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horizon trends

Why making, coding, and online learning are the real trends to watch

Forget VR and fancy wearables, a trio of short-term trends may also hold long-term promise

Take a casual flip through this year’s trend-predicting Horizon Report, released today, and you’ll find plenty to get excited about.

The end of the report is stuffed with tantalizing promise about how future learners will engage with robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and wearable tech (think data-collecting headbands and skill-tracking sensors) that could explode into classrooms in as little as four to five years. By contrast, the report’s short-term developments, online learning and makerspaces, have a distinct yesterday’s news vibe about them. But make no mistake, they still hold some of the biggest long-term promise in the report.

Evaluating the accuracy of a report as sprawling and far-reaching as this one is notoriously difficult. Each year, a panel of education experts, convened by the New Media Consortium and CoSN, takes a deep dive into the trends driving ed-tech in every quarter, from Silicon Valley testing grounds to policy circles to actual classroom use. Panelists then narrow them down to just 18 in various stages of gestation: six trends, six challenges, and six so-called important developments.

Sometimes the panelists get it right. In 2011, when the report focused only on important developments, learning analytics were predicted to peak in about five years. Just as often, trends like game-based learning, which truly can seem like the future of learning at times, get dropped when they lose momentum and go niche for a while. Occasionally, the predictions are baffling in retrospect, such as that same 2011 report where “personal learning environments,” a term the report struggled to even define, were pegged to mainstream about the same time as learning analytics. And makerspaces slipped past everyone until they showed up at school doorsteps.

In light of all that, the developments noted in the report as being still pretty far out at sea probably say more about the conversations and attitudes in today’s education landscape than they do about some seemingly arbitrary point in the future. The giant helping of futurist technologies in that section — AI, robotics, virtual reality — seem to indicate that we’re still looking for undeveloped technologies to solve engagement and achievement problems we haven’t yet managed to solve using the copious amounts of technology that already exists.

As noted, the Horizon Report frequently does a good job at summing up the zeitgeist of any given year in ed-tech, and panelists appear to be getting better at drawing lines between the trends they do include.

Take online learning and makerspaces for example, which are now expected to find their way into even more classrooms during the next year. At first glance, they don’t seem to have much in common. The former, a purely digital experience, is still attempting to move away from passive learning; the latter, tactile by nature, requires students to take charge of their own learning. But a look through the report’s Key Trends — the section that suggests which topics are driving tech adoption in schools over the next one to five years — reveals an interesting bridge between the two. In the next year, coding as literacy and students as creators are listed as two major drivers. Are the panelists trying to tell us that some combination of physical-digital making is likely in our short-term future?

Likely so, and it’s probably not a bad gamble. It’s not hard to envision individual elements, such as makerspaces or even coding, losing steam over the next few years as new technologies and trendy teaching styles enter the conversation. But it’s much harder to imagine student creation disappearing entirely.

Certainly coding and content creation are currently driving tech adoption in schools, and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Assuming that holds true, collaborative and deeper learning (the trends expected to drive tech adoption for the next three to five years) appear a natural progression as schools look to capitalize on the creative mindsets they’ve helped foster. And who knows, as we move into the second decade of the century, all this could drive ed-tech adoption that truly changes how schools look and feel, as the report predicts.

As education futurist David Thornburg once told me, prognostication is often a dicey (and lonely) affair. We might never be able to say with accuracy when or how some technological pipe dream like AI will affordably fit into classrooms, and in that respect the Horizon Report is still as lonely and reaching as ever. But this year, at least in regard to the drivers of ed-tech purchasing, the panelists have begun tapping a vein with some promise.


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