2016: some predictions

The trends we expect to see develop in edtech, higher ed, and at the OU through the year

Making predictions is a bit of a dicey endeavour. So it might be more accurate to say that as a team, we are keen watchers of trends.

With our first six months under our belt, and looking to 2016 for new projects and fresh successes, we thought we would have a go at teasing out the trends that we are most interested in, and the impact we think work in these areas could have. The team is rather divided on whether there will be a ‘next big thing’ in the realm of edtech. But we are agreed that ‘impact’ denotes the trends’ ability to disrupt the higher education sector, rather than our own institution.

Some of the trends we have been watching for some time, and we are either cheered or disappointed by how much we think they’re going to move. Other trends we think are set for a breakthrough year, and that 2017 will see swift development in those areas.

Learning Innovation predictions for 2016

Kristoff says: ‘US campus will set up shop in the UK.’

I think by the end of 2016 a major US-based university will announce plans to open a permanent micro campus in the UK for students wanting to study their curriculum from here.

I’m basing this on Stanford University’s 2015 launch of the Stanford Ignite programme. This programme from the Graduate School of Business is offered  on campus in Silicon Valley, as well as in Bangalore, Beijing, London, New York City, São Paulo, and Santiago.

Stanford has called it the ‘democratisation of access‘ to the university’s education, but I think we’re witnessing the start of the next wave of major disruption in the HE sector. I don’t know if this will lead to US- or UK-certified degrees, but like MOOCs, will we be in it to win it?

He also thinks: ‘A UK bricks and mortar university will announce that it now has more online students than campus-based students.’

I think by the end of 2016 a university from the UK will announce that one of their for-fee online courses is now more popular than any of their traditional offline ones. This trend has already hit the states with Brigham Young University-Idaho ‘now serving more students off campus than on campus for the first time in its history‘.

What would this sort of thing mean for the OU if it happened in the UK? Will we be seeing more like-for-like competition for the OU from other UK providers?

Stewart says: ‘Two 20-year-olds will drop out of university and build a radically new digital learning platform.’

This won’t be just another learning platform with a better user experience, a responsive mobile interface, a more social experience, or even an adaptive learning platform. This is will be different. It will challenge and redefine the fundamental concept and foundations of university education. It will radically reconceive what education in a rapidly changing knowledge economy world means and how it is delivered. Sometime during 2016 they will release it – to their friends at first – and then the world.

And when we see it, it will be so simple, so obvious, and we’ll all say: ‘Of course! Why didn’t we think of that?’  But we could never have thought of it, we’re too encumbered by our own experience and world views. It won’t be an established company, or a university, or a big edtech start up backed by venture capital that disrupts education. It will be two dropouts from a place like Stanford, who are hacked off with their own university experience. You have been warned!

Liz thinks: ‘Personalised learning is on the verge of a breakthrough.’

I think this year will see personalised learning emerge into fully fledged projects, pilots and trials with real students. The massive leaps forward in actionable analytics, and the growing respect for the potential data has to shed light on the needs, preferences and requirements of individuals means that we will be able to provide a student (any student, not just a struggling student) with an education that is customised to them. I really don’t agree with anyone who says that personalised learning is a swift way to drive us to the bottom and stay there. I don’t think that attitude does anyone credit, students or academic staff.

Rather, I think it emphasises the delicate relationship between learning and teaching. Students don’t ‘want it easy’, and teachers feel a responsibility towards to empowering students and giving them the confidence to tackle complex material with confidence. Personalised learning means understanding our students more than ever before – knowing them and putting them at the centre of what we do. Understanding the way they build communities in online spaces, understanding how they behave, how they make choices. Understanding that when we talk about multi-platform we should be talking about shoddy, intermittent connectivity and not just mobile readiness. Making them truly digitally literate. Personalised learning isn’t just about adapting learning materials to keep them current and relevant, although that is exciting and the potential for success is enormous. It’s about pushing ourselves even harder to really understand what it means to be teaching changing people in a changing space, and pushing ourselves to be better at it.

David says: ‘Some progress in the realm of blockchain and cryptocurrency.’

I think we’ll see blockchain-like technology applied to open badge infrastructure, like Mozilla Backpack. Blockchain, the cryptographic technology underlying Bitcoin, offers people who don’t know or trust each other the ability to create a record of who owns what. It has potential beyond digital currencies. It could mean badges that are used to evidence continuing professional development or credit bearing study, making it easier to transfer credit from one institution to another. This more secure way of issuing badges could mean that they are revoked, or expire, if learners don’t recertify.

Andrew says: ‘Tablet usage will decline to an almost trivial level.’

Recent years have demonstrated a decline in the number of tablets being sold and used, and 2016 looks to be the fifth straight year of falling sales. The number of new tablets on show at the electronic industry showpiece CES in 2015 had already indicated a decrease in consumer appetite for tablets, with no manufacturer showing anything of note. Even the release of the iPad Pro could be interpreted as a move by Apple to address a fall in the sale of iPads, rather than an attempt to bring something new to users.

Although Samsung didn’t start the ‘phablet’ trend, it certainly offered the first truly commercially successful large phone/tablet hybrid when it released the Note. This trend has continued, but has also seen smartphones increase in size, specifically usable screen size, in order to keep up. The average phone screen size is almost an inch larger than it was just three years ago and the increase in size is a trend that is is continuing. Even budget Android smartphones can now be expected to have a screen size of at least 4.7 inches. Almost everyone upgrades their phone every 1-2 years, so the improvements in the technology will bed in much faster than tablets, where customers only buy these devices rarely.

Meanwhile, the improvements in pixel density of smartphone screens makes these devices capable of handling imagery, videos and other media content at the kinds of levels that tablets simply do not, and levels that most large screen devices, including laptops, only dream of. It enables developers to put high-end games and content onto the small devices we always have in our pockets. Whereas once it was questioned why anyone would want to view videos on a phone, it’s almost a question no of why would anyone bother to get their tablet out of the bag when they can quickly load the content up on the phone. Personally, I’m using my phone in ever increasing regularity and my iPad is almost dusty from non-use. My Nexus 7 hasn’t been charged in months and I haven’t even needed to think about doing so, as it’s only 1.7 inches bigger than my phone.

The other thing driving change is the sheer power that smartphones now offer in terms of computational capability. Why bother with the big, cumbersome devices if your nimble, light smartphone can do as good (if not a better) job? There is one other major contributing factor – laptops are no longer laptops, they are hybrid tablets. The latest array of devices hitting the market, exemplified by Microsoft’s Surface Book, are the sign of the future – devices that work like a laptop but which have detachable touchscreens. Need a quick, low power device that can handle simple tasks on the go? Then just detach your screen. Need to tackle a big task and need the power? Then dock the device to take advantage of the more powerful chips and batteries and physical keyboards. The increased popularity of such devices, doubled with the drastically falling price of these pieces of hardware, means they are firmly encroaching on what was tablet territory. Why pay £700 for a 128GB iPad when you can get a fully fledge high-end hybrid laptop for just another £85 more?

Impact on students and us

So, what does this mean for students, and for us? Well, it means we need to be smarter about the types of content we create and the way that this adapts to screen realty. Whereas once we thought students would use a desktop in general, occasionally using a tablet for video or simple tasks, more increasingly we will see smartphones being used instead. This will mean we need to be smarter about user interfaces and the types of tasks we expect our students to complete on devices. We need to get familiar with small screen design. It also means we need to do more testing and research, as we simply don’t know enough about how our students interface with smartphones or what they would prefer to use them for. It’s not good enough to say people don’t use them – we simply haven’t offered the platforms or content where they would have been able to, remembering that the devices have only been capable of handling these sorts of things for around 4-5 years. We simply do not have the wealth of analytics we require to make an informed decision. So, we need to look outside of educational usage and look at social media and other uses, such as gaming, where mobiles have been the target devices for quite some time.

I still think tablets will get used, but I believe another year of declining sales, with people not replacing faulty devices or decreasing their use of their tablet due to ageing software, will mean a vast drop in the usage figures. We will need to keep an eye on the data coming out of  our VLE and the number of hits being registered against such devices. Smartphones are continuing to grow in size – both physical and in sales volume and I am certain will become the main alternative to the desktop/laptop for our students, and possibly even the default device within a few years, depending on our content distribution strategy.

Here’s another prediction for free – ‘Spotify for learning’.

Students creating their own learning ‘playlists’, from informal and formal courses, modules and artefacts, and receiving recommendations tailored just for them. Lifelong learning permeating the every day…

What do you think? Are we bang on target or wildly off? Talk to us in the comments below, or follow us on on Twitter.