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Tech for teaching: five trends changing higher education

More than 1,000 years of formal university learning and teaching does not change quickly, or without a struggle. But we are starting to see some key tech trends engaging staff and students – and therein…

Entire universities may one day fit in students' pockets. KidzConnect

More than 1,000 years of formal university learning and teaching does not change quickly, or without a struggle. But we are starting to see some key tech trends engaging staff and students – and therein lies the secret to change!

Here are five key trends emerging across the global higher education sector.

1. Mobility

As we move forward, higher education will become increasingly mobile, resulting in students carrying their university “in their pockets”.

Mobile computing devices (such as smartphones and tablets) are more affordable, more accessible and easier to use than desktop computers. It won’t be long before batteries will last for days with no loss of efficiency.

Mobile devices provide more than enough functionality to serve as a primary computing device for learning, and are purchased in their billions across the globe.

Tablets, in particular, are hugely popular. A recent report in The Chronicle shows the number of US college students with a tablet has more than tripled in the last 12 months.

In the past three to four years, the small, low-cost software extensions for these devices (apps) have been the focus of development in terms of diversity, quality and volume.

Apps are available for a wide variety of uses, such as providing access to archived content in university libraries and course materials – as the video below, from America’s Duke University, illustrates

We will see many new and innovative education apps emerging very soon, and with them attempts by educators to embed those apps in their everyday teaching practices.

Even something as simple as being able to read course materials on the move (via a smartphone or tablet) has proven hugely beneficial.

Feeding into mobile universities is …

2. Connectivity

Cloud computing quietly unifies content and activity on the many devices people use in everyday life. Whether connecting at home, work, school, on the road or in social spaces, people increasingly rely on cloud computing to access their information and communities.

Connectivity has also become much more “aware”. The smartphone in our pocket knows where it is located and therefore where we are. These devices record our coordinates as we take photographs, talk to friends or post updates to social networking websites.

UBC Library

Cloud-based computing is making the embedding of computing gadgets of all kinds an essential part of our lives. Gradually, many educational applications will also rely on the cloud.

Learning design will increasingly take account of the potential for “learning locations” – in this sense, the world becomes the university campus.

Increasingly we’ll see location-based services utilised as a key learning tool in higher education. We’ll see the management student in a case-study location, the social worker in the community, the nurse in the hospital, the archaeologist in the field, still connected with university resources and a community of peer learners.

3. Openness

In the past few years we’ve seen an explosion of free, online educational resources, starting some ten years ago with MIT’s open courseware initiative.

Information is everywhere; the challenge is to make effective use of it for knowledge – and learning-creation.

Academics are beginning to explore new models that focus on embedding open resources while still protecting the academic value and acknowledging authorship.

One approach is that taken by Creative Commons, supplying easy-to-understand, “some rights reserved” licenses – an approach used by, among others, The Conversation.

In essence, content provided under such a license allows anyone to use the material however they like, providing they follow the guidelines created by the content provider.

Changhai Travis

University students are prolific. They create all the time “beyond the assignment”, often not realising they are learning.

They are simply enjoying the sharing and they are having fun. They know how to upload photographs, audio and video to the cloud.

Producing, classifying and interacting with these media has become just as important as the more passive tasks of searching, reading, watching and listening.

Universities are starting to understand how they can add real value to learning by using social media to provide a rich, engaging, two-way dialogue between their students and staff.

In the next few years we’ll see collaboration and contribution become increasingly open and fully engaged as a valid learning process.

4. Collective intelligence

“Crowdsourcing” is all about creating communities, usually temporary, to contribute ideas, links or materials that would otherwise remain undiscovered.

Crowdsourcing often fills in gaps that cannot be bridged by other means. In universities, this is currently taking the form of experimenting with massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

In the years to come we will see many more universities utilising social networking platforms to share information of common interest.

Ideas of “collective intelligence” are a big challenge to validated and accepted knowledge in universities, and traditional ways of teaching.

But increasingly academics are seeing the value of exploring crowdsourcing ideas for the future. Their students already do.

5. Virtual worlds

The furore about avatars in virtual worlds has died away a little. There was a time, just a few years ago, when commercial companies thought virtual worlds would be a place to promote and sell their products, such as cars or houses. In practice, this trend died away. But many educational institutions are still deploying avatars in new ways for learning.

Virtual world platforms that provide avatars with a space to interact are already available – including the well-known Second Life (see picture below) with more under development.

Second Life. Robin M. Ashford

The majority of higher education institutions are undertaking projects in virtual spaces. In Second Life there are thousands of educational experiments available and actively underway.

Early projects drew heavily on copying the real-world, especially reproducing physical campuses, but practices have gradually given way to more experimental ventures.

These take advantage of the unique opportunities afforded by virtual worlds and other immersive digital environments.

For example, The Media Zoo at Leicester in the UK created ancient worlds for archaeology students to visit from the 21st Century. The same initiative enables psychology students to practise evacuation of an oil rig in the event of a fire, and offers virtual genetics laboratories to ease pressure on expensive physical labs.

As we move forward, we’ll see universities increasingly use virtual spaces with avatar students and teachers for innovative teaching, learning and research projects.

The virtual world will continue enabling us to do what cannot be done in the real world, providing platforms to best serve the learning need.

Professor Gilly Salmon was a member of the panel for NMC Technology Outlook > Australian Tertiary Education 2012-2017, which was launched on May 10, 2012. She would like to acknowledge the collaborative panel and process as an inspiration for this piece.

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25 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    It would be really interesting to find out more about how technology is being used in the classroom.

    The 'bring your own device' movement, for example, is pretty intriguing - it often involves teachers and students interacting digitally in the classroom. Students might text the teacher responses to a question, so the teacher has a clear picture of what everyone's thinking.

    Do these innovations just enhance conventional teaching, or do they change education more fundamentally? What are the benefits and risks?

    1. Gilly Salmon

      Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning Transformations) at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Hello James and all,
      technology has always been used in classrooms, especially schools (the slate for example was the ultimate personal device, and looks remarkably like an ipad don't you think?) , but the culture of learning face to face and in seried ranks is very strong. In universities there's a very wide range of techologies- personal devices, presentational devices, audience response systems and so on, most would not really have cvonsidered to have been tranfromational for learning design or delivery, though the 'flip classrooms' ideas are most interesting IMHo at the moment.

    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Gilly Salmon

      Thanks Gilly for the very interesting article, and your response - good point!

      I guess innovations like the Internet and interactive whiteboards are sometimes spruiked as transformational, but don't end up being so. You can understand it - schools and teachers are under pressure to deliver day-to-day, and don't have time or resources to explore how these technologies can be used to enhance learning.

      I know several schools that bought laptops for every student, but teachers didn't know what to do with them - so they sat locked away in cupboards. Then before they knew it all the students were bringing their own laptops and devices anyway.

  2. Citizen SG


    Lectures are increasingly being delivered online but the evidence that i have looked at is equivocal as to its efficacy (at least in the health sciences anyway). The question that I could not find an answer for is what type of online lectures are being delivered. If it is a simple reproduction of a lecturer banging on for two hours on a topic it is no surprise that students might tune out.
    The opportunity with online learning is that creative interactive tasks can be embedded into a lecture to…

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    1. Gilly Salmon

      Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning Transformations) at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Hi Sean, professional and practice based learning such as yours has typically used lectures as a way of 'getting over' a large amount of conceptual, scientific or theoetical material , often considered a pre requisite in many learning and teaching systems., sometimes for demonstration. Such things are gradually being replaced by videos which have a number of advantages - replay, selection, flexibility, i.e. personalisation, catch up ;revision, I suspect that the face to face elements of these will gradually get replaced for these reasons. My experience (e.g. in medicine) is that far from being 'resistant, many students are demanding them. But its not the whole story of online learning, and not in itself transformational.

    2. Meg Thornton


      In reply to Gilly Salmon

      I'm currently a part-time student, and the university I'm at (Murdoch, over in WA) offers a lot of its lecture content online via a recording system called Lectopia. I don't use it.

      I don't use it because I have a hearing impairment, and this means if I download the podcast, I have trouble making sense of what I'm hearing unless I'm concentrating extremely hard in an environment without too many external distractions. I need to see the person speaking (or have subtitles available) to make…

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    3. Citizen SG


      In reply to Meg Thornton

      That's a really pertinent point, lectopia is quite primitive - Unis should really be considering upgrading the standard of their online product as in my experience it is pretty dodgy, a real limiting factor in its uptake.
      Most unis will accommodate students with disabilities quite well. Have you contacted murdoch equity? they may be able to sort something out, even if it's the lecturer giving you the 'script':
      Phone: (08) 9360 6084


  3. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    The opening line of this article is audacious, on at least 2 counts. 1,000 years predates the commonly accepted date for the emergence of the oldest European university in continuous existence, the University of Bologna in 1088. So to what might this refer?: 'More than 1,000 years of formal university learning and teaching . . . '

    Secondly, during that time printing was invented in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg by at least 1450. Printing changed society significantly, as Eisenstein (1997 [1979…

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    1. Gilly Salmon

      Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning Transformations) at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Hi Gavin,
      Ok! 900 years+ since Bologna was established (but I expect they were practising before that?)
      . One key aspect of the printing press was the first form of massification of (authoritative) knowledge wasn't it...?
      Now we have a much wider form of massification - with contribution and 'crow-sourcing' ...and like the printing press, knowledge is emancipation dont you think?

    2. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Gavin - I would agree with you if we were applying past value systems to our era. But we are not, today the global community has evolved through to a new thought processes and values.
      Last agrian era values were dominated by;
      - Obey higher authority, do what you're told
      - Faithful to the perceived truth
      - Everything in it’s proper place
      - Sacrifice self for future reward
      - Feel guilty when not conforming to group norms
      - Control impulsivity & respond to guilt
      - Enforce principles and righteous…

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  4. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    This trend will inevitably lead to a revolution in education foreseen in many futurist novels and foresight exercises bear this reality is probable.
    Prof. Sugata Mitra acting as Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, UK. has developed with his "hole in the all" experiments a revolutionary way for K1-12 to learn using all the tools above.
    This radical approach goes to the heart of learning itself. Allowing the…

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    1. Gilly Salmon

      Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning Transformations) at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Paul- I dont think the pathways are quite 'inevitable'.. there are many possible futures for higher education, some more preferred and viable than others. Mitra's work is great isn't it...but he found that 'self organising' education was typical of children of a certain age... many of us have to 'relearn small groups and self determined independent learning later in life after its been 'schooled' out of us...I know i did!

    2. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Gilly Salmon

      Gilly - Just quietly I hope we get what we deserve. It really depends on the influence of the silent / bboomer genrations lingering affect on academia and management. Gen X, Y and Z influencers now and the culture they develop. Projecting the exponential growth, profitability model and third world of higher learning predilection. We may be left floundering in the wake of the third world. As it is, the cost / value ratio of Australian qualifications is plummeting.
      My optimist side says we can change course and direction, rearranging the 200 year old English / Oxford University model. It is after all a relic of the agrian era, just like the "practice of law" and their rituals.
      Given globally we are automating jobs left right and centre, the pathway leading to change is inevitable.
      Will higher education in Australia be competitive to the point of peak numbers of foreign students last decade. We shall see, if " ... pathways are quite 'inevitable' or business as usual.

  5. Nick Osbaldiston

    Lecturer in Sociology at Federation University Australia

    Advocates of technology innovation in the lecture theatre seem hell bent on getting change and delivering powerful ideas that the world is vastly different now - and that people learn differently somehow.

    I'd like to point out that while we have these wonderful advances in technology and so on, we still only have 24hours in a day, and we still only have certain capacities to do things. Advocates seem to forget that delivering online content is time consuming. Lecturers are not just teachers…

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    1. Jack Arnold


      In reply to Gilly Salmon

      Hi Gilly thank you for a thoughtful & thought provoking article.

      Certainly the Internet is the future for Australian tertiary studies, except the loss of personal interaction seems a problem. Perhaps residential schools may suffice. Then the Internet allows personal interaction but cannot replace face to face inspiration from either teachers or fellow students.

      The best student inspiration we found was a good looking female teacher patting a recalcitrant student on the shoulder when that student made any academic achievement. (oh dear ... No longer PC!!!)

    2. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Nick Osbaldiston

      Nick - "Advocates seem to forget that delivering online content is time consuming" how true if the system of delivering remained the same.
      May I remind you how a Newspaper recently shifted all editorial off shore, sacking hundreds in the process. Saving time and money. Automation of these systems is their power.
      Using just one world class lecturer and they can deliver enormous value to innumerable students worldwide. Be supported by a combination of automated responses and cheap professionals in developing countries.
      We live in a different era, this is a world soon to meet "singularity" head on, we need to wake up.

    3. Charles Lawson

      Law academic

      In reply to Gilly Salmon

      Gilly I think Nick deserves an answer that actually has some real content. What exactly do you mean when you say "prototyping technologies that add value to learning whilst reducing staff time" and "the high value low cost approach has always been my preferred route"? Perhaps you might also direct us to the evidence that shows your preferred technology and approach leads to a better learning outcome for students (however you want that defined). While I'm a great fan of technology, I'm less of a fan of technology just for the sake of technology (perhaps a fault of being outcomes focussed rather than process focussed).

    4. Jonathan Powles

      Associate Professor and Director, Teaching and Learning Centre at University of Canberra

      In reply to Charles Lawson

      Gilly's reply made perfect sense to me, Charles. "Technologies that add value to learning whilst reducing staff time" seems to pick up the directions Paul and Sean flag, with technology enabling self-directed learning and throwing the responsibility back on the students to engage with the material, and perhaps with each other, rather than to be passive consumers of information provided by a lecturer.

      You say you are outcomes-focussed rather than process focussed. But isn't learning fundamentally…

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    5. Jonathan Powles

      Associate Professor and Director, Teaching and Learning Centre at University of Canberra

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Jack, your comment highlights a key division in this debate. For some in the modern world, ICT media provide means to enhance and extend personal interaction and inspriation. For others, no matter how hard they try, they are always "talking to a computer", not to the person at the other end of the link.

      Look carefully at the language and metaphors we use here. Skype, Facetime and other applications are, precicesly, "face-to-face" technologies. And, Jack, Second Life allows both you and me to become good-looking female teachers and pat our students on their shoulders, if we wish.

    6. Nick Osbaldiston

      Lecturer in Sociology at Federation University Australia

      In reply to Jonathan Powles

      Sure Gilly we could 'prototype' new technologies but we already have as lecturers fairly good anecdotal evidence that new technologies are highly time consuming. I'm not slating them by any stretch though I think we need to consider long and hard the real benefits of moving more fully into the cyber world (remember Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park - everyone kept wondering if they could they never stopped to question if they should), is there really anything terribly wrong with quiet study in the library…

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    7. Citizen SG


      In reply to Nick Osbaldiston

      This is worth a look:

      It's an example of a little more time spent on a traditional lecture reaching an unlimited amount of students. In the past, via the lectopia or camtasia format, online lectures tended to be clunky and suffer as many flaws as the live thing. I think as adoption of better recording modalities becomes more commonplace online technologies will reveal a successful pedagogy.
      I too am cynical, the casual lit search i did on this earlier this year revealed that online technologies, thus far, haven't demonstrated increased learning in the student (in the health sciences anyway), but with the current intersection of technology with suitable platforms (tablets, itunesU and the like) I think the future is positive.

    8. Charles Lawson

      Law academic

      In reply to Jonathan Powles

      Thanks Jonathan. I share your concerns about measuring learning. For those advocating better learning practices they have the onus of defining and providing the measures and evidence (whatever it might be) that their technology fix is an improvement. If, as Nick points out, there is all this extra work then presumably it has to be for something better? As Nick eloquently states "everyone kept wondering if they could [but] they never stopped to question if they should".
      And I'm still unsure what you and Gilly mean by "add value to learning" and I'm uncertain how your responses articulate a meaning. Given Gilly is in a senior position to do something about these matters her articulation would probably be quite insightful and useful.

    9. Nick Osbaldiston

      Lecturer in Sociology at Federation University Australia

      In reply to Charles Lawson

      I agree Charles, there's alot of great promise delivered in rhetoric, but we haven't seen the on the ground stuff really deliver anything that dramatic. The online lecture which Jonathan links to is fine, but is it really going to revolutionise the university degree? The 'one billion' thing at MIT is a real eye opener, but it would appear that most if not all Universities are keen to remain bricks and mortar unis.

      Advocates also appear to be sold on the idea that students are 'demanding' these…

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  6. Sarah Zike

    Director, Business Development

    Paul Richards, you provide an excellent articulation of the differentiation between the liberal tradition in teaching and current trends, and I think your list shows that we are certainly moving toward (or perhaps through) a constructive model in education. The thing that is most striking for me is that, as you mention, responsibility is dispersed--no longer in the hands of the sage on the stage or the bringer of knowledge. Students are able to interact through these new modes to bring about not…

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