There has been no shortage of enthusiasm for the transformative potential of educational technology.

In 1922, Thomas Edison assured us that “the motion picture…will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Writing in 1972 to advise the Carnegie Commission on the role of technology in higher education Eric Ashby forecast that: “The technology … that has had such a profound impact on American society generally in recent decades promises to have powerful influences on higher education as well.” Further, Thomas Friedman in writing about MOOCs in 2013 claimed that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty—by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have.”

With so many examples of premature excitement, all of us working at the nexus of technology and education must be continually cautious in gauging the future impact of learning technology trends.

Two Trends with the Most Potential

With that caveat in place, I will nevertheless venture that there are some technologies proving an out-sized impact on teaching and learning today, and the continuous improvement they facilitate ensure they will also have a profound ongoing effect.

Adaptivity: The most important of these is the application of adaptive tutors to personalize the teaching of math and the sciences.

Typically accessed through the internet through laptop computers and mobile devices, these adaptive tutors provide students with high frequency, high quality feedback at very low marginal cost, allowing large numbers of students to pursue complex curricula to mastery.

These technologies, powered by ongoing advances in artificial intelligence, continue to grow in capability, providing students and their teachers with unprecedented insight into individual learning patterns.

Guided by computer tutors with deep understanding of their particular strengths and weaknesses, students can more easily focus on steadily mastering skills and concepts in their zone of proximal development, working at their own pace to ensure mastery before advancing. Backed by this computer support, teachers can more easily shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”, focusing on providing personal attention to struggling students instead of trying to move whole classes through complex material in synch.

Even as they grow in capability, these technologies continue to fall in cost. Though their initial development costs can run into the millions, once deployed at internet-scale the marginal cost of helping each additional student is negligible. The rapid growth in cloud capabilities have streamlined the ability to offer courses built around these technologies, replete with “just-in-time” instructional resources and integrated support services that can serve hundreds of thousands—even millions—of students from around the world.

Why Adaptivity has Massive Potential: The adaptive approach is destined for the long haul because it addresses directly the core challenge facing higher education today: “How can we increase access to high-quality education while dramatically decreasing its cost?”

(Next page: Scalability trends and the future)


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