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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The future has arrived -- and there’s plenty more to come. Chuck Dziuban, director of the research initiative for teaching effectiveness at the University of Central Florida, has a suggestion.

“Take two [different] earbuds, put one in each ear and play two different songs,” Dziuban said during a panel this month on the future of digital learning. “What you’re hearing is complexity. You’re experiencing much more than the sum of those two songs. You’ve got noise, you’ve got interference. It’ll blow your mind.”

Prepare to be bombarded: that’s the takeaway from the presentation at the Online Learning Consortium's Accelerate conference. Panelists from several institutions offered theories and predictions about the effect of still-developing technologies on the academic experience, as well as the challenges institutions will face implementing and adapting to radical innovation.

On the Horizon

Tony Picciano, professor and executive officer of the Ph.D. program in urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, outlined the evolution of online courses from the first wave of asynchronous, text-based offerings in the 1990s to a second wave around 2000 with blended and hybrid models and a couple more waves culminating in the current post-MOOC landscape. The latest wave is on its way, Picciano argues, and could include:

  • Nanotechnology
  • Early artificial intelligence
  • Massive cloud computing
  • Low-cost, high-quality and digital media animation

Once those developments take hold, Picciano said, even more radical ones are on the horizon for the 2030s and beyond. Quantum computing could transform the typical data storage capacity from terabytes to zettabytes and yottabytes. Biosensing could place computers inside people’s minds and make decisions based on interpretations of thoughts. Artificial intelligence will become fully developed, and robotics will become commonplace.

Challenges Ahead

Mary Niemiec, associate vice president for distance education at the University of Nebraska and director of University of Nebraska Online Worldwide, sees money as a primary concern as digital learning expands its reach. Though technology in theory improves efficiency and reduces long-term costs, short-term investments can be daunting.

“The concern is, how do we move forward, use these innovations, create and take advantage of machine learning and AI and virtual reality, without increasing the cost of an education at least initially?” Niemiec said. She’s looked at reallocation of existing funds as well as public-private partnerships, such as several taking place to enable virtual reality initiatives at her campus’s medical school. Other solutions will need to emerge, she said.

Scale can be difficult to achieve, especially when instructors want to maintain control of a ballooning volume of course content, according to Patsy Moskal, associate director for the research initiative for teaching effectiveness at the University of Central Florida. Some institutions -- particularly smaller privates -- won’t have easy access to the kinds of partnerships that can make scale a reality, Niemiec said.

“We may end up seeing more consortium-type work and more collaboration,” Niemiec said. “There are solutions. It takes creativity. It takes being strategic to look at how we’re going to pay for it. We have to make sure it’s mission consistent, and that we’re not just doing it because we’re chasing that shiny little brass ring.”

It’s also conceivable that technology from overzealous vendors could distract from the essential mission of higher ed as the line between virtual and reality blurs, said Karen Swan, professor of educational leadership at University of Illinois at Springfield. Adaptive learning, for instance, has existed since the 1970s, but the speed and interconnectedness now possible change the game, she said. The goal should always remain focused on students, particularly when they need remedial attention.

“The technology should not be driving what you do in instruction. We should look at them as resources,” Moskal said. “What is the problem or the issue or what you are trying to achieve in your instruction, and then go look for appropriate technologies that can help you most efficiently and with the highest level of instruction achieve some of those improvements.”

Hope for Resurgence

Swan sees potential for state institutions to embrace technology for cost-saving purposes, while elite colleges remain true to their roots and avoid large-scale changes. Picciano said he sees a “very rough five or 10 years coming down the pike” for institutions outside those two groups as cost-saving pressures mount.

Perhaps the solution is to think bigger and interrogate existing assumptions, Dziuban argues. If students in adaptive learning environments don’t see the concept of semesters as vital, for instance, why not re-examine the structure of an academic year? If technology threatens to reshape higher education, perhaps higher education could reshape itself in the process, he said.

"It has to be strategic, you have to create the vision, you have to create the mission," Niemiec said. "Resources have to be used effectively."

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