New educational technology and customised education

Education technology is in the midst of an historic shift toward a less centralised, more learner-directed model. The trends relating to this are rapid and overlapping, but are driven by student preferences for customised learning. Today, ICEF Monitor returns to the ever evolving subject of technology in education with a focus on the customisation demands driving change.

What do learners want?

By now it’s no secret that students are demanding more technology in education, and another new study called “The Future of Education” – conducted by Internships.com and the research firm Millennial Branding – further backs this belief: 50% of students feel a physical classroom is unnecessary for learning, 53% trust in the reputability of online colleges, and 39% expect education to be more virtual in the future.

Other findings from the report show that:

  • 84% of students use a computer to study.
  • 19% use an iPhone and tablet device to study.
  • 69% would participate in an online internship if they were able to.
  • 43% believe online education will provide them with courses of the same or higher quality than traditional colleges.

Instructors out of sync

These findings highlight modern learners’ embrace of new technology; however, university instructors are not quite in sync with students.

Concerns about the quality or effectiveness of online classes are well documented. A recent study by Inside Higher Ed and Babson Survey Research Group showed that two-thirds of instructors believe students learn less online than in traditional classroom settings.

Interestingly, 78% of students responding to the aforementioned Millennial Branding/Internships.com survey still believe that it’s easier to learn in a traditional classroom than online.

In other words, they disagree that the quality of the instruction is worse, but concede that self-directed learning involves added difficulties.

But what supporters of online classes greatly value is their flexibility and lower cost. And customisation is the key.

Online learning offers the opportunity to self-customise schooling in such a way as to balance work, class, social and family commitments, and be able to learn at the most comfortable pace, rather than one dictated by a syllabus and timetable. The questions prospective students will increasingly ask about their options for customised learning are ones educators, institutions, and agents must be able to answer.

Top trends moving forward

The “NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Higher Education Edition” specifies six emerging education trends:

  • MOOCs;
  • Tablet computers;
  • Gamification of curriculum;
  • Use of learning analytics;
  • 3D printing;
  • Wearable technology.

The latter two items are far horizon trends that don’t impact on recruitment or student mobility yet, and the use of learning analytics is likewise best left for another day. But the first three items have already made a measurable impact on the educational landscape and in student expectations.

Meanwhile .eduGuru lists these five trends:

  • Social media collaboration;
  • Cloud computing technology;
  • Open source software products;
  • eBook readers and notebooks;
  • Educative gaming.

Many other analysts are in broad agreement about these items, and we see overlap in the two lists, as well as overlap between the technologies themselves.

Cloud computing and MOOCs

Cloud computing and MOOCs are linked. Cloud computing, in which data is stored online rather than in local computers, allows users anywhere in the world to share information via interfaces like GoogleDrive, SkyDrive, and Dropbox. MOOCs also operate on a cloud principle.

For more on the subject of MOOCs, see these previous articles: “MOOC development continues to pick up speed” and “Is technology the key change agent in higher education?“.

Many questions still surround MOOCs, but a key element driving their production is consumer demand. A new technology that serves nobody is a technology that can’t survive. Here again, customisation is the key. MOOCs allow students to shape their learning to fit their unique circumstances, whether they be financial, geographical, temporal, or all three.

Tablet technology

Tablets and eBook readers are a firmly established trend that is growing stronger. In many countries they are becoming a standard household appliance.

In Great Britain, for instance, tablet shipments in the first quarter of 2013 grew by 142.4% compared with the same period in 2012. And on the other side of the pond, 34% of American adults aged 18 and older own a tablet computer – almost twice as many as a year ago.

As .eduGuru notes, while students are depending more on eBook readers and tablet computers, many educational institutions are meeting them halfway by moving toward a paperless model.

These moves are often driven by economic and environmental concerns, but educators also understand that these devices are intrinsic to the learning process of millennials, and that their increasing affordability means that more students will buy them. In 2013, tablet sales are projected to surpass those of the ubiquitous laptop computer.

Open source material

Open source software means, basically, free to use. Moodle, Udutu and Sakai are examples of open source educational software. These and other products are specifically known as learning management systems, or LMS. Using these products, both students and instructors can create presentations and other useful content via customisable code.

Open source as a trend encompasses open source textbooks, which are growing in popularity due to high textbook costs for both students and institutions. In the US, the state of California has invested US $5 million to develop open source college textbooks, and states like Illinois and Virginia are considering similar moves.

There are copyright issues and other obstacles, but soon, instructors might routinely download several open source textbooks, mix and match relevant chapters, embed video files containing demonstrations or examples, save the result and make it available for students to download to their tablet computers.

Open source textbooks are being predicted by some analysts to replace 25% of the physical textbook market in the next ten years, effectively eradicating billions of dollars in profits for those publishers. Already, there are many websites where open source textbooks are available, including:

Gaming and learning

Gamification is one of the hottest trends in e-learning and online marketing. The structure of gamified learning varies, but the idea is to use game mechanics to spur students to greater levels of participation. Proponents suggest that through gamification, students retain what they learn at a higher rate than with traditional approaches.

And in looking at how to appeal to the millenial generation, we know that youth are looking for both indulgence and adrenaline-provoking thrills, which is what makes gamification so appealing and likely explains the success of contests in so many company’s marketing plans.

MOOC provider edX uses gaming as key component of its learning process, and the company has partnered with respected universities like the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas, Wellesley College, and Georgetown University. Such partnerships have the potential to bring gamified learning into the collegiate mainstream.

The overarching trend of social media

Customisation necessarily involves empowerment, and empowerment is where social media come in. The use of social media technologies remains the Internet’s mega growth area, with an astounding 8 zettabytes (or 8 trillion gigabytes) of data expected to be shared online by 2015.

No surprise then that last year, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ all added record numbers of active global users.

Photo sharing sites continue to show explosive growth, as well. Instagram, now owned by Facebook, has gone from 22 million active monthly users to nearly 100 million.

Regional interfaces such as Vkontakte (133 million users, concentrated in Russia and Ukraine) and Badoo (147 million users, concentrated in Spain and Latin America), are also important players on the scene.

And in addition to these, there are numerous websites that have made content sharing their basic model, focusing on information about universities, university courses, university communities, and professors. For instance, College Prowler claims to host close to one million discussions at 8,100 campus communities. Other websites include Unigo, Students Review, and more than twenty others.

The popularity of these platforms offers educators and agents opportunities to reach current and prospective students, however, the lighting quick spread of peer opinions means that deficiencies are difficult to hide.

The constantly communicating online community has the power to lay bare every aspect of an educational institution or service, and this is true even for schools with no social media presence.

Just as importantly, new norms are continually being established on social media sites. A prospective student’s desire for customisable education is confirmed by thousands of online peers, and a ripple soon becomes a tidal wave. With the cost of education rising, today’s students feel entitled to learn on their own terms – i.e., cost customised, place customised, and time customised. The above trends and others on the horizon are merely the first attempts to satisfy those demands.



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