Editorial Pick 2015: What are the “black swans” of higher ed-tech?

Panel of experts discuss where education technology could be headed in the future (for better or for worse), and how to react to these changes.

swan-tech-future[Editor’s Note: Our editorial picks include stories the editors believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016.]

According to ed-tech experts, responding as flexibly as possible to often unpredictable trends and new technologies is critical for maximizing their potential positive impact on learning.

Black Swans” was the latest webinar hosted by The New Media Consortium in their Beyond the Horizon series, and featured a panel of five experts led and moderated by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, founder of the Hippasus educational consulting firm.

According to Puentedura, a “black swan” is an event that is unpredictable ahead of time, has a major impact on the world around it, and, in retrospect, should have been predicted due to later rationalization and explanation. For example, the economic downturn of 2008 would be a black swan.

In education, of course, any black swan event can make a huge impact, and thus, it is vitally important for decision makers to frame their thinking in a way that allows them to respond flexibly when that impact occurs. Rather than buckle under the pressure or simply revert to more familiar habits, it is important for higher education leaders to get creative and imagine how their institution might be able to change traditional processes to benefit from the unexpected black swan.

Black Swan Potential

According to the panelists, there are three areas of interest, as identified by the NMC’s Horizon Report, that could greatly affect higher education: net privacy, the network, and machine learning. Depending on institutional and societal preparedness, black swans can potentially lead toward both utopian and dystopian versions of the future. Thus, the best and worst case scenarios were each imagined and examined for each of the three hot-button technology topics.

Lev Gonick, CEO and co-founder of OneCommunity, led the discussion on the network and its potential. With the net as we know it about to celebrate its 50th year, Gonick predicted that changes would increasingly accelerate and that users would likely look back on the first 50 years as the most innocent, nascent, and utopian. Due to the tremendous source of potential for earning independent capital that the internet provides, it is likely that more and more devices and services will be brought onto the network, with 150 billion devices/machines to be connected to the network in the next 5-10 years alone. For colleges and universities, that means the shift from BYOD to BYOA may be more critical to effectively manage than ever.

In a perfect world, Gonick believes devices would tell the network all about a person’s activities to recommend activities for users and assist them with exercise, sleep, social engagements, and learning. With learning analytics still in their infancy today, it is possible that they will play a much richer future role in education to provide precise and highly personalized learning right from the network. Gonick even speculated that, with the advances in the genomics field, humans could take pills or use implants to maximize learning potential in the future.

On the dystopian side, Gonick was careful to note that while “the future is here,” it is also unevenly distributed. In order to stop the technological gap from growing, the network should be evenly distributed, but it is currently hard to envision the gap closing as the network continues to advance. On another note, learners always need time to absorb what they have learned, but with the network so prevalent, as Gonick put it, “the human need for private space is under assault.”

(Next page: Internet privacy and machine learning)