4 disruptive education technologies poised to change higher learning

Isabel Sagenmüller Planning Technology
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Digital technology disrupted our everyday lives and now it's coming for Higher Education.

1. Virtual Reality (VR)

So far VR is about gaming and entertainment. But it combines the best of in-person and online education in an immersive experience.

This is a very realistic and cheap way to visit unthinkable scenarios. Think the inside of a star, the mechanisms of a complex machine or the streets of a lost city.

For example Microsoft's Hololens is already being used by medicine schools. It allows students to visualize the functioning human body in 3D.

Apps like VRChat are also being used to teach virtual classes.

For now the penetration of these tools in Higher Education is still low. Even in the US, the birth ground of these technologies, few classrooms have VR tools.

But this will soon change. Some forward-thinking universities are already experimenting with this technology. Click here to read an interview with Georgia State University academics on the potential of VR for Higher Education.

Disruptive digital technologies poised to disrupt higher learningPictures: A GSU teacher guides students on a virtual tour of Rome.

2. Collaboration Platforms

Videos, presentations and forums integrate education materials from different sources in different formats. This makes learning easier and social.

As a result these platforms are fueling collaboration among Higher Education centers.

Education and innovation consortium NMC's 2015 Higher Education report points to this trend. A growing number of institutions collaborating in technology, research and shared values.

Disruptive digital technologies poised to disrupt higher learning

They do this by forming local and international strategic alliances and consortia. But these partnerships have to be relevant and beneficial for all participants.

The report mentions Open Cloud Consortium (OCC) as a successful example of this. This entity enables professors and researchers to share vast amounts of data.

An NMC report shows a growing number of universities forging collaborative strategic alliances

The departments at the university are in constant consultation, and the head of the faculty monitors changes in workload and evaluates its impact, while the staff discusses concerning workloads and reports any difficulties and variations.

This faces deans and academic directors with important challenges. On one hand collaboration is key for benefitting students trough innovation. And at the same time they need to collaborate to nurture local academic ecosystems.

The internet is the great facilitator of collaboration in Higher Education. The reason? It eliminates geographic boundaries hindering local and international collaboration between students and teachers.

They aren't mainstream yet, but several platforms are making student collaboration easier:

That is why the workload of teachers is constantly revised and recorded to ensure that the staff is neither over nor underworked. It is important for universities to run curriculum and syllabi consultation processes with permanent and non-permanent faculty members, to assess both the student and the teacher’s workload.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England funded a study on improving managing academic workloadsThey concluded that consensual agreed initiatives improve the process both for the academic staff and the heads of school in several ways:

3. Augmented Reality (AR)

AR also has enormous potential to inject value in the educational process. It uses mobile devices to add a layer of information to physical reality.

The Google Glass are the perfect example of how AR works.

Let's suppose you walk into a store. These glasses will show you product info "layered on" the item you're seeing. Like it's "floating" above it.

Disruptive digital technologies poised to disrupt higher learning

This gadget didn't have commercial success due to privacy and development issues.  But Pokemon Go made the potential of AR crystal clear.

In the classroom AR lets you scan an equation and find possible solutions or tutorials. Museums and historical exhibitions use it to enhance their exhibition experience.

Disruptive digital technologies poised to disrupt higher learning

The great part is you don't need to spend big on equipment. All you need is a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet.

This is why many researchers are betting on AR to drive learning.

4. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Disruptive digital technologies poised to disrupt higher learning

¿Do you know Jill Watson? She's an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, answering student's questions and emailing reminders.

Few of them know Jill is an artificial intelligence.

Some say IBM is behind it but it's not clear. In any case NMC says AI will revolutionize Higher Education.

In fact it's already making headway in the learning industry.

Some computer systems are already doing personalized tutoring. They can also moderate discussions and alter context to stimulate learning.

AI uses algorithms to personalize the student experience. In fact, it learns your way of learning. At the same time it generates data to analyze the needs of individual students and the classroom as a whole.

As AI gets smarter and more intuitive it will start complementing human educators. One day it will be able to teach and interact with students.

This opens fascinating possibilities about how we learn and teach.

A 2016 study by British education company Pearson identifies two AI applications that will have massive impact on education.

Pearson predicts AI will give students instant feedback on their learning process. But there's more. It will also assess their level of knowledge and even their mood. This will end the need to interrupt learning to take standardized tests.

Very soon including AI in academic curricula will be key to attract and keep students.

But the most fascinating prediction is the rise of "lifelong learning companions".

This virtual tutor will make questions, offer suggestions and curate educational resources. It will also counsel and encourage students when they run into difficulties.

In time this companion will "learn" what you know, what interests you and how you learn. All your data –your data– will be in the cloud and follow your process from kinder to postgraduate ed and beyond.

For now nothing can replace human interaction in the learning experience. But soon including AI in academic curricula will affect student attraction and student retention in higher education.

Research and Markets says AI will grow 48% in the next four years. The WEF predicts automation will kill five million jobs worldwide by 2020.

This means universities already need to update their curricula around AI competences.


Latin America has a long way to go when it comes to innovating with technology for education.

The good news is that many of these disruptive technology will be within anyone's reach in the short- to mid- term.

Soon it will no longer necessary to be an elite university or academy to get ahead of the curve. But the time to innovate and create relevant educational offers now.

Student retention strategies and best practices eBook

How does your university face the challenges posed by disruptive education technologies?