Emerging Tech Trends for Online Courses

Emerging Tech Trends for Online Courses

The use of technology to enable the learning process already seems cutting edge; however, what makes online education even more exciting is that advances are continually being made that may improve the online learning experience. Some of the latest technological trends have already been implemented and are evident in many schools – while other potential new technological tools are still under development.

The 2011 Horizon Report pinpointed six trends that are likely to have the most impact for online courses over the next five years. These include e-textbooks, mobile learning, augmented reality, game-based learning, gesture-based computing, and learning analytics. The Horizon Report is a collaboration between The New Media Consortium and the EDUCASUSE Learning Initiative. Both organizations research and study the use of technology and its application for learning.


The Horizon Report presents an important point about the use of e-textbooks: What makes electronic books a potentially transformative technology is the new kinds of reading experiences that they make possible. Publishers are beginning to explore richly visual interfaces that include multimedia and collaborative elements. This is a reminder that the implementation of e-textbooks should be done to improve the students’ experience. It’s not about the books or the technology – it’s about addressing and supporting the many ways in which students learn.

An example of a new development with the use of e-textbooks is the eText Pilot Trial Pack that is being implemented within five universities (University of California, Berkeley; Cornell University; University of Minnesota; University of Virginia; and the University of Wisconsin) during the spring 2012 semester. This e-textbook program is the result of a collaboration between Internet2 (a group of 221 colleges and universities) McGraw-Hill (a textbook publisher) and Courseload software (that provides a reader and annotation platform).

These educational institutions can negotiate volume discounts for the e-textbooks and through the schools’ Courseload software students can access their eTexts on any HTML5-capable tablet, smartphone, or computer. The phrase HTML-5 refers to a pending update for the World Wide Web and the purpose is to improve multimedia applications and redesign the web for a much broader range of devices, particularly mobile devices.

There are challenges for e-textbooks that may influence students’ decision to use this format. One concern is that many textbooks are in a PDF or portable document format, which can be difficult to read – especially if the device utilized has a small screen size. In addition, while e-textbooks are often less expensive than buying the new, print version of the textbook, it may not be less than purchasing a used book version.


M-learning or mobile learning, which is also referred to as “learning on the go” is an ongoing development because of the growth of mobile devices, such as smartphones, iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. The sales of mobile devices are expected to increase from 300 million units in 2010 to 650 million units in 2012. As noted in the 2011 Horizon Report: The sheer power of these devices is what makes them interesting, and that power derives from their ubiquity, their portability, the wide range of things that can be done with them, and their ability to access the Internet nearly anywhere. Along with the growth of these devices is the associated growth of their applications. It is reported that app downloads totaled 29 billion in 2011, up from 9 billion in 2010.

Internet usage on mobile devices is also projected to grow and it is estimated that by 2015, 80% of all Internet usage will be done from mobile devices. Mobile Internet access provides a means of helping students find ways to collaborate outside of the classroom. There is Google Docs, which allows students to collaborate on written projects by accessing documents from multiple locations and different (asynchronous) times. Another example is an app called ShowMe that has been developed for iPad that creates a whiteboard on the device. You can record a video and narrate what you are doing on the whiteboard. Once it is finished the file is uploaded to the ShowMe website where a link is provided to the user that can be shared with others.

Augmented Reality

As defined by the 2011 Horizon Report, augmented reality (AR) refers to the addition of a computer-assisted contextual layer of information over the real world, creating a reality that is enhanced or augmented. Augmented Reality is a process of adding virtual imagery to live action. It will be interesting to see how this can be added as a learning activity for online courses. For some online schools, simulated scenarios are being incorporated into the course materials as a means of stimulating students’ interest.

Another version is called ARIS, or Augmented Reality and Interactive Storytelling, which provides a capability to link text, images, video, or audio to a physical location, making the real world into a map of virtual characters and objects that people can navigate with iPhones, iPads, or iPod Touches. One practical application for online courses is to use augmented reality learning with textbooks, which would allow the pages to be manipulated and brought to life through enhanced imagery. This could be a very effective method of generating interest and enhancing reading comprehension.

Game-Based Learning

Another method of engaging online students is through the use of games. The 2011 Horizon Report suggests that alternate reality games (ARGs), in which players find clues and solve puzzles in experiences that blur the boundary between the game and real life, offer a clear example in which course content and game play can overlap. What may be of greater benefit for online students is the use of educational gaming apps that would allow students to obtain additional insights and perspectives about the course topics. Game-based learning could add an element of fun to online classes, especially for students that enjoy this type of interaction.

Gesture Based Computing

Gesture-based computing is believed to be on the verge of making a notable presence in the marketplace and it is estimated that a significant portion of the population will purchase a gesture based computing device by 2015. An example of this type of device is Microsoft Surface and the name comes from surface computing. Microsoft envisions the coffee-table machine as the first of many such devices. Because this product is still in the developmental stage it is not immediately known how it could be utilized in an online classroom environment. Its true potential may not be known until this has been fully developed and entered into the market.

Learning Analytics

Karen Cator, the United States Department of Education’s director of technology defined learning analytics as a product or program that adapts to the learners, or products that are returning to the learner the next thing based on data and analysis of that data. According to the 2011 Horizon Report the larger promise of learning analytics, however, is that when correctly applied and interpreted, it will enable faculty to more precisely identify student learning needs and tailor instruction appropriately. The present models being developed provide real-time feedback about students’ progress, as a means of allowing the instructor and/or the school to take immediate and corrective action.

Here are three examples of learning analytic programs that have been developed or are under development:
-Purdue University’s Course Signals utilizes data-mining to predict at-risk students.
-The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) has implemented a “Check My Activity” (CMA) tool that allows students to track their class activity and grade point averages.
-The Predictive Analytics Reporting (PAR) Framework project plans to gather student data from over 400,000 student records to establish parameters of student success and persistence, as a means of establishing risk factors for students. Six institutions are participating in this project and include American Public University System and the University of Phoenix.

Overall, there are exciting new tech trends emerging and while some of these trends may sound futuristic; they will enable online learning to be cutting-edge and exciting. Cost will most likely be a consideration for online schools, especially for-profit institutions that are experiencing enrollment fluctuations, when decisions are made about the purchase and use of new technologies.

One aspect of online education that can never be replaced with technology is human interaction. Technology has the potential to help improve students’ engagement and interest in the course; however, new enhancements need to remain student-focused, with the goal of helping students meet their learning objectives. The new Horizon Report comes out soon and I’m looking forward to comparing the annual lists of emerging technologies.

Share your thoughts about technology trends via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Tom Grill/Corbis

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