Horizon Report 2021: Focus on Hybrid Learning, Microcredentialing and Quality Online Learning

by Claudia Sittner

The 2021 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report Teaching and Learning Edition was published at the end of April 2021 and looks at what trends, technologies and practices are currently driving teaching and learning and how they will significantly shape its future.

The report runs through four different scenarios of what the future of higher education might look like: growth, constraint, collapse or transformation. Only time will tell which scenario prevails. With this in mind, we looked at the Horizon Report 2021 to see what trends it suggests for academic libraries and information infrastructure institutions.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) has progressed so rapidly since the last Horizon Report 2020 that people cannot catch up fast enough to test the technical advances of machines in natural language proceedings. Deep learning has evolved into self-supervised learning, where AI learns from raw or unlabelled data.

Artificial intelligence has a potential role to play in all areas of higher education where learning, teaching and success are concerned: support for accessible apps, student information and learning management systems, examination systems and library services, to name but a few. AI can also help analyse learning experiences and identify when students seem to be floundering academically. The much greater analytics opportunities that have emerged as the vast majority of learning events take place online, leaving a wide trail of analysable data, can help to better understand students and adapt learning experiences to their needs more quickly.

But AI also remains controversial: for all its benefits, questions about privacy, data protection and ethical aspects often remain unsatisfactorily answered. For example, there are AI-supported programmes that paraphrase texts so that other AI-supported programmes do not detect plagiarism.

Open Educational Resources

For Open Educational Resources (OER), the pandemic has not changed much, many of the OER offerings are “born digital” anyway. However, advantages of OER such as cost savings (students have to buy less literature), social equality (free and from everywhere) and the fact that materials are updated faster are gaining importance. Despite these obvious advantages and the constraints that corona brought with it, however, only a few teachers have switched to OER so far as the report „Digital Texts in Times of COVID” (PDF) shows. 87% of teachers still recommend the same paid textbooks.

OER continue to offer many possibilities, such as teachers embedding self-assessment questions directly into pages alongside text, audio and video content, and students receiving instant feedback. In some projects, libraries and students are also involved in the development of materials as OER specialists, alongside other groups from the academic ecosystem, helping to break down barriers within the discipline and redesign materials from their particular perspective.

In Europe, for example, the ENCORE+ – European Network for Catalyzing Open Resources in Education is working to build an extensive OER ecosystem. Also interesting: the „Code of Best Practices in Fair Use für Open Educational Resources”. It can be a tool for librarians when they want to create OER and use other data, including copyrighted data.

Learning Analytics

Online courses generate lots of data: How many learners have participated? When did they arrive? When did they leave? How did they interact? What works and what doesn’t? In higher education, learning data analysis should help make better, evidence-based decisions to best support the increasingly diverse group of learners. Academic libraries also often use such data to better understand and interpret learner needs, respond promptly and readjust.

The Syracuse University Libraries (USA), for example, have transmitted its user data via an interface to the university’s own learning analysis programme (CLLASS). A library profile was developed for this purpose, which was consistent with the library’s values, ethics, standards, policies and practices. This enabled responsible and controlled transmission of relevant data, and a learner profile could be created from different campus sources.

Just as with the use of artificial intelligence, there are many objections in this area regarding moral aspects and data protection. In any case, the handling of such learning data requires sensitisation and special training so that teachers, advisors and students can use data sensibly and draw the right conclusions. In the end, students could also receive tailored virtual support throughout the entire process from enrolment to graduation. Infrastructures for data collection, analysis and implementation are essential for this.

Microcredentials

Microcredentials are new forms of certification or proof of specific skills. They are also better suited to the increasingly diverse population of learners than traditional degrees and certificates. Unlike these, they are more flexible, designed for a shorter period of time and often more thematically focused. The spectrum of microcredentials spans six areas from short courses and badges, to bootcamps and the classic degree or accredited programmes.

Microcredentials are becoming increasingly popular and can also be combined with classic certifications. The Horizon Report 2021 sees particular potential for workers who can use them to retrain and further their education. It is therefore hardly surprising that companies like Google are also appearing on the scene with Google Career Certificates. For many scientific institutes, this means that they will have to further develop and rethink the architecture, infrastructure and work processes of their traditional certification systems.

Blended and Hybrid Course Models

Due to the corona pandemic, diverse blended and hybrid course models mushroomed, especially in the summer of 2020. “It is clear that higher education has diversified quickly and that these models are here to stay”, the report says. Hybrid courses allow more flexibility in course design; institutions can ramp up capacity as needed and cater even more to the diverse needs of students. However, most students still prefer face-to-face teaching.

Newly learned technical skills and technical support have played a predominant role. In some places, new course models have been developed together with the learners. On the other hand, classic practices (such as frequent assessments, breakout groups during live course meetings, and check-in messages to individual students) remain high on the agenda. However, corona has brought mental and social health of all participants into sharper focus; it should also receive even more attention according to the Horizon Report.

Quality Online Learning

The coronavirus came along and everything suddenly had to take place online. So it is little wonder that the need to design, meaningfully evaluate and adapt high-quality online learning opportunities has increased enormously. Some were surprised to find that teaching online involved more effort than simply offering the on-site event via Zoom. In order to achieve learning success, online quality assurance became an issue of utmost relevance.

Early in the pandemic, therefore, institutes began to develop online portals or hubs that included materials and teaching strategies adapted to the situation: for content delivery, to encourage student participation and to rethink assessment mechanisms.

A positive example is the twelve-module course “Quickstarter Online-Lehre” (Quickstarter Online Teaching, German) by the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung – German Forum for Higher Education in a digital age and the Gesellschaft für Medien in der Wissenschaft (Society for media in science) from Germany. This course aims to support teachers with no or little online experience.

This text has been translated from German.

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Digital Trends 2021: Collective Displacement Leads to Relocation and Rethinking of Activities

by Birgit Fingerle

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned major parts of our life upside down, leading to new trends and new uses of technology. The feeling of collective displacement is a trend overshadowing all these. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 altered, where und how we experience activities. A lot of our tasks were relocated to other places in order to still be able to fulfil them. New ways and new places to attend our duties as well as our hobbies are needed. Accordingly, organisations need to figure out new ways to shape the relationship with their patrons. In order to do so, they must be aware of how information-gathering has changed and they must also replicate or replace physical touch in a digital way. Shopping for instance has become an atomised activity, split into many micro moments spread across devices, platforms and across the day. In addition, brands have to find new ways to deliver joy to the home shopping experience.

Retail Trends as a potential Role Model for Libraries: Liquid, Virtual and by Appointment

Because of the collective displacement trend mentioned above, the place where we buy products or use services has also changed. Thus, organisations have to rethink their supply chain and their whole physical infrastructure. This trend is called Liquid Infrastructure. In order to be able to quickly react to changing conditions organisations need to develop more agility and resilience which will also make them futureproof for instance for answering challenges arising from climate change. While working on new supply chains and physical infrastructures, organisations should also consider sustainable alternatives to become more sustainable at the same time. In addition, they should explore new business models and value propositions like subscription models and personalisation.

Traditional marketplaces have been transferred to the digital world because of the pandemic too and are now taking place virtually. As ecommerce is booming, marketplaces are included in this shift, transforming everything from farmers’ to Christmas markets into virtual marketplaces. This way, consumers can at least keep a little bit of the normalcy that they have lost since the pandemic started.

Another growing trend is robot retail (see TrendHunter‘s 2021 Trend Report) as robots help to limit contacts between employees and customers. Examples are: Robots acting as bookstore assistances like the “AROUND B” Robot that carries books for browsing and purchasing, or contactless delivery robots brought to new cities like the delivery robots of Starship Technologies.

Contactless lockers are being installed in the retail world to reduce person-to-person contact and to enhance the safety of shopping. Shopping lockers (see TrendHunter‘s 2021 Trend Report) are being used as food pickups as well as for in-store returns for instance.

With respect to personal contacts, the trend “Appointment Retail” (see TrendHunter‘s 2021 Trend Report) means that shopping is offered by appointment only. This ensures safe in-person shopping experiences as it contributes to maintaining distance. Might, for instance, offering lockers and more services on appointment also be meaningful for libraries to better address patron anxiety of health risks?

Events and new touchpoints: Virtual crowds and in-game experiences

The trend of collective displacement also shines through events and exhibitions. Companies are creating technologically-integrated solutions that allow the public to take part in live events, for instance live concerts. This virtual crowd (see TrendHunter‘s 2021 Trend Report) is now made possible by using video conference technology as well as virtual reality technology. Attending a live event as part of a virtual crowd also brings viewers a degree of normalcy into their lives.

Gaming is an increasingly popular form of entertainment and consumers now expect brands to integrate seamlessly into their habits, like gaming and social media. As brands outside of gaming are looking for new possibilities to participate in these developments, more and more are marketing their products and offerings with in-game experiences (see TrendHunter‘s 2021 Trend Report). One example are In-Game Art Galleries like the one offered by the Getty Museum. This tool lets players import art in the game Animal Crossing. Furthermore, in an In-Game Museum Tour the Monterey Bay Aquarium is offering virtual tours of Animal Crossing’s museum.

Training and tools for librarians and patrons: Gamification and fostering wellbeing

Several trends have the potential to influence the tools and the training offered for library staff on the one hand and patrons on the other hand. Because of the experience of collective displacement and work from home, mental wellness becomes a new focal point when rethinking products and services. For example, Microsoft Teams will integrate new features in order to improve users’ work/life balance while working from home.

Training and onboarding employees is increasingly being accelerated through gamified technology. This trend named gamified profession (see TrendHunter‘s 2021 Trend Report) where platforms are used to enhance skills and engagement in the process of training may become more common as working from home becomes the norm and managers are trying new ways to enhance engagement and interactions among new employees. The training needed for individuals transitioning into new roles requires interactivity to learn skills and policies effectively. Thus, gamification is an interesting approach for training.

To build meaningful connections between remote employees, organisations are turning to new tools, which help them to facilitate team-building exercises and rewards. By fostering remote engagement (see TrendHunter‘s 2021 Trend Report) they contribute to reducing feelings of social isolation, which might otherwise negatively affect the collaboration. Innovative tools are needed to ensure that employees working from home feel connected and valued and this way also more encourages toward sharing ideas and working together.

Signs of Open Science: Digital parity, subscription sharing and do-it-yourself-innovation

The COVID-19 pandemic has fostered trends towards Open Science. In addition to the obvious greater attention for preprint papers there are also several other trends outside the academic systems, which are interesting in the context of Open Science.

Equal access continues to be a dream, as we still live in a world characterised by digital inequality. A WhatsApp und Facebook chatbot like Foonda Mate shows us how the inequality due to the lack of a stable internet connection can be bridged in order to give South African students access to educational materials. Thus, they were and are able to keep up with their schoolwork when schools are closed. This example is part of the trend providing online access to all, called Digital Parity.

Another interesting trend: Brands in the technology space are helping users to share subscriptions by creating platforms that enable sharing subscription passwords in a safe and controlled way. These platforms (see TrendHunter‘s 2021 Trend Report) for safe subscription sharing to digital goods range from web extensions to password-managing.

As innovation increasingly is a product of talented people acting in challenging circumstances, organisations should find ways to joint this Do-it-yourself-Innovation revolution and rethink how they approach innovation. The emphasis of organisations should switch from co-creation with the people to giving the people the tools and platforms to innovate for themselves in order to create better products and services.

Members of the generation Z (Gen Z) , born between 1997 and 2012 approximately, are also increasingly aiming to develop new skills outside of the traditional school system. They do so by turning to platforms, services and spaces that help them expand their worldviews and skills without the constraints of traditional schooling. The Gen Z Creative trend (see TrendHunter‘s 2021 Trend Report) also allows them to develop skills that often are not part of the education system. This willingness to qualify outside of the traditional educational system stems from two main sources. First, exposure to political and social issues from young age on has made them critical thinkers that are more likely to explore alternative learning options. Second, their social media habits are giving Gen Z more motivation to develop skills and practice hobbies just for enjoyment and sharing.

More than downsides: New opportunities and glimmers of hope in the crisis

The pandemic has disrupted a lot of our plans and the way we live and work. Looking at the trends emerging from this crisis reveals some of the opportunities implied in this forced transformation. Among these glimmers of hope is that Open Science, especially Open Access, seems to be a winner of the crisis. Furthermore, studying current trends in retail or gaming can trigger new impulses for further change in libraries.

Further information on important trends und technologies for 2021:

References Portrait:
Photo Birgit Fingerle© – Photographer Ole Sindt.

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