Every year, Educause releases their Horizon Report (this year’s found here), a look at what technologies are affecting us, and are most likely to affect higher education in the next 1 to 5 years.

Last time I looked at what they saw as “highly-ranked trends.” This time I’m going to look at what they see as the “technologies to watch.”

In the Next 12 months (well… six now)

Electronic Books
They say: Publishing is finally getting e-books off the ground as people increasingly have access to devices that are amiable to the technology. They are encouraged by the advantages of  e-books, “from immersive experiences to support for social interaction.”

I agree that this is something that has to happen, but I think the report is overly optimistic about the timeframe. Between Amazon and Apple we’ve never been closer to a true electronic publishing model, though I’d like to point out that electronic copies of books are usually priced identically to their real-paper-and-ink siblings, which is something of a travesty and won’t exactly jump-start the industry. Convincing major textbook publishers to heavily invest in digital distribution in a market that they already control is going to be a very tough sell unless electronic books become the norm in popular markets. As portable/handheld operating systems become more intelligent, the advantages of electronic textbook formats will be obvious. In four to eight years, I can easily imagine students downloading all their texts for that semester the week before classes, and that would be pretty great.

They say: A clear majority of students possess smart phones, tablet computers, and other mobile devices that keep them connected to the internet 24/7.

We have the connectivity/networking down, and if everything goes the way it’s been going it’s only going to get better and faster. Going to college without a smart phone and/or tablet is going to be like growing up in a house in the 70s without a phone. It’s one of the biggest selling points for electronic books, and one of the biggest challenges for teachers to take advantage of.

In the Next Two to Three Years

Augmented Reality
They say: “[T]he addition of a computer-assisted contextual layer of information over the real world, creating a reality that is enhanced or augmented.” Not virtual reality, mind you, but multimedia stuck in a blender with every useful app you love to use on your smart phone. It’s Seadragon/Photosynth married to some GPS software while keeping Wikipedia as a mistress.

It’s also hard to explain exactly what they are looking at here. The internet is already an “augmented reality,” especially if you’re on a wireless device. “There’s an app for that,” we say, but educational software that takes good targeted advantage of the power of the net (as in, for a specific academic purpose) isn’t around, as far as I’m aware. The examples they give (e.g., information linking to real world objects/environments) would be really useful in a history or archeology class, but I don’t see the technology casting a very wide net. Part of the problem here is that it’s more than possible to make an application to assist with, say, basic geography, but there isn’t a realistic way for a single professor to code an application to assist her with her particular teaching situation—only what is available with the still basic tools available in a course management system. Again, I think seeing this in any significant way in two to three years is pretty optimistic. (The Seadragon/Photosynth demonstration at TED is as amazing now as it was when I watched it four years ago…)

Game-based learning
They say: They’re optimistic in games’ potential  “to foster collaboration, problem-solving, and procedural thinking .”


In the Next Four to Five Years

Gesture-based computing
They say: “[M]oves the control of computers from a mouse and keyboard to the motions of the body via new input devices.”

Microsoft’s Kinect is still a baby as far as this kind of technology is concerned, but it’s growing up fast. Forget that it’s sold as a gaming device (for the Xbox 360)—people were hacking this technology for their own purposes as soon as it came on the market, and (importantly) Microsoft seems to be fine with that.

Gesture-based computing has two huge advantages: One, it’s cool. Students and teachers alike will become more inclined to use tech-based learning if it’s fun and natural to play with. Hollywood went from computer nerds using DOS prompts, to laughable “virtual reality” hacking, to systems (minus the holographic technology, though we’re working on that, too) that manage to be both practical and sexy. Using a computer doesn’t have the stigma it once had. In fact, with a cool enough interface, quite the opposite. Two, the more natural the OS, the more engaging it is to use. Spending less time figuring out how the system works allows more time for actually using the tools. Obviously, this is something that Apple excels at: the success of their iProducts is attributed to their natural controls more than their slick hardware design sense. Get that kind of interaction in the classroom, hook it into a software learning environment, and you might even get students to look forward to class presentations. (Motion-tracking technology, like the Kinect system, has to become smarter, smaller, and usable at any distance… and this is actually happening, quickly.)

Learning analytics
They say: Data-mining for education.

Big Brother for education! It’s Carnivore, CCTV, Google Analytics, and student evaluations all rolled into a product that will all result in an educational dystopia!

Okay, probably not. Imagine if educators could use technology to accurately measure learning—see what’s working and what’s not, what pedagogies actually help (or not), monitor the depths of student engagement, and provide roadmaps to more effective instruction. Sounds great in theory, if not in practice. In practice, I admit to feeling… well, giggling-ly nervous? Surely a result of watching and reading too much dark science-fiction when I was younger. It all depends on who’s in control of the numbers, how much weight they’re given, and how objectively accurate the data is, I suppose. “Data-mining” has some pretty negative associations in the modern day.

The Horizon Report is fun to read. It’s interesting to try to look into possible futures, and how it’s affecting the present. It’s also interesting to see how most of what the Report talks about all connects to itself: Gesture-based educational games played on your tablet computer in the middle of the quad! I do recommend giving it a read if you can.