How Will Technology Affect Higher Education In The Future?

While the future of Higher Ed technology is up for discussion, one thing is for certain: change is inevitable. Just as new technologies change the way we communicate, do business, and entertain ourselves, so too will it change how professors teach and how students learn, albeit likely at a slightly slower pace. We recently sat down with Dr. Peyton Helm, interim Chancellor at the University of Massachusetts: Dartmouth, to discuss how he believes advancements in technology will affect Higher Education in the future.

Transitional Technology

Whether it is necessarily true or not, Higher Ed has a reputation for being slow to adapt to emerging technology. Luckily, it only takes a few early adopters for the rest of the Higher Ed community to take notice. Dr. Helm proposed that while some universities may have the resources to devote to experimenting with new technology, the safest strategy is for institutions to stay just behind the bleeding edge. The key is to “realize that almost all technology is transitional technology” as you evaluate whether it’s right for your institution, Dr. Helm explained.

“I remember very, very well how CD-Roms were regarded as a miraculous way you could put the entire Encyclopedia Britannica on a couple of CD-Roms, but that was clearly a transitional step along the way to the world wide web.”

– Dr. Peyton Helm

Although many innovations in Higher Ed have been called disruptive, not all have had the impact that their loudest proponents were hoping for. “The flipped classroom, online learning, and MOOCs are really powerful innovations in how we teach, but I think they’re very transitional,” Helm said. “I think we’ll find that 5 years from now, 10 years from now, MOOCs will seem quaint.” This sentiment seems to be shared by much of the Higher Ed community, as MOOCs and other “disruptive” forms of e-learning have eventually found their place within the mold of Higher Education rather than flipping the field on its head.

Pedagogical Advancements

As a former professor, Dr. Helm was very interested in how technology will affect pedagogical strategies. “If you think about education through ancient times, through the middle ages, into the enlightenment, into the 20th century, into the early 21st century, it hasn’t changed that much; you show up at a particular place, you sit down, and you listen,” Dr. Helm said. Despite this, recent advances in technology have helped researchers study how students learn in order to adjust pedagogical strategies to match. “What we’ve learned about how people learn is that there’s a process and there’s a cycle and there are ways that you can gain that cycle to make learning more efficient,” Dr. Helm explained. “Technology has advanced a long way from the highlighter pen, but the ways in which we use it, especially when informed by metacognition, can make teaching much more effective, not to mention pleasant.”

The real key to impactful learning, Dr. Helm said, is to provide students learning opportunities that require their input and interaction. As an example,  he mentioned an activity he offered to his students in a course on ancient history. “I just happened to have a complete set of hoplite armor; shield, spear, armor helmet, greaves, sword. Everything. Don’t ask me how I happened to have it, but I did. For students who chose this activity, it was about ‘what was it like to be a greek warrior?’” Although his approach was relatively low-tech, Dr. Helm acknowledged that similarly impactful learning environments could be created with the use of emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. “We can use high tech and low tech to make much better pedagogy high impact. High impact is the goal.”

A Look Into The Future

I think there’s going to be increased efficiency, seamlessness, that is going to make the administrative interface for students much less of a hassle.

While many emerging technologies in Higher Ed may seem fairly tame compared to what is happening in the fields of aerospace engineering or robotics, Dr. Helm suggested that this may not be the case for very long. “I think there’s going to be increased efficiency, seamlessness, that is going to make the administrative interface for students much less of a hassle 10 or 20 years from now than it is today. The concept of a one-stop shop has never been completely effectively realized, but I think that it can be in the future with a chip on a card or maybe embedded in your skin.”

Artificial intelligence is another hot topic for discussion in relation to its potential uses in Higher Ed. Last year, our CEO, Nuno Couto, mentioned that advances in A.I. may lead to artificial professors in the classroom that are capable of teaching. Dr. Helm seemed to agree. “I was in a meeting with one of my staff the other day, so I just put my phone down on the table and I asked her a question. Before she could answer, Siri popped up with an answer because the phone was sitting there and, for some reason, Siri thought she was invited into the conversation.” The mainstream success of A.I. in smartphones and home assistant devices shows just how impactful A.I. technology could be when adapted to Higher Ed’s needs.

What Needs to Change

While emerging technologies are often the primary focus of discussion, there are a lot of traditional technologies in Higher Ed that are in need of updating. When asked what might fade away or be replaced with something more effective in the near future, Dr. Helm said that email would be the first to go. “Email came along when I was probably in my late 30’s and I thought ‘wow this is cool, this is efficient,’ and just like anything else we overuse it and abuse it and turn it into a curse.” Instead, Helm predicted that social media and blogs are going to continue to grow and evolve as a way for students, faculty, and university staff to communicate. “Anything that involves groups working together online is going to evolve and is going to be a big part of the future.”

Dr. Helm also expressed that, while cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important, a new approach will need to be found to get Higher Ed institutions significantly ahead of the cyber threats set against them. “The number of cyberattacks is just stunning,” he said. “We need to come up with some sort of silver bullet that’s going to protect data. I don’t know what that would look like. I can tell you what it’s not going to be; it’s not going to be having to remember six dozen passwords and it’s not going to be two-factor verification because it’s just too frustrating.”

Communicating with Faculty

With a slew of new technologies being introduced into Higher Ed comes the need for IT departments to properly convey their benefits to users and train them effectively. When asked if he had any advice for Higher Ed tech professionals to make systems implementations go more smoothly, Dr. Helm suggested that they focus on the “basic concepts of customer service” and that they “learn who their customers are.”

Attempt to communicate the value of your project to them from their perspective

While training users is a daunting process, there is one key point to remember according to Dr. Helm. “The one thing that faculty fear more than anything is looking stupid.” He explained that you “never ever want to put them in a situation where they think you’re making them look stupid” because they won’t be willing to work with you. Instead, attempt to communicate the value of your project to them from their perspective; show them how they will benefit directly from using the new technology and empower them during the learning process. “It’s not about proving to the end users how smart you are and how dumb they are about the technology,” Dr. Helm said. “You need to somehow set up ways of appealing to what motivates them. What motivates them is often that they want to be effective scholars, not technological early adopters, and they certainly don’t want to look stupid. So, those are the levers that you want to use.”

Predicting the Future

While no one can know for sure how technology will affect Higher Ed in the future, there’s enough evidence out there to make educated predictions. The key is to remember that while not every emerging technology is going to be disruptive to Higher Ed, it may end up being a transition to something that is. “Anything we do is always on the road to the next thing,” Dr. Helm said, “and we can never be completely confident of what that next thing is.”

We would like to thank Dr. Helm for taking the time to speak with us. If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Helm, you can follow him on Twitter @ichancellorhelm.

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