The NMC Horizon Report: 2016 Higher Education Edition was released in February as a joint effort of the New Media Consortium (NMC) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI). According to the NMC’s press release, this is the thirteenth edition of the report and represents an ongoing research initiative that includes technology trend-oriented research reports on issues in K12 education, community colleges and education in Asia, Europe, and Australia. NMC’s global reach is explained on the homepage for Horizon.
The NMC was founded in 1993 by a coalition of technology and publishing companies, including Apple, Adobe, Sony, and Prentice-Hall, who in 1994 joined with an alliance of universities from across the U.S. to encourage discussion and debate on the implications of technology for schools, universities, and society (The New Media Centers Initiative: A Strategy for Fostering Interactive Media in Higher Education, 1993; The New Media Consortium, n.d.). The ELI is a similarly committed coalition of higher education technologists, educators, and technology leaders that has focused on sharing trends and best practices related to learners, pedagogical principles and practices, and learning technologies.
The Horizon Report’s release is eagerly anticipated, read, praised, and even critiqued by a very broad array of technology leaders, technologies, and educators in the traditional higher education sector, as well as by those in the business, government, and independent sectors. It no doubt generates considerable thought and debate regarding implications for both policy and educational practice. The discussion here will focus on the current and recent Horizon Reports from the perspective of leaders and practitioners in online, continuing, and professional education.
Overview of Report
The report is clearly written and methodically organized, and therefore provides a surprisingly quick read. Its style and organization meet the needs of varied readers, from those who plan to study the entire report or will focus only on targeted issues, to readers who will use the report as a reference.
The report’s purpose is consistent with its general style and approach:
[T]his report constitute[s] a reference and straightforward technology planning guide for educators, higher education leaders, administrators, policymakers, and technologists. It is our hope that this research will help inform the choices that institutions are making about technology to improve, support, or extend teaching, learning, and creative inquiry across the globe” (p.1).
The report is organized in three sections: 1) trends relating to policy, leadership, and practice; 2) challenges impeding technology adoption; and 3) technological developments expected to drive planning and decision making. Each theme cites six specific topics or issues. So, in total, 18 specific trends, challenges, and technological developments are covered. A one-page diagram is provided that places the 18 along an assumed five-year planning horizon. Here, the six trends noted are classified as short-, mid-, or long-term in impact. The challenges are classified as “solvable,” “difficult,” or “wicked.” The developments in technology are described as likely to be realized in the near-, mid-, or far term (Johnson et al., 2016).
The trends, challenges, and developments were identified according to what the report authors call a “modified Delphi process” (p. 4), facilitated through a wiki that can be reviewed online. Generally, Delphi methods represent forecasting efforts that rely on the views of expert panelists, rather than using quantitative or statistical methods. For each edition, a Horizon Panel of Experts respond to literature about emerging trends in technology that are likely to impact education, as well as to a set of questions asking them to identify the most important developments. These responses are then ranked as part of the sifting process that eventually results in the 18 trends, challenges, and technological developments. In the case of this edition of the Horizon Report, approximately 55 to 60 people participated in the panel. A list of the report’s panelists can be found near the end (48).
2016 Horizon Report Summary of Topics Selected
|Key Trends Accelerating Technology Adoption in Higher Education||Long-term (driving adoption for five or more years)
|Mid-term (driving adoption for three to five years)
|Short-term (driving adoption for next one to two years)
|Significant Challenges Impeding Technology Adoption in Higher Education||Solvable in nature
|Difficult challenges to solve
|Important Developments in Technology for Higher Education||Near-term developments (possibility of adoption in one year or less)
|Mid-term developments (adoption in one to three years)
|Far-term developments (adoption in four to five years)
Three overarching or meta- dimensions were suggested to the panelists in guiding the ranking of the trends that they expected to influence technology adoption in higher education over the next five years.
- Policy considerations that influence the governing of institutions.
- Leadership considerations that produce visions on the future of learning.
- Practice considerations that influence when and where new ideas and pedagogies can take hold (p.6).
“Rethinking how institutions work” was identified as a long-term trend by the Horizon Report panelists (p.10), which includes the implementation of Competency-Based Learning (CBL) and the “unbundling” of university functions into separable elements that can be eliminated or enhanced as an institution requires (p.126). An example of a trend likely to be widely implemented in the short-term is the increased use of blended learning design. Methods drawing upon blended learning concepts include the “flipped classroom,” which allows online activity to be used to transmit information, where the face-to-face components of the flipped classroom can be used for group work, applications of information, and problem solving (Johnson et al., 2016, p.18).
As with the trends, challenges that were seen as likely to impede technology adoption were developed through the filter of policy, leadership, and practice. The challenges were broken down by the panelists as “solvable,” where the challenges are understood and consensus exists about how they can be solved; “difficult,” where challenges are understood, but the solutions are not clearly known; “wicked,” where even defining the challenge is difficult and more information and time will be required to yield solutions (p.20). This year, “improving digital literacy” was identified as a solvable challenge (p.24). Unfortunately, U.S. students rank among the lowest in the developed world in their “ability to use information and communication technologies to find, understand, evaluate, and create digital information” (p.24). But the availability of educational programs that target digital literacy make this a solvable challenge. On the other hand, “keeping education relevant” was seen as a wicked challenge (Johnson et al., 2016, p.32). While students are demanding an education that leads to speedy employment, the report panelists note a corresponding stigma against formal vocational education programs. As a result, students often turn back to more academic university programs. The efforts to incorporate workforce readiness into academic experiences is thus identified as a “wicked” challenge (pp. 32-33).
Highlights: Technological Developments
As the trends and challenges were filtered through considerations of policy, leadership, and practice, the technological developments ranked by panelists were filtered through “a key criterion” of “potential relevance to teaching, learning, and creative inquiry in higher education” (p.34). An example of a near-term technological development, or one likely to be adopted in a year or less, was the “BYOD” or “bring your own device” phenomenon (pp.36-37). As most surveys of college students reveal, nearly all have some sort of internet-accessible mobile device. Professors can learn quickly how to leverage student mobile device use in their classrooms, if they haven’t thought of the possibility already. A far-term technological development, affective computing, has a much longer time-to-adoption horizon, at least four to five years (pp.44-45). Affective computing entails computers recognizing the emotional and behavioral signals of their users and then offering ameliorative or even motivational feedback. Through affective computing methods, students struggling with an online assignment could be provided with responses in the form of scaffolded assignments that build confidence and foster greater attention and focus on task. As the report notes (p.44), elite institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge have recently organized special research units to develop these technological capabilities.
Discussion and Critique
The analytical lens of the study, focused on policy, leadership, and practice, makes much sense, given the stated purpose to provide information that will drive technologically-oriented educational planning and choices and investments in technology for the foreseeable planning horizon. Again, the writing is succinct, and the organization quite clear. The examples help to illustrate complex trends, challenges, and developments, and the referrals to current information, with citations, make it possible for the reader to take sidebar efforts to follow up on one’s particular interest.
Those of us approaching technology issues from a perspective of the online, continuing, and professional educator, or simply as an advocate for the adult or distance learner, may be left feeling a bit empty after reading the report and its discussion of important technology topics. The discussions in the main seem to suppose a traditional campus with place-based learning settings, stopping short of discussing implications for online learning. Perhaps the clearest example is the discussion of makerspaces. The report defines them as “informal workshop environments where people gather to create prototypes or products in a collaborative, do-it-yourself setting” (p.12). Examples such as Case Western Reserve University’s “thinkbox,” a seven-story building, are cited (p.42), and the dilemmas presented by the technological development to the renovation or repurposing of classroom space is noted. It would not be that difficult to explore the dynamics of using virtual spaces, as a makerspace-related phenomena referred to as “hackathons” are being coordinated and mediated online to extend creative communities to virtual spaces. Even so, we in the online, continuing, and professional education field can still relate to the topics. The report’s ranking of “advancing cultures of innovation” as a key long-term trend accelerating technology adoption is relevant when portrayed as rooted in the “lean start-up” efforts in Silicon Valley (pp.8-9). Online, continuing, and professional education units are generally based on a “lean start-up” model, without the mass infusions of money often seen in business startups in the Silicon Valley.
Other oversights, even in a list of topics as extensive and transparently developed and detailed as those ranked in the Horizon Report, are inevitable. The report, for instance, seems to gloss over the rapid turnover in university leadership that we frequently observe and experience personally, which makes planning cycles for rethinking and innovating even shorter and more problematic. More disconcerting is the lack of focus on assistive technology or accessibility, challenges that are becoming more pressing and more solvable, with regulatory mandates and technological developments ever expanding and accelerating in their nature and scope. Accessibility is mentioned only on the last page of the report, (p.47), in a description of the use of robots in assisting autistic children in K–12 schools. Surely, many of the technologies mentioned, including augmented and virtual reality, can be both barriers and boons to persons with linguistic differences and differing physical and intellectual abilities. Nonetheless, the report almost entirely omits mention of critical accessibility and diversity issues.
Conclusions and Observations
The report’s shortcomings, which seem modest relative to its scope and thoroughness, offer a challenge for those of us in online, continuing, and professional education. Our professional community should consider developing our own rankings of technology-related trends, challenges, and developments. Drawing upon our own lenses of entrepreneurialism, flexibility, and advocacy for adult learners and the needs of employers, we may find that our own version of a Horizon Report could be very helpful to the higher educational policymakers, leaders, and practitioners of tomorrow.
(1993). The New Media Centers Initiative: A Strategy for Fostering Interactive Media in Higher Education. New Media Centers Consortium.
Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Estrada, V., Freeman, A., and Hall, C. (2016). NMC Horizon Report: 2016 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
The New Media Consortium. (n.d.). NMC History. Retrieved from The New Media Consortium: http://www.nmc.org/about/nmc-history/
Reed Scull is an associate dean of the Outreach School at the University of Wyoming. The school is primarily responsible for the support of distance education at the university, and over 40 degree and certificate programs are delivered at a distance. His articles appear in both refereed journals and professional magazines. He is a former chair of UPCEA Region West and national board member of UPCEA. He holds a doctorate in Higher Education Administration from the University of Arizona and has engaged in postdoctoral work in Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. His articles have appeared in journals such as the Continuing Higher Education Review, The Clearinghouse, and the Urban Review.