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Robotics and VR Loom on the Higher-Ed Horizon

By Marguerite McNeal

Each year thousands of faculty, administrators, entrepreneurs, consultants, policymakers and industry watchdogs wait for the great unveiling of the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report: Higher Education Edition. Today they get their wish. The report, now in its 15th year, explores how emerging technologies will impact colleges and universities across the globe. The Austin, Texas-based NMC, an international community of education experts, today released its latest findings in conjunction with the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting.

The 2016 report analyzes edtech’s potential impact on teaching, learning and creative inquiry in higher education between now and 2020. As Bryan Alexander, credited with coining the term ‘MOOC’ and a panelist for the research, reminded audiences at the ELI conference earlier today, the technology developments explored in the Horizon Report won’t happen in a vacuum. They reflect changing demographic and economic forces that have their tentacles in all aspects of higher education. These shifts, including an aging population, widening income inequality and machine automation, are turning higher education on its head, Alexander said. He illustrated the point with a rhetorical question: “How many core curricula have gone through thinking about automation as an ontological threat?”

The Horizon Report receives roughly 11,000 downloads every day from across 200 countries, NMC CEO Larry Johnson said at the conference. The research draws on insights from a panel of 58 international education and technology experts, who perform a systematic review of current literature that pertains to tech trends.

We won’t attempt to synthesize the entire document—it’s 46 pages of research analysis, after all—but here’s a look at the developments that NMC panelists think will have the greatest impact on technology planning and decision-making across campuses over the next five years. (Time to adoption increases as you move down the list.)

  1. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD): The question for higher ed institutions has moved beyond whether to allow mobile devices into the classroom, but how to maximize their effectiveness. Colleges and universities are building more robust WiFi infrastructure to keep faculty and students connected, whether they’re using tablets or Oculus Rift.
  2. Learning Analytics and Adaptive Learning: Higher education institutions are becoming more proactive in their use of data to predict student outcomes. They’re using data-driven insights to anticipate what content and resources individual learners need at a specific point in time to make progress.
  3. Augmented and Virtual Reality: AR refers to incorporating digital information into the real environment, while VR immerses users in an alternate world. Both have applications for simulating real-life experiences for students, especially in the medical fields.
  4. Makerspaces: Informal workshop environments are popping up in campuses around the globe and provide a place for hands-on design and construction. They offer communal access to equipment like 3D printers, laser cutters, Raspberry Pis and sewing machines.
  5. Affective Computing: BB8 fans rejoice. Machines are closer than ever to achieving humanlike understanding. For higher education, that means they might help recognize students’ boredom, stress or depression in online learning environments and make recommendations for how to help.
  6. Robotics: Colleges and universities are increasingly offering courses and degrees in robotics technology. They’re not only training students to engineer machines, but how to address legal and ethical issues that will arise as robots become part of daily life.

Most of these technologies were developed outside the realm of education, but the panelists agreed they have clear applications in the field. For more on the 2016 analysis, check out the full report


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