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Innovative Learning Approaches Shape the Future of Education



I’ve always been amused by speculative history. Whether it’s a meticulous sci-fi story about mankind in the twenty-third century, a cartoony take like The Jetsons, or a weirdly prophetic magazine spread from a 1900 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal, it’s fun to see how people imagine the future.

Many in the past have predicted a total technology takeover, with machines and programs infiltrating every part of human life and work. Well, “the future is now,” as they say, and 21st-century technology has applications across virtually every field and task. Today, 97% of Americans own a smartphone, according to Consumer Affairs, and the internet has become the new town square. These days, even farmers rely on tech, driving tractors with onboard software that precisely tracks seed placement and growth.

The last two decades have brought massive changes, and it feels like we’re only getting started. Even now, new technologies are emerging, like virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Once more, people will need to adapt.

What future trends in education will develop as provocative new technologies arrive? The answer may lie in some innovative learning approaches that are being implemented across the world.

The Rise of Tech in Learning

We’ve come so far already. In the 1980s, it was a big deal for a school to buy one or two “microcomputers” for the entire faculty, staff, and administration to share. In today’s schools, there’s a personal computer in every classroom. For decades, computers have helped teachers plan lessons and track grades, making PCs as vital a tool as the dreaded red pen. As more tools become available, innovative teachers are reaching into this repertoire to spark improvements in learning efficiency, information retention, and student motivation and engagement. Modern instructional technology facilitates adaptive learning, designing lessons customized to each student. It’s easy to see why many educators are excited by these prospects!

Despite this potential, technology usage throughout the learning process is relatively low. Nonprofit Project Tomorrow released data from its 2022-23 Speak Up research showing that only 15% of teachers in the United States use a digital tool to create learning media for their students each week. The report notes, “While technology use is now part of the DNA of students’ learning behaviors, in-classroom use is still primarily passive and in support of adult management goals rather than student skill development.”

There is demand for change. Within the same report:

  • 96% of parents said the effective use of classroom technology was important to their child’s future
  • 53% fretted over their child potentially missing out on vital instruction because of technology misuse

The rise of low code and no code (LCNC) technology is helping teachers respond to parent expectations by making the development of custom materials, apps, and experiences easier than ever. Instead of investing time and money to learn coding, LCNC technology is intuitive and user-friendly, providing accessible means to efficiently build complex and automated programs.

Our own university has jumped on this trend, empowering faculty and staff to solve practical problems and improve outcomes through its LCNC technology platform. USF has also democratized advanced technologies via the Digital Media Commons, a multimedia production area that makes cutting-edge, powerhouse technology available to all USF students, faculty, and staff.

Students have probably already experienced some of these developments at their own schools, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. For a look into the future, let’s examine some specific trends that sit on the cutting edge of modern education.

Online Learning Changes the Paradigm

Online learning has been around for decades, growing slowly and consistently. In higher education, the number of students taking at least one online course rose from 25% to 36% between 2012 and 2019, but COVID-19 forced an acceleration as schools closed and instructors rapidly adopted new solutions to continue teaching their students. Suddenly, in just a year, nearly three-quarters of students gained hands-on experience with online classes. Throughout 2020, 46% of students across every level studied entirely online, and an additional 27% took at least some online courses.

Post-pandemic, the landscape has changed. 60% of college students now take some or all their classes online, on their schedule, and this change is driving innovation in course design, making online learning environments more engaging to keep students motivated. (Credit to Forbes for these online learning statistics.)

Hybrid courses (part classroom, part online) are gaining popularity, with some adopting a “HyFlex” model that lets students control how much time they spend in-person versus online. As the 2023 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report points out, “Students want more flexibility and convenience when it comes to how their education is delivered — for individual courses and degree programs on the whole…Students place less importance on in-person classes and more on online options.”

Universities are responding to these new expectations. For instance, USF currently offers seven undergraduate degrees with significant online components, along with nearly 50 fully online graduate programs. The outlook is bright: 83% of business leaders see no difference between an on-campus degree and an online degree from an accredited university that has a good reputation.

At the K-12 level, most instruction is in-person, but that may change soon. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that 97% of 3- to 18-year-olds in the US have access to the internet at home, opening new potential avenues for hybrid instruction — if K-12 schools can dedicate the resources to roll them out.

It seems likely that the future will bring even more opportunities for quality online learning, but there are challenges inherent to this process. The Horizon Report cautions, “As institutions plan for sustainability, they will need to be intentional — a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work. Colleges and universities will need to figure out how to design learning experiences that vary in format and the way they are accessed but are equivalent in quality and learning outcomes.”

Students with virtual reality headsets on.

Augmented and Virtual Reality Show Us More

We’re a long way from Ready Player One-level virtual reality (VR), but that hasn’t stopped schools from experimenting with current VR technology. VR is an immersive experience, allowing users to move within a space as if they were there. It’s easy to imagine the applications. During a lesson on ancient Rome, for example, a teacher could ask students to wear a VR headset and be transported to the Colosseum, faithfully reconstructed, with more detail than any textbook figure. Administrators could ask teachers to participate in a VR training exercise, immersing them in a classroom scenario that they must navigate like a game, building valuable skills along the way. Medical students can conduct virtual surgeries and a new language can be learned through virtual versions of common interactions: “¿Dónde está la biblioteca?”

There is a downside to VR: even without the sleek haptic suits and rotating treadmills of the movies, access is expensive. The headsets available now cost about $500 each. No one wants to be the person watching someone else enjoy VR, so how much for a classroom of 20? And that’s without any software; Roundtable Learning estimates the cost of developing a custom program between $50,000 and $100,000! We have a few hurdles to overcome before VR takes over the classroom.

Augmented reality (AR) may be the next best thing, though. To quickly wrap your head around this technology, consider Pokémon GO, the mobile game where players can collect digital creatures from real-world locations. Through your device, Pokémon are layered on top of reality to experience familiar settings in new ways.

Dr. Sanghoon Park, USF associate professor and coordinator for our Learning Design and Technology graduate program, shared an illustrative example of AR in action. In traditional learning, a social studies teacher can explain the history of immigration, invite discussion, and plan activities related to the material, but students don’t get the whole story. A lot of valuable information is left out.

To fill that gap, Dr. Park and his team created AR applications that gave students insight into the motivations and struggles of immigrants through real recordings and images, delivered digitally.

“Hearing the story from the teacher versus hearing the story directly from the people who had that experience is totally different,” Dr. Park contends. “Using AR can help students become engaged and immersed in learning. In the classroom, technology can be used for supplementary material, while the main course content comes from the instructor.”

New offerings from familiar brands help AR experiences reach classrooms. Textbook manufacturer McGraw Hill’s award-winning AR service plans to reach 10 million K-12 students by 2030. The app lets students use a tablet to conjure up interactive examples of applied math or models of the circulatory system on the desk in front of them.

“The app truly gives students greater agency in their learning,” says Robert Spierenburg, CEO of All Things Media. “Every McGraw Hill AR app activity takes an observe-explore-evaluate approach, where you watch a narrated animation do it first, then you have an interactive component where the student can perform the actions themselves.”

It’s tough to nail down how long a student’s attention span lasts, but one thing’s for sure: it’s less than your average lecture. AR and VR promise to keep students engaged while retaining more of the material. It’s very likely that both tools will continue to have a place among the future trends of education.

Gamification Makes Learning Fun

Since our beginning, humans have played games. Why should we exclude them from the classroom?

As educators struggle to motivate students, they have turned to this essential pastime in two ways.

Using games designed for entertainment as teaching tools

Some teachers “trick” students into learning by taking advantage of the incremental learning and feedback mechanisms inherent to games.

As Dr. James Paul Gee describes in his blog, “How Video Games Create Good Learning,” games turn learning into pleasure. Beyond the graphics and controls, games “make players think like scientists. Gameplay is built on a cycle of ‘hypothesize, probe the world, get a reaction, reflect on the results, re-probe to get better results,’ a cycle typical of experimental science.” Furthermore, games lower the consequences of failure, present well-ordered problems, encourage players to consider systems instead of isolated events, and feel “challenging, but doable.”

Based on these principles, teachers have successfully used the real-time-strategy game Civilization, in which players control real-world empires, to teach history and geography, subjects that are vital to player success.

Incorporating game design elements into the learning experience

The second form of gamification uses the core elements of games to motivate students. These elements are:

  • Objectives
  • Competition
  • Scoring
  • Awards
  • Roleplaying
  • Customization

Teachers can design a simple “quiz show” where students get ranked on a class leaderboard, or organize a complex “quest,” like a scavenger hunt or collaborative challenge. To streamline the process of determining results, students can participate using smart devices equipped with apps that have been designed to gamify the classroom.

During games, paying attention and retaining knowledge become essential skills, rewarding engaged students with achievement and recognition. Games help teachers overcome common learning design challenges in ways that students appreciate and enjoy, and clever educators will continue to find new ways to incorporate games into instruction.

A person using a laptop with an E-Learning overlay graphic.

Artificial Intelligence Revolutionizes Learning

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been a hot topic in education since ChatGPT made the general public aware of advancements to predictive AI. Students and instructors alike realize the enormous potential of a world where the average person has access to AI tools — and the pitfalls.

AI tools are already moving educators away from “one-size-fits-all” learning and towards personalized learning experiences. AI’s ability to recognize inputs and predict patterns means that it can adapt to the student in real-time, overcoming roadblocks by answering complex questions.

Teachers “no longer have to ‘teach to the middle,’ as so often happens when the students in a classroom have a range of skill levels and learning abilities,” according to The Atlantic. “Now all of those students can sit in the same classroom, with the same teacher, and learn at their own pace.”

AI chatbots give students on-demand assistance at any hour of the day or night. In a flash, AI can process mindboggling amounts of data about each learner, helping teachers identify where students are falling behind and plan for improvement. AI tools streamline the lesson design process and improve the efficiency of workflows, helping teachers quickly complete the repetitive, time-consuming tasks that come with the job, like grading assessments and providing minor corrections. This frees up more time for the teacher to have human interactions with students.

While researching a topic, students can use ChatGPT like a search engine, delivering specific and helpful leads to follow up on. That’s incredibly helpful, but other functions have educators concerned. ChatGPT can be used to write papers, a new species of plagiarism that instructors are scrambling to detect and discourage. As AI gets better, will it eventually become impossible to distinguish whether someone used it to plagiarize? Only time will tell.

Ethical concerns abound with AI, but its impact as a time-saving tool and usefulness in creating personalized learning experiences cannot be overlooked. Educators need to find a balance as AI tools continue to advance in the future.

Big Data Powers it All

These new approaches to learning design rely on vast amounts of data, which is collected to measure and track student, teacher, and school performance.

Dr. Park explains that 10 years ago, teachers could only collect data from grades and simple surveys that asked if the student learned and if they enjoyed the experience. Today, he receives mountains of data about each student in his online courses, tracking their progress through learning modules on a moment-by-moment basis.

“I can see student-level information, course-level information, and information for each module,” Dr. Park says. “It helps me learn how students work and how they experience my online courses. Using that dataset, I can understand how students are learning and track their progress.”

He also collects student feedback through weekly surveys, instead of waiting until the end of the semester. From this data, he can analyze and predict behavior, improving his material and achieving better outcomes.

Universities are also using data to improve overall student outcomes. They can identify concerning data trends like a low graduation rate, get to the root of the problem, and find actionable solutions.

Some have raised concerns about the risk of maintaining so much data on students. Cybersecurity and proper data management are essential to preserve privacy, so universities are instituting strict policy guidelines and investing in infrastructure to address these concerns. Designated officers investigate data breaches and oversee mandatory employee training in FERPA, a federal law that protects education records.

These measures do seem to ease concerns. Inside Higher Ed reports that overall, students trust their colleges to be responsible stewards of their data, but also may need to know more about the sort of data that’s collected and how it’s used.

Data collection powers emerging technologies. As educators embrace personalized and adaptive learning and administrators prioritize student success, data will only become more valuable.

Barriers to Adopting New Technology

While each of these innovative learning approaches are being used in some schools, the majority has been slow to get on board. Why is that?

Dr. Park explains that the instructors using these new methods are early adopters — people quick to embrace new solutions. Most teachers have established methods and little ability — or incentive — to shake things up.

“There should be more professional development, training, and reliable ways to share information between teachers,” Dr. Park advises, “so there can be a better understanding of how these strategies can be applied in different settings.”

Administrators interested in innovative learning approaches should allow teachers to set aside time at work to consider and design these new approaches, he adds, acknowledging that teachers are stretched thin already. Funding is also an issue: emerging technologies are often expensive.

Ultimately, these decisions are out of teachers’ hands. Over time, though, technology becomes cheaper, priorities change, and more people will adopt new solutions.

Do Not Fear Tech

Many fear that we’ll be replaced by technology. Maybe it’s the bleak future visions of movies like The Matrix and The Terminator, maybe it’s the AI art discourse, or maybe it’s those frustrating self-checkout kiosks popping up everywhere; we recognize that machines are taking over, bit by bit (pun intended).

It’s understandable to worry that educators will be left behind, but Dr. Park has a more positive outlook. When I asked, he smiled and referenced Game of Thrones: “Winter is coming.”

He elaborated, “Whether we like it or not, technology is coming. Tech is always advancing. Embrace it. You don’t need to know everything [to succeed].

“Tech can be better at managing or delivering content, but it does not replace educators. We need to find ways to embrace new technologies and incorporate them into our learning process. Our focus should be on students: What’s the best way to use technology to support them?”

If these future trends in education intrigue you as a student, plan to attend an innovative university that embraces them! A preeminent research university, USF has won awards for its use of emerging technologies to adapt to changing circumstances. We offer over 200 majors, many with online components that are led by tech-savvy instructors like Dr. Park.

Contact our admissions team to start the enrollment process now!