Trajectories for Digital Technology in Higher Education

computer classroomIn the July/August issue of Educause Review, Malcolm Brown discusses six trajectories for digital technologies in higher education. As he explains, the pace of technology change can be interrupted by many factors, including the acceleration of newer technologies, so trajectories are more descriptive than predictions.

Before discussing these trajectories, Brown sets the context by defining three characteristics of today’s technology utilization in higher education. The first is personalization, whereby digital resources are used to create custom pathways for learning. Number two is the adoption of hybrid learning models, and the third is the analysis of ever-increasing amounts of data used to influence the conduct of higher education. He notes that higher education no longer thinks of technology as IT infrastructure, but rather as a digital learning environment. That shift in thinking means that educators’ attention is on the learners and their experiences enabled by technology.

Device ownership and mobile-first is Brown’s first trajectory. According to Educause’s 2014 annual student study, student ownership of smartphones increased to 86 percent and is expected to grow to 90 percent in 2015. Tablet ownership increased to 47 percent in 2014, and is expected to reach 58 percent in 2015. Mobile technology allows students and instructors to personalize their environment, reducing their dependency on the campus’s IT organization.

Open Education Resources (OER) and the textbook is the second trajectory. Brown writes that the textbook is vanishing primarily because publishers themselves see that there is more value in adding electronic content to the core textbook than in providing standalone texts. Textbook costs rose 812 percent between 1978 and 2012, causing students to seek other alternatives. According to the 2013 Educause survey, 71 percent of students used OER in 2013, up from 25 percent in 2010. Students are able to seek basic explanations of content from sources such as iTunes U, MOOCs and OpenStax CNX. Pearson uses a special search engine called Gooru to help anyone find OER materials, even though they continue to publish traditional textbooks.

Trajectory number three is adaptive learning technology, which takes a “non-linear approach to instruction and remediation, adjusting to a learner’s interactions and demonstrated performance level and subsequently anticipating what types of content and resources learners need at a specific point in time to make progress.” Brown writes that publishers have invested significantly in this area, along with universities and other companies. Given the promise of improved learning outcomes at lower cost, this trajectory will likely continue for many years.

Learning spaces is trajectory number four. Traditional classrooms and laboratories are moving away from being places of presentation toward being ones of discovery and invention. Brown cites “makerspace” rooms as the clearest example of this trend. Whether it’s 3D printers and scanners, programmable circuit boards, sewing machines, miter saws, routers, microscopes or soldering irons, the idea is to provide the raw materials and tools to enable discovery and invention. Wireless projection is another tech invention that enables anyone in the classroom to project their device onto the screen. With this new technology, the need for a traditional static classroom decreases and smaller, more collaborative arrangements are more conducive to learning.

Next-generation learning management systems (LMS’s) are the fifth trajectory. While 85 percent of all faculty responding to a 2014 Educause survey indicate that they use a campus LMS, most do not use the advanced LMS features. Brown writes that LMS 2.0 has not yet been envisioned but that it will certainly embrace newer technologies enabling MOOCs, flipped classrooms, badges and online degrees.

The sixth, and last, trajectory is learning analytics and integrated planning and advising services (IPAS). According to Brown, learning analytics has been accelerated thanks to its incorporation into major LMS’s including Blackboard, D2L and Canvas. Many questions remain about how much these tools are used by instructors and students, but Brown believes usage will only increase as does interest in the level of learning. IPAS utilize an integrated digital environment for students, advisors, and faculty which provides or enables:

  • degree planning and the best path to achieve it;
  • tracking progress toward degree completion;
  • advising, counseling, mentoring and tutoring; and
  • early alert systems for proactive interventions with at-risk students.

All of these help reorient the institution from an enrollment to a completion culture.

Brown concludes that the growing trend of student swirling between institutions and creating their custom degree path has also influenced digital technology in higher education. The campus IT organization is morphing from hosting the environment to supporting teaching and learning. Increased use by teachers and students of their own mobile tools is creating custom pathways to achieving learning goals. Apps, used initially by mobile devices, are leading users away from large central software to cloud-based solutions. Data analytics are increasing the faculty’s ability to tweak assignments and lessons based on the customized student profile. Brown recommends that institutions participate thoughtfully in the swirl in order to progress with the digital trajectories

Brown has identified six important trajectories, while providing a mindset for how institutions should participate in these changes. Having spent the past 13-plus years at American Public University System implementing multiple technology systems and platforms to keep pace with major changes in online education, I believe that coordinating all of these changes is much easier on paper than it is in reality.

Replacing existing systems requires much coordination among users and IT staff and integrating multiple systems as this article suggests is even more complex. System users who have embraced the vision are frustrated when system implementation or integration takes longer than planned. Administrators are similarly frustrated by delays and higher than estimated costs. For example, the University of Phoenix recently announced that it is abandoning its customized technology platforms for off-the-shelf software. While that move may ultimately save them time and money, the change will not be quick, nor will the customization demanded by its faculty and students. Integrating these technologies effectively is possible, but demands that faculty and staff work with IT personnel much more than higher education has done in the past.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence