NMC Horizon Report Reveals Top Tech, Trends, Troubles in Higher Ed

An annual report provides a snapshot of what could be in store for higher education leaders in the next five years.

by Tanya Roscorla / February 5, 2016
A panel discussion on affective computing David Bruce/Flickr CC 2.0

Devices that detect and respond to human emotion could be coming to higher education in the next four to five years.

The NMC Horizon Report 2016 Higher Education Edition looks ahead at important technology developments like this one, along with challenges and trends to accelerate technology adoption. In a report released Thursday, Feb. 4, NMC and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative give higher education leaders a big picture look at what could happen with technology in their field so they can use it to help inform their strategic planning.

Tech trends

On the technology trends side, movements toward redesigning learning spaces, shifting to deeper learning approaches and rethinking how institutions work represent a few of the projections in the report. 

Even though online and blended course models are becoming more popular, most institutions still have a residential program or some course components that happen in person. That's why it's important to design those spaces effectively for learning. When classrooms have loads of technology in them, they're expensive to redesign, but worth it because of the potential for a positive effect on learning, said Malcolm Brown, director of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. 

The EDUCAUSE Learning Space Rating System helps universities assess how well a classroom design could support active learning.

Trends, Challenges and Technology in Higher Ed
Short-term impact trends (1-2 years) Growing focus on measuring learning
  Increasing use of blended learning designs
Mid-term impact trends (3-5 years) Redesigning learning spaces
  Shift to deeper learning approaches
Long-term impact trends (5+ years) Advancing cultures of innovation
  Rethinking how institutions work
Solvable challenges Blending formal and informal learning
The ones we understand and know how to solve Improving digital literacy
Difficult challenges Competing models of education
The ones we understand, but solutions are difficult Personalizing learning
Wicked challenges Balancing our connected and unconnected lives
The ones that are complex to define and address Keeping education relevant
Time-to-adoption horizon: One year or less Bring your own device
  Learning analytics and adaptive learning
Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to three years Augmented and virtual reality
Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to five years Affective computing 

"There's been no real way to kind of quantify anything about the design of a classroom up to this point really," Brown said.

This shift in design works together with another trend of moving to deeper learning approaches. Over the next three to five years, universities will need to determine how hands-on, active learning helps students earn credentials and high-quality jobs. Employers often express concerns that students don't graduate with enough soft skills, including critical thinking. But students need real-world experiences to develop these skills, and that's why it's important for universities to provide these experiences through partnerships with the government and industry.

On the other hand, universities need to provide students with a better return on their education investment. By rethinking how institutions work, their leaders will be able to use online learning, competency-based education and different types of credentials to add more value for students.

"We need to constantly rethink how institutions work to stay on the cutting edge," said Samantha Becker, senior director of publications and communications at NMC. "I don't think that's something that should ever be dropped." 


By rethinking education, universities can start to address the tough challenges of keeping education relevant and balancing their connected and unconnected lives. These challenges are complex to define and deal with, particularly as the pace of technological change continues to grow rapidly.

"It's important to sometimes take a step back and for higher ed institutions to evaluate whether a technology that's being integrated is in service of doing something transformative that could otherwise not be done," Becker said.

Along with evaluating whether specific technology initiatives make sense, it's important to map things like technology, faculty development programs and learning space designs to a strategic vision for moving forward, Brown said. That means understanding the types of students a university serves, using tools such as the Horizon Report to look at what's happening in the field, and then setting a vision.

But it's important not to just to consider this one report when deciding what technology to look into. Different reports from Gartner, EDUCAUSE and other organizations all provide a piece of the puzzle. For example, faculty development is a major issue that universities will have to address by giving faculty time and training to get comfortable with technology that they can use to meet instructional goals. And the No. 1 issue is academic transformation — thinking on a broad scale how to transform the way universities carry out their teaching and learning mission, Brown said. 


While bring your own technology tends to pop up in many of these Horizon Reports, sometimes its adoption is taken for granted. For example, it might be pretty pervasive in first-world countries, but not in third-world countries where they're still using old cell phones. And the definition of "device" also is expanding to encompass wearable technology and Internet of Things devices.

In an interesting twist, the report suggests that affective computing will become mainstream in the next four to five years. With this type of technology, machines could detect and respond to users' emotions, which could be helpful in online classes where the machine could suggest ways to address their needs.

Like each of the technologies on this list, they come with ethical challenges that will need to be worked out in pilots. But it has the potential to help students.

"It really reflects sort of a different area of technology than we've generally focused on where it's about the ability for machines to be able to empathize with humans," Becker said. 

Begin Workforce Development Early to Better Prepare Students for Future Careers

Research shows workforce development programs can help narrow the gap between labor shortages and the skills needed for highly skilled positions.

Helping Young People Graduate and Thrive in the Future

The AT&T Aspire program aims to remove barriers to academic success and career growth and help all students — regardless of age, gender or income.

One Teacher’s Mission to Level the Playing Field

Workforce preparation efforts and strategies will only be successful if special attention is paid to the underprivileged and minority populations in schools.

Platforms & Programs