The 2018 ‘Horizon Report’ Is Late. But It Almost Never Emerged.

Digital Learning

The 2018 ‘Horizon Report’ Is Late. But It Almost Never Emerged.

By Jeffrey R. Young and Sydney Johnson     Aug 16, 2018

The 2018 ‘Horizon Report’ Is Late. But It Almost Never Emerged.

The story behind the latest Horizon Report—which ranks tech trends in higher education—is easily more dramatic than the document’s actual conclusions. But both are available as of today.

A panel of 71 experts convened by the New Media Consortium worked for months to dig through research and make recommendations for this year’s report, following a process that had been honed over several years. Then, as the report neared completion, the New Media Consortium abruptly shut down amid mysterious financial troubles, and it was unclear whether the work would ever reach the public.

In February, Educause bought the assets of the New Media Consortium and pledged to continue the Horizon Report series, and to complete and publish the 2018 edition. The report is much later than usual—NMC had planned to release it in March—but Educause officials say they took pains to uphold the traditions of that group.

An Educause official tasked with taking over this effort tries to reassure skeptical observers that the latest version would be faithful to the original. “We’re very committed to following the format of the previous NMC report,” says Noreen Barajas-Murphy, interim director of academic community programs, who led the completion of the document. “It was really important to us that it have not just the look, but that it also read and felt like a Horizon Report.”

And as in past years, the report will be free, and Educause says it does not see the project as a revenue source.

Barajas-Murphy says that Educause is already starting the planning for the 2019 Horizon Report for higher education, which is scheduled for release in February, at the group’s ELI conference.

The plan is to form a new panel of experts—some of them from previous NMC panels, and some from the Educause community—to make recommendations for next year’s report. And the group will continue to use the software developed by NMC to coordinate the research, which was among the assets purchased by Educause.

Not everything will remain exactly the same, though. One possible change will be to incorporate “predictive validity” techniques that Educause applies in some of its other research, to try to make the process of identifying trends more rigorous, says Barajas-Murphy.

What’s In This Year’s Edition

The Horizon Report aims to identify themes and challenges in higher education and technology, and predict which trends may materialize in the near future. And this year’s predictions range from the abstract, such as “advancing cultures of innovation,” to more specific ones like an increasing appearance of new interdisciplinary studies on campus.

At a time when traditional degree paths such as history or the humanities are under greater scrutiny, the report asserts that interdisciplinary studies will be increasingly thought of as a way to maintain “the relevance of traditional academic disciplines by fostering new and creative programs of study.”

These programs are also, in a way, a “response to [funding] scarcity, and how institutions are both making the best use of things they already have on campus and then weaving them together to provide students with an interdisciplinary experience,” says Barajas-Murphy.

Several of the ideas and challenges have landed a spot in the previous editions of the report. Open educational resources (OER) have been included as key trends since 2013, for example. But the report argues that there have been small changes in the trends that have been cited year after year.

With OER, the report notes, “initial advances in the authoring platform or curation method of open resources is now overshadowed by campuswide OER initiatives and sophisticated publishing options that blend adaptive elements into an OER text.”

David Thomas, director of academic technology at the University of Colorado at Denver, says that even repeated trends change over time. “When open educational resources first emerged, it was the wild west. Anyone who wanted to contribute content could,” he says. These days, OER quality frameworks have emerged and the technology is more commonplace on campuses. But new challenges have evolved with the industry, too, such as the concern that some publishers and companies are merely claiming to be open for marketing purposes—a practice sometimes referred to as “openwashing.”

Previous versions of the report, which go back 16 years, have been somewhat hit-or-miss when it comes to their predictions.

The 2014 report claimed that virtual assistants would rise to prominence on college campuses within four to five years. Today, it is becoming increasingly common to see devices like Amazon’s Alexa integrated into dorm rooms and learning spaces. (Hit.)

The 2015 report, on the other hand, predicted that wearable technologies, including Google Glass, would find a place in higher-ed research settings. (Big miss.)

The report does not focus on whether past predictions came to be. “The Horizon Report, at its worst, is future telling or a ouija board and at best, it’s a mirror of the industry,” says Thomas. “It works less as an early-warning system for people who don’t know what’s going on, and more of a lens into what the [academic technology] community is interested in.”

Aware of its fortune-telling limitations, Thomas still thinks “it’s a miracle the Horizon Report is coming out this year.” He adds: “It’s unfortunate what happened to NMC, but the fact that Educause picked it up and is carrying it forward is awesome. Every industry should have some sort of community focal point.”

Meanwhile, at least one new effort has emerged to offer an alternative to the Horizon Report. That effort, called FOEcast, was first proposed by Bryan Alexander, a consultant and self-described “futurist” of edtech who served as one of the expert panelists on several Horizon Reports, including the 2018 edition.

Barajas-Murphy, of Educause, welcomes others to join in. As she put it: “There is plenty of room in the space of forecasting for many voices.”

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