Virtual worlds, emerging forms of publication, and “massively multiplayer educational gaming” (MMEG) are among the emerging trends expected to have a huge impact on educational technology over the next few years, according to a recent report from the New Media Consortium and the nonprofit group EDUCAUSE.

The groups’ annual “Horizon Report” identifies six technology trends they predict will have a key impact on education within the next one to five years. The trends identified in this year’s report are user-created content, social networking, mobile phones, virtual worlds, new scholarship and emerging forms of publication, and MMEG.

User-created content and social networking already are common on campus, the report notes–but their significance to education is just being realized by many school leaders. User-created content “is all around us, from blogs and photostreams to wikibooks,” the report says. Inexpensive tools and easy access to technology have “opened the doors for almost anyone to become an author, a creator, or a filmmaker.”

These tools allow students to express their creativity and encourage shared responsibility for developing course resources and materials. They also allow for asynchronous public feedback on assignments. Photography students at Rowan University, for example, reportedly use Flickr to post, organize, share, and critique their colleagues’ work for each assignment.

Social networking is not limited only to Facebook or MySpace. “We are seeing more and more professionals use social networks to find colleagues and experts in different fields,” says Diana Oblinger, EDUCAUSE vice president. “There is so much information out there that we don’t know for ourselves. We need to be a part of a network that can help point us to the top information.”

Social networking might be a key way for schools to increase student participation in course activities, according to the report. Campus-based social networking sites also offer a safe, convenient space for students to build ties with community members. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, offers incoming freshmen membership in “Pennster,” its social-networking site, so they can get to know their classmates before arriving on campus.

In the past few years, mobile phones–which also appeared on last year’s list–have gone from simply being used to make phone calls to what Oblinger calls a “personal life remote control.” Today’s mobile phones are now mobile devices, and a growing number of schools are using them to deliver schedules, emergency updates, and other information to students. But how they can be used in the classroom remains to be seen.

“There are examples outside the U.S. where people are using mobile phones as way of letting students take quick quizzes to self-assess whether they’re ready for certain things,” says Oblinger. “The attractiveness is that mobile phones are pretty ubiquitous. It’s a way of making learning accessible whenever and wherever you have two minutes.”

With the rise of applications such as Second Life, many schools have begun experimenting with how virtual worlds can be used to support instruction. Many colleges, universities, and high schools are forming classes within these virtual worlds. While the report states that virtual worlds can be used to create effective online classrooms, Oblinger says this trend is only just beginning to be explored.

Farther out on the horizon, according to the report, are emerging forms of scholarship and MMEG.

“The nature and practice of scholarship is changing,” the report says. “New tools and new ways to create, critique, and publish are influencing new and old scholars alike.” When his 1999 book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace needed an update, for example, author Lawrence Lessig reportedly set up a wiki and invited the public to help him write the second edition. New forms of publication can control costs and allow scholars to reach wider audiences–and online textbooks can incorporate interactive features such as video interviews and graphs that respond to user input.

Like their counterparts in the entertainment industry, MMEGs “are engaging and absorbing,” the report says. “They are still quite difficult to produce, and examples are rare; but steps are being taken toward making it easier to develop this type of game.” In the coming year, the report says, “open-source gaming engines will lower the barrier to entry for developers, and we are likely to see educational titles along with commercial ones.”