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6 challenges impeding technology adoption in higher education

In our second look at the NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition, we cover the six “significant challenges” it identifies as impeding the adoption of technology in higher education

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The NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition report, launched on 3 February 2014, assesses emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in teaching and learning within universities.

It is the 11th annual report of its kind, and is published by the New Media Consortium, a not-for-profit group of more than 250 colleges, universities, museums and companies that conducts research into emerging technology.

Scroll through to find out more about the six challenges identified.

1. Low digital fluency among faculty

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“Urgent challenge” that we both understand and know how to solve

“Despite the widespread agreement on the importance of digital media literacy,” the Horizon report says, “training in the supporting skills and techniques is rare in teacher education and non-existent in the preparation of faculty.”

Academics are beginning to realise that they are “limiting their students” by not helping them to develop and use digital media literacy skills across the curriculum, a problem that is exacerbated by a lack of formal training for teaching staff.

Because digital literacy “is less about tools and more about thinking”, the report continues, “skills and standards based on tools and platforms have proven to be somewhat ephemeral”.

The report identifies the Developing Digital Literacy Programme, run by UK higher education technology consortium Jisc, as an initiative that promotes the development of “coherent, inclusive, and holistic institutional strategies for developing digital literacies for all staff and students”.

A Jisc-funded project at Cardiff University, known as Digidol, which aimed to “embed digital literacy” across staff at all levels, is also praised in the report.

2. Relative lack of rewards for teaching

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“Urgent challenge” that we both understand and know how to solve

“In the global education marketplace, a university’s status is largely determined by the quantity and quality of its research,” the Horizon report says. “There is an overarching sense in the academic world that research is first, while teaching is an obligation that must be performed.”

This way of thinking, the report argues, is stymieing efforts to implement effective pedagogies. Because teaching-only contracts are seen as lower status and unpopular, students are forced to accept “outdated teaching styles” from researchers, rather than benefiting from more forward-thinking, potentially technologically enabled pedagogy.

The report says that although there is a body of work indicating that professors “acknowledge that teaching is not a priority”, some institutions have made conscious efforts to improve their teaching methods.

“There is a need for governments to develop strategies…with the ultimate goal of fostering an academic culture that financially rewards the quality of interaction in its classrooms,” it concludes.

University leaders, meanwhile, could begin by requiring doctoral and graduate students to train before getting work as teaching assistants. Currently, such training is “optional, intermittent, and superficial in nature”, the report says.

“As online learning plays a bigger part in higher education, this training will become essential because professors will be expected to be familiar with teaching techniques that address technology-facilitated learning,” the report says.

3. Competition from new models of education

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“Difficult challenge” that we understand, but for which solutions are elusive

New approaches have brought “unprecedented competition” for traditional models of higher education, according to the Horizon report.

Institutions are looking for ways to provide a high quality of service and more technologically-enhanced learning opportunities, with massive open online courses (Moocs) at the forefront of these discussions, “enabling students to supplement their education and experiences at brick-and-mortar institutions with increasingly rich, and often free, online offerings”.

However, simply capitalising on new technology is not enough, the report continues. “The new models must use these tools and services to engage students on a deeper level,” it says.

While acknowledging growing scepticism about Mooc completion rates, the report points out that as the cost of university rises, along with the costs of student housing and travel to and from physical campuses, “Moocs present an appealing alternative, especially for graduates who are already in the workforce and looking for fast-track professional development opportunities”.

One of the biggest challenges for institutions is to find a way to design Moocs for academic credit that are “both cost-effective for students and transcend traditional teaching practices”, the report concludes.

4. Scaling teaching innovations

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“Difficult challenge” that we understand but for which solutions are elusive

Universities are not adept at moving teaching innovations into mainstream practice, and current promotion structures rarely reward innovation and improvements in teaching and learning, the report says. “A pervasive aversion to change limits the diffusion of new ideas, and too often discourages experimentation.”

Although universities are being “increasingly pressured to closely examine cutting-edge technological solutions and teaching practices”, there are many barriers preventing institutions from implementing new strategies. However, there is a movement in the US to smooth the path to accreditation, the report says, with advocates proposing more opportunities to experiment with new teaching models that lower prices and bolster student learning.

“Supporters of this reform argue that the potential of technology to improve learning and scale quality instruction for large audiences has already been realised, yet the red tape surrounding the process of accreditation is an impediment for universities to expand their institutions into unexplored territory.”

Despite this, some universities “face capacity issues that limit the depth and speed of integration” of new approaches, even when more innovative curricula have been developed. The report quotes Adrianna Kezar, co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, who argues that there is “no core of faculty to do the work that is needed for meaningful implementation”, because often the number of non-tenure track faculty and part-time adjunct professors outnumber those on tenure tracks.

“This disparity contributes to the lack of impact part-time faculty have in the integration of teaching innovation,” the report continues.

5. Expanding access

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“Wicked challenge” that is too complex to even define, much less address

A “global drive” to increase the number of students progressing to higher education is placing pressure across the system, the Horizon report says.

“The relationship between earning potential and educational attainment, the clear impact of an educated society on the growth of the middle class is pushing many countries to encourage more and more students to enter universities and colleges.”

However, in some countries, expanding access would mean extending it to students who “may not have the academic background to be successful without additional support”, and institutions might struggle to find the time and resources to assist this particular group.

The construction of more college campuses, bolstering online learning, and removing barriers to learning are “only working the edges of this challenge”, the report continues, and given the current shift “from labor-oriented economies towards knowledge-based economies”, the pressure to expand is growing.

“In Africa alone, the continent would need to build four universities with capacities of 30,000 people every week just to accommodate the students reaching enrollment age by 2025,” the report says, referencing data from the World bank.

The challenge is exacerbated by the “digital divide”, with access to education increasingly reliant on access to technology.

“In both the developed and developing world, this gap continues to widen, and the technology based solutions for providing greater access to knowledge, such as Moocs, have little effectiveness if the proper infrastructure or connectivity are not readily available,” the report concludes.

6. Keeping education relevant

Empty lecture hall

“Wicked challenge” that is too complex to even define, much less address

“Many pundits worry that if higher education does not adapt to the times, other models (especially other business models) will take its place,” the report claims in the last of its six challenges.

“While this concern has some merits, it is unlikely that universities as we know them will go away. There are parts of the university enterprise, however, that are at risk, such as continuing and advanced education in highly technical, fast-moving fields.”

According to the report, the proliferation of online learning and free educational content, particularly Moocs, means that universities need to address the question of what they can provide that other approaches cannot, and “rethink the value of higher education from a student’s perspective”.

Horizon quotes a survey by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, showing that total US student debt is over $1.2 trillion (£720 million).

“With mounting fears of debt and an unfavourable job market ahead, some high school graduates are reconsidering the value of a traditional college degree,” it says, adding that university leaders need to rethink what the experience of learning at the institution through a formal education provider is worth.

“Higher education stakeholders are facing a reality that is difficult to digest; the paradigm that has worked for over a century is gradually becoming obsolete, and universities must renovate - or in some cases rebuild their foundations - if they want to stay relevant.”

Only those institutions that seriously consider take how online learning will “redefine the value of a degree, and are open to exploring alternative means of proving skill acquisition through certificates, badges, and e-portfolios” will remain relevant, the report warns.

View the full NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition

Read about the 6 trends that will accelerate the adoption of technology in higher education

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Readers' comments (1)

  • prema dheram

    There is yet another impeding factor that discourages even well- meaning educators from using technology – the lack of collaboration between the IT and non-IT departments. More than one-off kind of hands-on experiences, they may appreciate working with Tech experts who bring in expertise of a totally different kind. Web tools are not always easy to use, and learning to use them with the help of tutorials and online help can be frustrating. At the end of the day, we may make do with a minimal awareness of a few functions. In sum, educators need constant and continuous tech guidance to help them plan their courses and improve their pedagogy.

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