4 Edtech Trends to Watch Out For in 2017

More than thirty years ago, psychologist Benjamin Bloom presented the education community with the “2 Sigma Problem” – a challenge aimed at replicating, at scale, the proven benefits of personalized one-on-one tutoring. Decades later, and with a staggering array of new technologies at our disposal, we’re still working on solving Bloom’s basic problem – and 2017 will be a big year for edtech breakthroughs.

Online learning has brought us closer to a truly personalized at-scale learning experience than ever before, and almost every up-and-coming trend in edtech relates to personalization in some way. Here are a few of the most promising and exciting trends to watch:

Personalized, Curated Learning Paths

Five years ago, the big accomplishment of online courses was in making content widely available. Today, though, massive availability is the norm. Coursera, for example, launched in 2012 with two courses and now offers almost 2,000. This means that the successful online learning platforms of the future won’t be those that simply offer the most content. Rather, it will be those that do the best job of helping learners navigate an overwhelming number of options to find the right content and the most efficient learning path for them.

In 2017, we’ll see recommendation systems – similar to those that power platforms like Amazon and Netflix – brought to bear in full force in online education. You’ll be able to look for course recommendation tools that consider an increasing number of factors, including a learner’s goals, past experience, schedule, learning style preferences, and more.

We’ll also see online programs increasingly taking learners’ existing knowledge into account, allowing them to skip past topics that they’re already familiar with. These improvements will have the net effect of making online learning even more efficient, as learners spend more time focused on filling the precise gaps that are holding them back, and less time focused on checking “standard” boxes.

The Personal Digital Learning Assistant

It’s no secret that learning something new is hard – and learning online, in a more free-form environment with less social pressure than an in-person class, can be extra challenging at times. However, there has been a lot of progress in figuring out how to use technology to support online learners.

Now, you can find features that allow learners to track their progress and visualize the steps they need to take to complete a course will be refined. For example, mobile push notifications, email deadline reminders, and other motivational “nudges” will become more sophisticated, and more precisely targeted to reach learners at the moments they’re most vulnerable to losing momentum. This motivational component to edtech is often overlooked, but it’s critical – when learning online starts to feel overwhelming, small personal touches help learners believe that they’re capable of mastering the content, and remind them that they have the support they need to do so.

We’ll also see deeper integration with digital planning and time management tools this year. For example, your digital calendar might check to see how much coursework you need to do this week, and help you schedule the time you need to study around your other commitments. Or, your digital learning assistant might send you a push notification reminding you to study for an upcoming quiz that many other learners have failed. And if you pass the quiz, another notification might provide the celebratory moment that helps you keep the momentum going.

Mobile Meets Online Learners Wherever They Are

The number of learners who access online courses primarily or exclusively on mobile has been on the rise for quite a while. Forty percent of Coursera learners now use a combination of mobile and desktop, and 24 percent access our platform exclusively through mobile – a big jump from previous years.

In 2017, though, we should see online learning and edtech platforms start to cater more thoughtfully to the diverse needs of mobile learners. For some, learning on a phone or tablet is a convenient option during a commute or an hour on the treadmill. Features like audio-only lectures, flashcards for convenient learning on the go, and speech-to-text features for easy note-taking on mobile will help make mobile learning more habitual and convenient.

For many others, though – especially learners in regions with poor Internet connectivity – learning on mobile is often not just a nice option, but the only option. Continuous improvements in offline functionality, and optimization of online features for low-bandwidth mobile connections, will be key to providing these learners with a robust course experience.

Virtual Reality: Online and In-Person

Virtual reality is an early-stage technology across the board, especially in education. But even so, its potential is unmatched. In 2017, we may begin to see VR used to facilitate “live” meetings between learners and online tutors, or to bring learners enrolled in certain high-touch programs – such as online degrees – “together” for discussion sessions in virtual classrooms. There will also be opportunities to utilize VR technology to make remote instruction in subjects like geography, astronomy, oceanography, and history more exciting, impactful, and cost-effective.

With ongoing advances in edtech computing, these applications will be refined in 2018 and beyond – making VR a trend to watch not just for the next year, but for the next five years, or more. Ultimately, no matter how personalized online learning becomes as technology improves, we will still need a personal human element in some cases – that’s where VR, and other technologies with the potential to make virtual communication more real and impactful, can help.

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Written by:
Tom Willerer serves as Chief Product Officer at Coursera, the world's largest online learning platform. He is responsible for building a world-class product that not only makes learning deeply satisfying, but also motivating for millions of users around the world. He joined Coursera from Netflix where he was the VP of Innovation and responsible for setting the vision and managing the teams responsible for Product Marketing, Messaging, and Social and Individual Profiles. Tom holds a business degree from Indiana University, where he was a pitcher on the varsity baseball team, and received his Masters in New Media Studies from DePaul University.
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