

Difficult challenge: those that we understand but for which solutions are elusive

Digital equity – ensuring equal access to technology – is a “rampant social justice issue”, affecting developed and developing countries alike, but is also a major concern for higher education, according to the report.

Technology plays an “important role in advancing the availability of higher education for underrepresented student populations”, while ensuring “accessibility of web materials for disabled students”, it says. The use of open educational resources also provides “cost savings to students”.

With higher education tasked with leveraging technology-enhanced education to “better meet the needs of under-served students”, certain universities are highlighted as exemplars of increasing equity. This year, the University of Oxford is branching into free online courses through the edX platform founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The University of Cambridge is improving its offer for students with disabilities through its Lecture Capture pilot – with staff posting course content online in a variety of formats including audio and video. Stanford University’s Lytics Lab found that adding activities promoting “social belonging and self-confidence” to massive open online courses (Moocs) can improve learner perseverance and achievement for participants from developing countries.

Managing knowledge obsolescence

Wicked challenge: those that are complex to even define, much less address

“Staying organized and current” is tricky for academics in a world where “educational needs, software, and devices advance at a strenuous rate”, the Horizon report notes.

Although technological developments can potentially improve the “quality of learning and operations” at universities, they are replaced incredibly swiftly by newer versions, making it difficult to keep up.

“Institutions must grapple with the longevity of technologies and devise back-up plans before making large investments,” the report says. “There is added pressure to ensure that any tools selected are in service of deepening learning outcomes in ways that are measurable.”

There must be procedures for “technology and pedagogy discovery” so that educators can process information in an “efficient and insightful manner”, it adds. The “widespread emphasis” on research over teaching for promotion and tenure consideration has also “jeopardized progress” in designing high-quality learning experiences. Faculty are often required to balance the two and pursue their own “relevant professional development” often in spite of insufficient resources.

The Tracer Project examined how faculty professional development at Carleton College and Washington State University affected student learning outcomes, with findings revealing that “extensive on-going training”, rather than “one-off topical workshops for single departments” promoted better teaching practices.

Rethinking the roles of educators

Wicked challenge: those that are complex to even define, much less address

The report notes that role of faculty is shifting considerably. They are “increasingly expected to employ a variety of technology-based tools and engage in online discussions and collaborative authoring” while also tasked with “leveraging active learning methodologies like project and problem-based learning”. With learning shifting towards being more in the control of the students, educators are now acting as “guides and facilitators”.

Contributing to this issue is the rise of competency-based education, which tilts the academic experience further towards students’ needs. Many institutions are consequently rethinking the main responsibilities of their faculty in light of these changes.

The report stresses that government intervention will be key to “helping educators keep pace with the needs of 21st century learners”, especially in the context of being work-ready and entrepreneurial.

Institutions are also taking steps to help educators transform their teaching practices, enabled by the creative use of technology. The University of Maryland University College is embarking on a three-year initiative to shift its pedagogies from those based on memorising knowledge to experiential learning and competency – radically changing the teaching culture.

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Reader's comments (1)

Amazing article, In today’s fast-changing world, educational institutes need to integrate technology in education to make students future ready. Great Work!!!