Trajectories for Digital Technology in Education

“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” (Marshall McLuhan).

What will the landscape of higher education and technology look like as we move into an uncertain future? The rapid acceleration of technology and its impact within education are in a constant flux. Initially, digitization of assets has shifted towards asynchronous teaching and learning. The article breaks down the trajectories into six discrete areas.

Personalization is the idea that learners are at the center of their own discovery and that they are empowered to choose the appropriate pathway from multiple options. In relation to courses, this could manifest itself by allowing the learner to choose from a variety of modules and start any module at any given time. Personalization is in juxtaposition to a linear path, which is the traditional model of most educational courses. Similar to the concept of constructing your own playlist in iTunes, learners can effectively create their own course from a list of available modules. The ramifications of this are still being digested. Kolb’s learning cycle decrees that knowledge is built upon, so if learners have the ability to effective skip or pick and choose, how effective will the learning experience be? In my opinion, personalization is at the forefront of technology in education. Learner empowerment and choice have long been a desired characteristics within education. Through new and responsive learning platforms, true personalization of learning has a realistic chance of being achieved. Learning platforms can adapt in more fluid and dynamic ways than a traditional approach. Technology can sweep aside the boundaries of time and resources, and respond to the demands of a learner.

Through digital technology, learners now have the ability to learn and attend classes without ever stepping foot into a classroom. Online courses provide a tangible way of accessing education. Higher education’s love affair with the MOOC (massive open online course) has created a lasting legacy. Big data” allows learners a vivid and accurate real time reflection of their progress. Insights such as which module took longest to complete or even if the learner paused between answering multiple choice questions is all now possible. Insights are not only useful for the education provider, but the learner now has access to rich information that would have been impossible to produce accurately only years prior. From my viewpoint, adoption is the most transformative trajectory. It addresses and provides a tangible solution for millions of potential learners to access education. Resources such as buildings, tutors and timetables are no longer required to provide an effective education. MOOC’s require only a device and an internet connection. The effect in developing countries has the potential to be dramatic. University education, once seen as a destination for only the wealthy or the lucky few, could be accessible to anyone with the desire.

When mobile devices first appeared within learning environments, they were initially viewed as a distraction. “Turn the phone off” was the policy for most educational establishments. As time and the sophistication of the devices evolved, the second debate was heralded as the “digital divide”. Essentially, some students have access, other do not. As the reduced and proliferation of mobile devices increased, this argument has somewhat been over shadowed by how can we take advantage of mobile devices within teaching and learning? Most recently, the position has pivoted towards, how can we utilise these devices for teaching and learning in the first instance. In other words, courses, content and access should be planned and created for mobile environments first, not as a secondary consideration. I have seen first-hand within retail environments, the significance of the mobile first approach. Customers should not only be able to view the products, but they should also be able to purchase them as well. The same demands are expected from learners within the context of education. Learners expect to be able to access course content painlessly, without pinching and zooming. This requires content to be developed in a mobile first approach. The majority of learners within western universities already have access to these devices, the key now is enabling them to complement the learning experience in the first instance.

Open Educational Resources
The textbook, the constant that has been not only been a requirement, but a defining characteristic within higher education is now in question. When the world’s knowledge is accessible through the internet, how practical is a textbook as a learning tool? Textbooks, are expensive, bulky and most importantly, they are almost immediately out of date at the time of publishing. The internet allows text to be updated, refined and elaborated-on constantly. The decline in the purchase of commercial textbooks is palpable. The course textbook is no longer a requirement but, rather, an option. Publishers are adopting new ways to disseminate information such as e-books as a preferred platform. The advantage is not only financial, but also environmental.
In my opinion, cost has the single biggest impact on the traditional textbook. Learners are in a time and place when not only educational resources but courses are free. The textbook is an antiquated relic of traditional learning. Textbooks are impractical, static, environmentally unfriendly and expensive. Open Educational Resources herald a new approach to content, that is dynamic, free and environmentally sound.

Adaptive Learning Technology
Adaptive learning adjusts to the learner’s interactions and presents relevant content depending on the learner’s performance. The technology for course content to be dynamic and respond to the learner’s progress is already available. An example would be the driving theory test. Depending on how learners respond to say, a section on road traffic signs, the course software could choose to present more information on an area where the leaner was hesitating or submitting more incorrect answers. Adaptive learning has the potential to create a new symbiosis for teaching and learning. For the first time in history, real time changes, subtle or dramatic can now be applied on a mass scale. Courses now have the ability to accurately respond to a learner’s interaction.

Learning Analytics and Integrated Planning and Advising Services (IPAS)
This trajectory relates to increasing student success. It is well founded that students who experience early stage success within their educational program, continue to progress well in their program. In contrast, students who experience difficultly in the early stages are more likely to drop out and not complete. Analytics in teaching and learning seek to address this by providing insight to tutors and institutions to monitor success and engagement within a program of study. By identifying issues or problems early, steps can be put in place to support the learner through their studies. Data can be produced in real time to discover, attendance, completion and success. If a leaner is highlighted as not logging in for a particular duration of time, or has not completed modules successfully, interventions can be put in place to address issues at the earliest possible time. Although learning analytics is a relatively new field within education technology, it has the potential to make a huge impact. Tutors who have a constant demand on their time can continue to focus on teaching, whilst learning analytics can proactively search for signals relating to student issues.

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Tom Tomlinson

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