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From Current to Emerging Technologies for Learning

October 29th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

This is the first of a two part blog looking at future and emergent technologies and their implications for learning and teaching and the training of teachers. In this part we look at emergent technologies, in the second we will examine a number of key issues arising from these trends.

Technologies are rapidly evolving and although there is evidence to suggest education lags behind in its adoption of new technologies for teaching and learning  emerging technologies will inevitably impact on education.

This raises a whole series of issues, including how we can train teachers for the emerging technologies they will use in the future rather than those technologies presently in common use. Furthermore, as new technologies are implemented in work processes, this will change curricula demands. We have already commented on changing ideas of digital literacy and the possible impact on pedagogy and student expectations.

The emergence of new technologies cannot be separated from wider issues impacting on education and training. The present economic crisis is leading to new demands in terms of education and at the same time is likely to lead to financial restrictions for institutions.

Emergent technologies also have implications for future infrastructure requirements and may be expected to impact on institutional organisation.

Rather than focus on technology alone, it is more useful to examine the possible social effects of technologies – the socio-technical trends.

Given the fast changing evolution of technologies there is difficulty in predicting future trends and developments within the education sector. This is exacerbated by an increasing tendency to appropriate technologies developed for other purposes for teaching and learning, rather than develop bespoke educational technology. There are many possible future trends and in the literature review accompanying this study we provide an extensive overview. Here we mention but a few.

Each year since 2003, the New Media Consortium, in conjunction with the Educause Learning Initiative, has published an annual report 2002 identifying and describing emerging technologies “likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning, or creative inquiry on college and university campuses within the next five years.”

In the 2010 report (Johnson, Levine, Smith, and Stone, 2010) they identify four trends as key drivers of technology adoptions for the period 2010 to 2015:

  • The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators in sense-making, coaching, and credentialing.
  • People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want to.
  • The technologies we use are increasingly cloud-based, and our notions of IT support are decentralized.
  • The work of students is increasingly seen as collaborative by nature, and there is more cross campus collaboration between departments.

As well as trends they also report on key challenges:

  • The role of the academy — and the way we prepare students for their future lives — is changing.
  • New scholarly forms of authoring, publishing, and researching continue to emerge but appropriate metrics for evaluating them increasingly and far too often lag behind.
  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  • Institutions increasingly focus more narrowly on key goals, as a result of shrinking budgets in the present economic climate.

They look at three adoption horizons for new technologies in education “that indicate likely time frames for their entrance into mainstream use for teaching, learning, or creative inquiry.”

On their near term for the next twelve months are are mobile computing and open content.

They predict that in the next two to three years out, we will begin to see widespread adoptions of electronic books and simple augmented reality.

In the longer term future, set at four to five years away for widespread adoption are gesture-based computing and visual data analysis.

Steve Wheeler (2010) says we are moving from Web 1 where the web connects information web 1 to social software connecting people with Web 2 and to the semantic web connecting knowledge with Web 3. He predicts the metaweb will connect intelligence in what he names as ‘Web x’.

The technologies which will enable this include

  • distributed cloud computing
  • extended smart mobile technology
  • collaborative, intelligent filtering
  • 3D visualisation and interaction (Wheeler, 2010)

In this vision learning content is not as important as knowing where or who to connect to to find it. Such a move is facilitated by the growing trend towards federated repositories of Open Educational Resources (OERs), which can be freely reused and re-purposed.

A further trend, in part based on these emergent technologies, is the possible move away from Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) towards Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). PLEs are made-up of a collection of loosely coupled tools, including Web 2.0 technologies, used for working, learning, reflection and collaboration with others. PLEs can be seen as the spaces in which people interact and communicate and whose ultimate result is learning and the development of collective know-how (Attwell, 2010). A PLE can use social software for informal learning which is learner driven, problem-based and motivated by interest – not as a process triggered by a single learning provider, but as a continuing activity.

It is notable that predictions of emergent trends for education tend to be more focused towards schools and higher education. There is limited analysis of their potential impact in vocational education. In reality, emerging, socio-technical developments could be mobilised to create widely divergent education systems.

Ceri Facer (2009) says “The developments in remote interactions and in disaggregation of content from institution; the rise of the personal ‘cloud‘; the diagnostic potential of genetic and neuro-science; the ageing population; all of these, when combined with different social, political and cultural values lead to very different pedagogies, curriculum, institutional arrangements and cultural dispositions towards learners.”
Facer (ibid) suggests that “the coming two decades may see a significant shift away from the equation of ‘learning‘ with ‘educational institutions‘ that emerged with industrialisation, toward a more mixed, diverse and complex learning landscape which sees formal and informal learning taking place across a wide range of different sites and institutions.”

Facer (ibid) says that rather than try to develop a single blueprint for dealing with change we should rather develop a resilient education system based on diversity to deal with the different challenges of an uncertain future. But such diversity “will emerge only if educators, researchers and communities are empowered to develop localised or novel responses to socio-technical change – including developing new approaches to curriculum, to assessment, to the workforce and governance, as well as to pedagogy.”

This approach, if adopted, would have major implications for the training of teachers in the use of new technologies for teaching and learning. Firstly it means a move towards an understanding of the social impact of technologies and of socio-technical developments, rather than a focus on technology per se.
Secondly it places a high value on creativity and and willingness to explore, model and experiment with new pedagogic approaches. In this respect competences cannot be based on prescribed outcomes but rather in innovation in process. Furthermore it implies a movement towards creativity and innovation in the training of teachers and trainers and freedom to develop more localised and novel responses to the socio technical change, rather than a standardised curricula response.

The approach also is predicated on an informed debate of educational futures and educational values. Teachers and trainee teachers need to be part of that debate.


Facer, K. (2009) Beyond Current Horizons: for DCSFBristol: Futurelab

Johnson, L., Levine, A., Smith, R., & Stone, S. (2010). The Horizon Report. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Wheeler, S. (2010). Web 3.0: The Way Forward?


  1. Thoughtful piece looking at future and emergent technologies and their implications for learning and teaching.

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