An online student using technology on a computer
Leadership Insights

Emerging Technologies in Higher Education: A Case for Putting Learning First

By Patrick Garrett York, MFA October 25, 2018

There are few things that evoke a sense of wonder — the type abundant in childhood and precious to adults — like pulling plastic wrap off a glimmering new phone. With the push of a single button, the screen to comes to life, glowing with possibility. How many hours in my day will I win back using an “Editor’s Pick” productivity app? How wonderful will my life look through the pictures posted to my boards and walls and feeds?

Emerging technologies in education inspire countless conferences, workshops, white papers, and think pieces every year. They pledge to revolutionize the way students and teachers work and interact. At times, they aim to eliminate some elements of education altogether, including the need for physical proximity to the classroom, costly textbooks, or even the presence of a human teacher. Much like the promises made by the apps on our phones, these educational technologies try to make learning more efficient, engaging, relevant, and entertaining. These possibilities attract both students and the universities that enroll them.

Innovative technologies used in higher education

According to a joint study by Eduventures and Quality Matters, the most compelling technologies for institutions of higher learning are those they perceive to be the most innovative.

  • Adaptive Learning allows students to follow unique learning paths based on their interests and experiences.
  • Learning analytics allows teachers and administrators to track student behavior and make targeted improvements to courses.
  • Simulations, game-based learning activities, and Virtual or Augmented Reality promise to capture students’ imaginations.
  • Competency-Based Education offers a new way of measuring outcomes based not on hours behind a desk or in front of a screen, but rather on a student’s objective demonstration of competency in a given area.
  • Open Educational Resources pledge to make learning more affordable, accessible, and flexible by replacing textbooks with materials available for free to anyone with an internet connection.

These emerging technologies (which have become mainstays at some universities) paint an exciting picture of the future of education. A gap persists, however, between technologies that interest university administrators and those they choose to prioritize.

Why many universities focus on familiar tools vs. the future of technology

While Augmented Reality and Adaptive Learning are among the most talked about technologies, universities’ time and attention are generally more focused on tools that are familiar: audio and video conferencing, anti-plagiarism software, and lecture-capturing software remain the most implemented tools in academia. If you’ve ever had a learning experience online, you’ve likely encountered one or more of them.

These technologies are familiar in our personal lives as well. Most of us have used a video chat application on our phones or have learned from a YouTube video. Given the ubiquity of these types of tools, the question is, then, why are so many universities prioritizing tried-and-tested tools over the seemingly revolutionary solutions available today?

Many of the answers are typical to academia: change is hard, budgets are tight, or leadership cannot agree on the best tools. These problems exist without even taking into account the sheer velocity with which new technologies rise, gain popularity, and then disappear.

The reason for this gap is not organizational inefficiency or “analysis paralysis,” but rather it stems from the fundamental mission of colleges and universities: to produce the best learning experience possible for the students they serve. Sometimes emergent technology can serve that goal, while at other times it can impede it. These tools should be examined in the appropriate context — the classroom. Otherwise, they run the risk of premature implementation, which can lead to confusion, resistance, and a preoccupation with the technology itself, which may distract teachers from engaging with students in learning.

The need for careful analysis

Becoming more involved with a technological tool alone vs. focusing on the purpose it serves can have undesirable consequences. “The danger of fetishizing machines,” Jesse Stommel writes in An Urgency of Teachers, “is that we become subject to them. But turning away in the face of the digital will lead to much the same fate. Rather we need to handle our technologies roughly — to think critically about our tools, how we use them, and who has access to them.” If we are to benefit from what technological tools have to offer, we must scrutinize them; they do not all keep their promises.

The attempt to revolutionize our lives with productivity apps is often thwarted by our failure to input the right information consistently. Anyone who has ever used a digital boarding pass knows the anxiety of watching the battery indicator diminish while hours remain before boarding begins. Tools are only helpful if they are properly implemented. Otherwise, they can leave us disorganized or, worse yet, stranded.

The present and future of education brims with an exceedingly complex array of technological solutions, so educators need a critical mindset and to focus on building meaningful educational experiences. Only then can they select the right tools and figure out the best way to facilitate learning.

When learning dictates use

At Concordia University-Portland, Sena Wilmoth, Director of Academic Affairs, CU Online, puts learning at the center of her work. Through her development of the university’s courses, she has demonstrated that even the most familiar technology — a threaded discussion board — can be as wondrous as the glow from a new phone screen if approached with an inventive spirit and a pedagogical eye.

In her discussion boards, Professor Wilmoth encourages students to introduce themselves with video clips and respond to one another using an unlimited number of tools and media, including podcasts and presentations. To prevent discussion boards from feeling like a rote activity, Professor Wilmoth gives guidelines for both initial posts and for student responses. She provides suggestions to encourage substantive and compelling conversations, rather than the perfunctory exchanges typical in online education.

Her approach is working. In an introductory course in the MEd in Curriculum & Instruction, 22 students generated 298 responses in just one week. The majority of them were voluntarily posted, even after students had satisfied the assignment’s requirements. “While numbers do not give the full picture,” Professor Wilmoth says, “I believe it is safe to say that the students are responsive, connecting, and building a learning community. It’s all very exciting to watch.”

Professor Wilmoth’s thoughtful application of a simple tool is an example of how a fixation on creating the best learning experience, and the judicious use of both familiar and emerging technologies, will allow universities to continue growing alongside the ever-expanding market of educational tools while focusing on what really matters: learning.

Patrick Garrett York is an editor at ObjectLessons, creating space for designers and subject matter experts to collaborate constructively in the creation of online learning experiences. He has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside and has worked as a writer, editor, instructor, and mentor.

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