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The Cost vs. Quality Conundrum: Top Higher Ed Tech Trends for 2013

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Technology has transformed a variety of industries over the past decade, from ecommerce to entertainment. One could argue that 2012 was the year that technology accelerated its march to transforming education as well. From the introduction of MOOCs, to the proliferation of new tech delivery systems and devices in the classroom, it's not surprising that Venture Beat reported that VCs invested $110 million in education technology companies in the past few months of 2012 alone, bringing increasing awareness to the potential that exists at the intersection of education and technology innovation. Just look at some of the year's advancements:

In 2012, we witnessed the rapid expansion of open and distance learning, providing students with more cost-efficient options than ever before for pursuing advanced learning. We also saw increasing adoption rates of digital course materials and the proliferation of smart phones, tablets and social media in the classroom, all of which excited a new generation of mobile and social savants to learn through new forms of information dissemination, absorption and sharing.

At the same time, news coverage this year also focused on the impending student debt crisis, which some predict will be the next financial crisis to rock our nation. We have discussed increased tuition costs in the past, and the trend shows no signs of abating - in fact, debt surpassed $1 trillion this year, catapulting the issue to the forefront of our national political and educational discussion.

Looking ahead, 2013 promises to be another watershed year in education technology and we can expect five major trends, all of which share a common theme of using technology to achieve greater balance between lowering costs and increasing quality in higher education:

1. Data Crunching Comes to Campus
Data and analytics are beginning to touch almost every aspect of our lives from shopping, to online search and even to voting. Now the same data mining that allows industries to target consumers can help colleges and students make more informed decisions about the subjects they study, the course materials they use and their teaching and learning behavior.

Analytics was one of the most compelling topics on the agenda at the recent EDUCAUSE conference, as evidenced by panels such as "Getting Smart about Educational Analytics," which discussed the impact of analytics on such thorny issues as retention, cost-control, improving learning outcomes and increasing graduation rates. These topics were further explored through the Educause Center for Applied Research, which issued an "Analytics in Higher Education" report, stating that colleges and universities have successfully demonstrated that analytics can help significantly advance institutions in such strategic areas as resource allocation, student success, and finance.

Even the U.S. Department of Education is intrigued. "Enhancing Teaching and Learning Through Educational Data Mining and Learning Analytics", was issued in October 2102 and highlights the potential of learning analytics and the need to develop a culture of using data to make instructional decisions.

2. Learning Management Systems Achieve Synergy
We will continue to see increased use and enhanced functionality of campus technology infrastructure, including the integration of digital course materials and other academic resources within campus Learning Management Systems (LMS). These platforms, which include Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle, and others, can provide great efficiencies and help boost student retention by consolidating multiple aspects of courses, from lecture notes, to student-faculty communication, to testing, within one platform.

An additional benefit of integrating course materials within the campus LMS is the opportunity for institutions to leverage the scope and scale of their buying power to achieve discounted rates, which in turn, drive down textbook costs to students. Institutions from the University of Michigan to Arizona State University have already used procurement power to contain the costs of course materials, while others, including the University of Iowa, are participating in pilot programs with new pricing models that enable students to buy all of their eTextbooks from one website for one subscription price over a fixed access period. Although institutional buying does provide finaancial benefits to institutions and students, faculty will continue to argue for the academic autonomy to specify their own course materials, so expect to see continued discussions seeking to resolve the tension between cost control and academic freedom.

3. Hybrid Classes Gain Momentum
Although online classes will continue to gain popularity, traditional face-to-face classes will not become obsolete. Instead, we will see a growth in hybrid classes, those which leverage virtual and traditional learning models, incorporating the best aspects of both to create the optimum learning experience for students. We have already seen evidence of this: according to a survey of college students taken earlier this year, 96% have had online components to a course, 79% have submitted assignments or papers online, and 71% have taken online tests and quizzes.

Further, according to the report, "Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence From Randomized Trials," there are tangible advantages for students, faculty and institutions in hybrid courses. Not only are learning outcomes comparable to traditional courses, but hybrid classes also provide substantial economic and learning advantages, particularly for non-traditional and minority students who may be geographically disadvantaged or require the flexibility needed to balance work and family obligations with attaining higher education.

4. The "Flipped Classroom" Blends In
As the advantages of the digital revolution continue to surface, "flipped classrooms" are likely to be one of the most significant trends of 2013. The flipped classroom or reverse teaching is a new form of the blended learning environment that capitalizes on the availability of interactive textbooks and mobile access. As digital course materials continue to become more advanced, incorporating features such as video, direct links to relevant resources, and quizzes to assess a student's knowledge of the material, instructors are in a position to utilize classroom time interacting directly with students instead of needing to spend that time lecturing. As publishers provide more interactivity beyond the classroom through eResources such as McGraw-Hill's Connect, WileyPlus and Pearson's MyLab Series, all of which allow students to supplement the classroom experience with online tutorials and testing, teaching can then be "flipped" to focus on project-based learning and material application, providing a more comprehensive and engaging learning experience. Furthermore, as LMS platforms continue to innovate to meet the needs of today's digital native students, we will see more mobile Apps, ensuring the student's entire learning environment can be accessed anytime, anywhere through any device. These technologies allow students to tailor their learning experiences in much the same way as they customize their entertainment preferences to the timing, content and device options they prefer. Mounting evidence suggests that the more actively involved a student is in customizing their learning experience and taking advantage of this new form of blended learning, the more likely it is that students will stay in school and graduate on time and on budget.

5. Open Source Moves From No Cost to Low Cost
High textbook prices, the proliferation of eReaders and the need for wide access to cost-effective course materials have propelled the Open Source movement over the past couple of years. Yet, while low-cost options will continue to be a topic in the ongoing conversation about cost control, in 2013 we expect to see a shift in sentiment away from free classes and course materials towards choices which provide a better cost-to-quality ratio. While students will continue to search for ways to save money, they will not be willing to sacrifice the quality of their education to do so. This is validated by research that shows that no-cost options, while attractive from a dollars standpoint, do not ensure a student is actually learning.

Open textbooks, aren't being developed with the priority of ensuring students are learning and mastering the course material, so there is no incentive for the author to update the book on a regular basis, resulting in outdated, lower quality course materials that are out of step with the lightning speed of innovation and new information.

In response, the Open textbook movement is starting to incorporate more quality control elements, including peer reviews, instructor reviews, and student reviews to ensure accuracy and relevancy of course materials. These safeguards will inevitably have the effect of making the Open source movement a low-cost vs. no cost venture, but if the benefit is a better educational experience, than all parties will gain.

Looking Forward
With tuition increases continuing to outpace the annual rate of inflation, affordability will continue to dominate the discussion in higher education circles in 2013. As with so many other industries, technology offers tremendous potential to broaden access, increase quality and drive down costs. As we enter the New Year, watch for technologies that transform higher education while finding the right balance between lower cost and higher quality. Technologies and solutions that are able to reconcile those two competing priorities will win in the marketplace of ideas and commerce.