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16 Ways the 2016 Horizon Report Indicates That Higher Ed is Undergoing a Seismic Shift



“The Only Constant is Change” – Heraclitus

Most of us in higher education realize that the winds of change are blowing strong. Some of the gusts may be damaging, but some can also provide a breath of fresh air and promise.

While there are many who decry the push for higher education to better prepare the workforce, there are others who embrace the potential for our institutions to help endow people of all ages with the vital innovative and creative skills our societies and businesses require in order to thrive here in the 21st century.

While higher ed reels from the double punch of a decreasing pool of traditional aged students and increasing expectations in terms of providing measurable value for student spending and borrowing, the rapidly evolving capabilities that technology offers is layering yet another set of challenges on our universities' door steps. The 2016 NMC Horizon report for Higher Education suggests many ways in which technology can play an increasingly productive role in higher education.

I find it hard to imagine that I am the only one reading this report and thinking, “Wow, the pace of change keeps accelerating”. The petal is hitting the metal and we can either hang on for the ride, or try to get ahead of the curve.

That being said, one very welcome theme that repeats in the report is collaboration … students working with each other, with industry, with students in other schools, and more collaboratively with their professors.

Following are 16 entries from the report that, to my way of thinking, indicate significant upheavals in how universities teach students and how students are credentialed for what they learn. The theme here is CHANGE … significant changes in how professors and students interact, in what we expect from higher education, and the introduction of new tools that can radically alter our experience, and more.

THE FOCUS ON EMPLOYABILITY: “Rethinking how institutions work is a long-term impact trend that requires governments to prioritize major education reforms that help colleges and universities structure themselves around increasing the employability of their students”. Similarly, “The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) launched a governing body, the Bologna Process, to create policies that help institutions adapt their models to better support evolving student and workplace needs.” (p. 6)

MOVING AWAY FROM TRADITIONAL LEARNING SPACES: “All over the world, universities and colleges have been redesigning their learning spaces to accommodate the new pedagogies and active learning models described across a number of topics in this report. Traditional classroom setups that position rows of seats in front of a podium are being remodeled to facilitate deeper learning experiences and interactions.” (p. 7)

PROMOTING A CULTURE OF INNOVATION: “The contemporary workforce calls for employees that are agile, adaptable, and inventive and universities and colleges are increasingly revamping their existing programs and creating new ones to nurture these key skills.” (p. 8)

EXPONENTIAL GROWTH IN ENTREPRENEURIAL COURSES: “In the US alone, the number of formal entrepreneurial courses in higher education has grown exponentially over the past two decades with nearly 25% of today’s college students aspiring to be entrepreneurs.” (p. 8)

A HYBRID UNIVERSITY/INDUSTRY CULTURE: “The Shipley Center for Innovation at Clarkson University has a hybrid university/industry culture in which students work with faculty and business leaders to accelerate new ideas and turn them into products or services. Students have launched numerous successful ventures including designing a cold climate greenhouse that leverages renewable energy for an integrated food and waste management system, a technology that can change the lighting of a concert venue with every changing musical note, and an app that enables event attendees to order concession items directly to their seats.” (p. 9)

CHANGING MODELS OF DELIVERY: “Another feature of this trend is the emphasis on exploring alternate methods of delivery and credentialing in order to accommodate a rapidly increasing student population and the diversity of their needs. Emerging models, such as hybrid learning and competency-based education, are revealing the inefficiencies of the traditional system for nontraditional students.” (p. 10)

FACULTY ASSUMING THE ROLE OF STUDENTS: “At the University of Delaware, problem-based learning workshops train educators by putting them in the role of students. Faculty mirror the process their learners would go through to collaboratively solve complex societal problems and subsequently develop resources to better integrate the approach into their courses.” (p. 6)

THE POTENTIAL FOR THE ASSEMBLE-ON-THE-FLY CUSTOM DEGREE: “An interesting take on this trend has been described as adopting the “Education-as-a-Service” (EaaS) model, a delivery system that unbundles the components of higher education, giving students the option to pay for only the courses they want and need.” (p. 10)

A MOVE TO “DEEPER LEARNING”: “There is a growing emphasis in higher education on deeper learning approaches, defined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as the mastery of content that engages students in critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-directed learning.66 In order to remain motivated, students need to be able to make clear connections between the curriculum and the real world, and how the new knowledge and skills will impact them. Project-based learning,67 challengebased learning,68 inquiry-based learning,69 and similar methods are fostering more active learning experiences, both inside and outside the classroom. (p. 14)

A GROWING FOCUS ON MEASURING LEARNING: “In the consumer sector, data are routinely collected, measured, and analyzed to inform companies about nearly every aspect of customer behavior and preferences. A number of researchers and companies are working to design similar analytics that reveal patterns in learning-related behaviors to improve learning for individual students as well as across institutions.” (p. 16)

INNOVATIVE, SCALABLE BLENDED COURSE DESIGNS: “Advancing blended learning requires the promotion of scalable innovative course designs. Google has created opportunities for institutions to experiment with blended approaches through their Computer Science Capacity Awards program, which is funding the use of new course structures and technologies at eight universities during a three-year period.” (p. 19)

MORE DEGREES, LESS EMPLOYABILITY: “Today, a college degree no longer guarantees gainful employment. The Economic Policy Institute recently found that Americans under age 25 are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as other age groups.219 This issue is not localized; rising youth unemployment rates and labor market research about the global skills gap leave many concerned that current higher education systems do not prepare learners for the workplace’s rapid modernization.” (p. 32)

BRING YOUR OWN DEVICE: “… many students are entering the classroom with their own devices, which they use to connect to the institutions’ networks. While BYOD policies have been shown to reduce overall technology spending, they are gaining traction more so because they reflect the contemporary lifestyle and way of working.” (p. 36)

LEARNING ANALYTICS: “Institutions across the globe have recognized that the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching alienates both students struggling with specific concepts as well as those grasping the material more quickly than their peers. As learning analytics has matured, colleges and universities now have wide access to tools and large sets of data needed to begin personalizing the learning experience.” (p 38)

ADAPTIVE LEARNING: “There are an increasing number of initiatives bringing together private companies and education providers to shape the future of adaptive learning. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s personalized learning initiatives are some of the most active in this area. Their Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Grant Program (ALMAP) is one of several programs to drive progress in the field; it provides grants to colleges and universities to study adaptive learning platforms in over 20 courses through different pedagogical approaches.” (p 38)

VIRTUAL REALITY: “At Pennsylvania State University, engineering students tasked with virtually assembling an object completed the objective more efficiently when using the Oculus Rift VR headset and haptic glove, as compared to students who used a mouse-and-keyboard setup within a computer program. This experiment holds promise for incorporation of tactile elements within online courses to improve learning outcomes. Oculus Rift can also promote global student collaboration, enabling students to construct projects within the same virtual space by synchronizing their devices.” (p. 41)

AFFECTIVE COMPUTING: “… affective computers recognize emotional and behavioral signals that trigger a reactionary process. In higher education, a potential application of affective computing is in online learning situations wherein a computerized tutor reacts to facial indications of boredom from a student in an effort to motivate or boost confidence.” (p. 44)

Okay, so that last one was kind of disturbing. I believe in the vital importance of the human experience in teaching and learning. Of course, there's no sense sticking our heads in the sand. Just as I use a smart phone app to help me learn new songs on the guitar, I can see the logic of a programmatic tutor, but we'd darned well better continue to value the individual teacher, tutor, and coach for the unique, human side of the role that no technology should ever replace.

In any case, the 2016 Horizon report for Higher Education forebodes a great deal of change. Fortunately, many of these changes are evolving gradually, and being approached in learning settings where we can trial, measure and adapt them.

Change can be scary, but it is undeniably inevitable. Much thanks for the New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE for helping us stay informed about what's over the horizon!



  1. […] This depends on their purpose. If their purpose was broadening access to chunks of higher education, they’re a success: Coursera alone has more than four times as many students as the entire Australian higher education system. How Would Today’s Smartest Teens Overhaul Education? We Asked Them. 16 Ways the 2016 Horizon Report Indicates That Higher Ed is Undergoing a Seismic Shift. […]


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