Looking Ahead: Trends that Will Shape Cyberlearning

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Authors: Avron Barr and Joyce Malyn-Smith
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Overview – Five Kinds of Trends to Watch


The ambition of cyberlearning research is to have a broad and profound impact on the products and methodologies used by learners and adults who support their learning (including teachers, coaches, mentors, etc.). To increase the relevance of our work, innovators should try to understand how learning is changing, which changes will have enduring importance, and what kind of adoption timeframes they should anticipate. Technology is not the only driver of change in learning. This primer paints a broad-brush picture of the landscape at this moment. The Resources section suggests some of places to find up-to-date coverage of trends and issues, such as the NMC Horizon Reports.

This primer organizes two dozen current trends that we feel are most relevant into five categories: social and demographic changes, general technology developments, innovations in educational technology, changes in the way we teach, and business trends. While we focus on the United States, other markets are experiencing similar changes. Where possible, we’ve tried to suggest some of the implications for cyberlearning research.

Issues – The Long View

There are so many innovations, disruptions, and trends to track, it’s difficult to know which will impact what aspects of education and learning science research in the short term. In taking a longer view, however, some issues clearly warrant attention from cyberlearning researchers.

There are winds of change in education from charter preschools to the university-based MOOCs. Change creates opportunities for innovation and for new technology. The rapid advances in educational technology have created products that offer educators and learners an ever broadening array of features and functionality. In fact, today’s students, many of whom are power users of technology, increasingly demand that advanced computing and communications resources be available to facilitate their learning. But technology is not the only driver. Technology creates the possibilities; the market creates success. In the process, institutions, companies, business models, and whole industries can break apart and recombine. For example, will US public schools, currently responsible for sheltering, teaching, socializing, and certifying the preparedness of our children, continue to exist as a single institution?

One could argue that if K-12 or higher-education institutions in the US were meeting the market’s needs in an effective and efficient manner, technological innovations in teaching and learning would never find a major niche here. However, the cost of higher education, indeed the cost of textbooks alone, have become national issues. There is open debate about the value of a college degree; vouchers to support alternatives to the public education system; homeschooling; and the decline of the high school diploma. A college degree is no longer a guarantee of upward social mobility, or even a job. And for-profit companies claim that they can do a better job than our public schools at just about any aspect of education — and do it cheaper. New teachers receive little training in what today’s ed tech can do or how to use it.

Public discussions about the cost, effectiveness, relevance, and even the goal of education are commonplace and will in all likelihood influence research funding as well as the nature of the problems faced by schools, teachers, and learners — the problems researchers must address if their work is to realize its potential impact. Implications for cyberlearning are not limited to formal education (K-20+). Learning environments will no longer be defined solely as school-based. Innovations resulting from the emergence and application of new technologies to learning will influence the ways individuals of all ages learn as they live, attend schools, and work in the 21st century.

The purpose of education. Looking out 10 years, will we have the same percentage of high school students going to college? Will trade and professional education continue its growth? Will we adopt a more European model of limited, merit-based (test-based) advancement to secondary and postsecondary education? Will independent certification for specific job skills change the value of a high-school diploma? Will a high-school diploma mean anything to prospective employers? Will the lack of upward social mobility dramatically reduce demand for a college degree? Will life-long learning be a bigger factor in the global demand for education? Will countries decide that mandatory education could be completed by age 16 instead of 18, or that 18-year-olds need to know twice as much as we are teaching them today? The way people approach these macro questions, and the policies that result, have a direct effect on the funding of research and, ultimately, on its relevance.

Rise of informal learning and independent certification. Where and how learners access information is not only changing our assumptions about how we define “learning environments,” it is also challenging formal educators in new ways. How will educators evaluate and leverage informal learning? How will they assess students’ prior out-of-school learning against prescribed curricula and make adjustments in order to reach/teach each student? How will educators recognize and build upon students’ independently acquired expertise to nurture their talents? How will formal learning be organized (e.g. flipped classrooms) to engage student’s informal learning skills/interests? Will the role of informal educators change? And if so, what types of new trainings/certifications might be needed of them? What new technologies/systems/practices will formal educators use to design, manage, assess and integrate students’ out-of-school learning into the formal education curriculum?

School infrastructure. Researchers should be aware that the classroom infrastructure is changing — Bring Your Own Device is just the beginning. It is hard to predict how the many general and education-specific technology trends will shape our research and the commercial impact of cyberlearning. One surprising possibility for cyberlearning researchers: historically, schools and classrooms had IT infrastructure that was years behind what we had in our labs. As schools, districts, and colleges build innovative solutions incorporating multiple advanced systems and products, researchers may find their lab’s IT infrastructure falling behind the schools they study. More of the research may have to be done in the field and in cooperation with commercial product vendors.

Online economics. Will schools and colleges routinely use online offerings to reduce labor costs and supplement their course catalogs in areas where qualified faculty are in short supply (e.g. computer programming or Chinese language)? Will online students be critical to the business models of all colleges, not just the for-profit institutions? How will residential programs differentiate themselves? In what ways will the online courses, independent certification, and other technological trends impact faculty staffing at the university and, in turn the demand for PhD’s to teach? How could a country without an effective literacy infrastructure, for example, find ways to educate their populations without building schools?

AI. Automated tutors and assistants are going to get smarter and more human-like — think bots that understand and use speech, gestures, facial expressions, etc. What kinds of tools will teachers need in order to manage 20, or 200, students who each employ multiple AI’s that in turn are scheduling, teaching, assessing, coaching, and advising them? Will smart products change the role of humans in the education process? How will today’s public education systems manage this change?

Secure data sharing. Smart systems require data: data about the learner’s objectives, preferences, and history, and data about the available resources (activities, assessment instruments, courses, …) and their interdependencies. While student data privacy is a legitimate political issue, we must find a way for smart systems to securely share information about learners — not just grades, but their interests, preferences, activity streams, history, and details from the complex student models these systems build. Using data about the learner accumulated by other systems will be critical for the acceptance of AI-enhanced products like intelligent tutoring systems, personal learning assistants, adaptive drill and practice systems, learning games, smart books, and learning analytics engines.

Educational publishing and the marketplace. Who will mass produce the advanced learning activities envisioned by researchers using technologies like games, virtual reality, augmented reality, learning analytics, video, GPS, affect recognition, and AI? Will it be today’s textbook publishers, game companies, tablet platform vendors, university professors, or a new category of provider? How will these offerings be sold to school districts and how will they be used in the classroom? How will administrators, teachers, parents, and learners discover, evaluate, acquire, use, review, and recommend the myriad of technology-based educational offerings? Will there be an Amazon for teachers?

There are surely many additional issues of great consequence to education and to research. Following these trends increases the likelihood that our research will remain relevant to the practice of education.


Some recommendations for keeping up with the various trends that will impact cyberlearning and related research. Please contact CIRCL if you have additional suggestions for ways to keep up with the trends that affect cyberlearning.

Edsurge is a great weekly newsletter for following ed tech trends, investments, and startups. Other publications that cover ed tech trends include:

The New Media Consortium’s several Annual NMC Horizon Reports look at emerging trends and technologies in K12, Higher Ed, Libraries, Museums and Schools. Horizon Reports are also archived and freely available in LearnTechLib.

Many conferences focus on emerging ed tech and its application in the various education and training market segments. The keynotes from these events are often made available on line. Worth mentioning are:

To track technology trends more generally:

Trends in education, pedagogy, and classrooms:

Some recent reviews of Social and Demographic trends:

Business trends in education and publishing:


References and key readings documenting the thinking behind the concept, important milestones in the work, foundational examples to build from, and summaries along the way.

See also: publications from NSF-funded cyberlearning projects.

Key Readings

Baron, E. (2016) Google wants to take your temperature and count your heartbeat. Silicon Valley Times, April 21, 2016.

Catalao, F. (2015, January). “Can you count to $2 billion? Education technology investment hits new record.” GeekWire.

Carey, K. (2015, March). The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. Riverhead Books. See related articles in Inside Higher Ed and Business Insider, and a rebuttal by Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab.

Carnevale, A. P., Strohl, J., & Gulish, A. (2015). College is Just the Beginning: Employers’ Role in the $1.1 Trillion Postsecondary Education and Training System. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success

Crawford, K., & S. Venkatasubramanian (2015). Why Machines Discriminate—and How to Fix Them. Interviewed on Science Friday, November 20, 2015.

Docebo. (2014, March). E-Learning Market Trends and Forecast 2014-2016.

Dubrow, A. (2015). 7 Cyberlearning Technologies Transforming Education. Huffington Post, April 6, 2015.

Edtech Digest (2012, March). Venture Capital Investment in Ed Tech.

Brown, M., Dehoney, J., and Millichap, N. (2015, March). The Next Generation Learning Challenges, EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.

Gartner (2015, February). Gartner Highlights the Top 10 Strategic Technologies Impacting Education in 2015.

Jaschik, S. (2015, September). Admissions Revolution. Inside Higher Ed, September 29, 2015.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Adams Becker, S., Freeman, A., Giesinger Hall, C., Cummins, M., and Yuhnke, B. (2016). NMC/CoSN Horizon Report: 2016 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Project Tomorrow (2015). Trends in Digital Learning: Empowering Innovative Classroom Models for Learning.

Rislov, George (2015, June). The Evolution of American High Schools. Apass Educational Group LLC.

Sharples, M., Adams, A., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2014). Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Open University Innovation Report 3. Milton Keynes, United Kingdom: The Open University.

Sharples, M., Adams, A., Alozie, N., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Means, B., Remold, J., Rienties, B., Roschelle, J., Vogt, K., Whitelock, D. & Yarnall, L. (2015). Innovating Pedagogy 2015: Open University Innovation Report 4. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Sharples, M., de Roock , R., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Koh, E., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Looi, C-K, McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Weller, M., Wong, L. H. (2016). Innovating Pedagogy 2016: Open University Innovation Report 5. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Straumshein, C. (2015, August) Triaging Textbook Costs. Inside Higher Ed.

SURF (2016, November). Trend Report 2016: How Technological Trends Enable Customised Education.

Williams, I. (2015, April). 7 Key Elearning Trends for 2016. Elearning Industry.

Publications from NSF-funded Cyberlearning Projects

Norris, C. A., & Soloway, E. (2015). Mobile Technology in 2020: Predictions and Implications for K-12 Education. Educational Technology, Vol. 55(1), pp. 12-19.


Primers are developed by small teams of volunteers and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Suggested citation:

Barr, A. & Malyn-Smith, J. (2016). CIRCL Primer: Looking Ahead: Trends that Will Shape Cyberlearning. In CIRCL Primer Series. Retrieved from http://circlcenter.org/looking-ahead-trends-that-will-shape-cyberlearning

After citing this primer in your text, consider adding: “Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).”