6 significant challenges impeding technology adoption in higher education in 2015

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

February 27, 2015

The NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition came out earlier this month, laying out what its panel of experts believes to be the significant challenges impeding technology adoption in universities. Just like last year, we have put together a summary of those challenges.

The report is produced by the New Media Consortium, a not-for-profit group of more than 250 higher education institutions, museums and companies that conducts research into emerging technologies.

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


Blending formal and informal learning

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

Traditional approaches to teaching can “often stifle learning as much as they foster it”, the Horizon report warns, and there is an increasing interest in “self-directed, curiosity-based learning”, particularly now that the internet is so widely available.

“These and other more serendipitous forms of learning fall under the banner of informal learning, and serve to enhance student engagement by encouraging them to follow their own learning pathways and interests,” the report says. “Many experts believe that a blending of formal and informal methods of teaching and learning can create a higher education environment that fosters experimentation, curiosity, and above all, creativity.”

The examples of informal learning given in the report include “an increasing number of universities, such as Stanford University the Massachusetts Institute of Technology” integrating games into their curriculum designs to simulate real world activities (sometimes referred to as “gamification”). Social media sites are also “making learning more ubiquitous”, the report says, having transcended their initial usage for building social connections.

The European University Continuing Education Network’s VALERU project, which aims to validate informal learning in the Russian higher education sector, is given as an example of one attempt to facilitate the blending of formal and informal learning.


Improving digital literacy

Difficult challenge: one we understand but for which solutions are elusive

The traditional view of literacy as the ability to read and write has “expanded to encompass understanding digital tools and information”, says the report. This is affecting how higher education institutions address literacy issues both for students and lecturers.

“Lack of consensus on what comprises digital literacy is impeding many colleges and universities from formulating adequate policies and programs that address this challenge”, the report says, adding that this is compounded by the notion that “digital literacy encompasses skills that differ for educators and learners”, because teaching with technology is inherently different from learning with it. There is, it says, a need for policies that address digital fluency in both students and faculty.

The report highlights a paper by researchers at Kennesaw State University in the US, “Unraveling the Digital Literacy Paradox: How Higher Education Fails at the Fourth”, which contends that while understanding how to use technologies is a key first step, “being able to leverage them for innovation is vital to fostering real transformation in higher education”.

Governing bodies are developing guidelines for digital literacy, the Horizon report says, and gives Arcadia University in Philadelphia as an example of an institution where staff have the opportunity to pursue a “Certificate in Digital Literacy”, which focuses on integrating technology into teaching.


Personalising learning

Difficult challenge: one we understand but for which solutions are elusive

To offer “personalised learning”, lecturers’ instructional approaches should address the “specific learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students”, the Horizon report says.

There is a demand for this pedagogical approach, but it is “not adequately supported by current technology or practices”, it adds, with the biggest barrier to personalised learning being that “scientific, data-driven approaches to effectively facilitate personalization have only recently begun to emerge”. Learning analytics, for example, “is still evolving and gaining traction within higher education”.

While “scalable methods and concepts will take some time to refine”, the report does highlight some current best practice, including the E2Coach web application at the University of Michigan, which, it says, “delivers customized student websites and pushes out personalized messages about course content, advice on study methods and resources, and reminders”.


Teaching complex thinking

Difficult challenge: one we understand but for which solutions are elusive

These days, higher-order thinking is “not only a valuable skill, but necessary for understanding and solving complex, real world problems”, according to the report.

The ability to communicate complex information surrounding global dilemmas in ways that are accessible to the general public is equally important, it adds, and “in the age of big data, conditions are optimal for developing new research processes to examine systems and our environment in greater depth”.

Universities have a responsibility to prepare learners to “take advantage of the latest tools and techniques to help them tackle complex problems”, the reports concludes, and emerging technologies - including the “semantic web”, which promotes the use of common data formats across the world wide web - have the potential to “train learners in complex and systems thinking”.

Much of the difficulty of this challenge lies in the “diversity and intricacy of the skills it entails”, but the report does highlight some good work. Among the institutions developing specialised schools of thought to address complex problem-solving is Stanford University. Its Hasso Plattner Institute of Design launched the d.school fellowship program, which invites burgeoning and experienced professionals to learn formal design-thinking processes, the report says.


Competing models of education

Wicked challenge: one that is complex to even define, much less address

Students should typically receive instruction by faculty over several years on a campus, right? Wrong.

Across the board, institutions are looking for ways to higher education at lower costs, and while massive open online courses (Moocs) are “at the forefront of these discussions”, according to the report, “a range of adult learning programs” are being explored.

These new approaches emphasise “multidimensional learning” by “cultivating 21st century skills such as intercultural communication and social entrepreneurship”. The report also cites competency-based education, which tracks student skills instead of credit hours, as an emerging model disrupting traditional systems.

Horizon points to Minerva University as one example of a “radically different university that focuses on key skill building” and Liverpool John Moores University’s World of Work programme, which stresses work-related learning and skill development through the involvement of business experts from leading organisations.

“It is clear that 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 concludes.


Rewarding teaching

Wicked challenge: one that is complex to even define, much less address

Teaching is often thought by academics to be of less importance than research, and a university’s status is “largely determined” on the quantity of the latter, the report says.

It says that there is an “overarching sense in the academic world that research credentials are a more valuable asset than talent and skill as an instructor” and, because of this, efforts to implement effective pedagogies are lacking. There is “an excessive dependence on part-time faculty, which has diminished mobility within higher education, complicating the dilemma even further”, it concludes.

There are some efforts to focus more on the importance of teaching, the report says. In Canada, administrators at York University “plan to hire over 200 faculty members that will be teaching-focused”, while at the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, faculty members are selected for the “Spotlight on Innovative Teaching”, a semester-long period of recognition where they host workshops to impart their techniques to other educators.


Visit the NMC’s website to read the Horizon report in full

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