Blended learning continues to trend upward, massively open online courses still haven't caught on and digital equity is a fast-rising challenge. These are some of the findings from the latest report from the New Media Consortium released Wednesday, Feb. 15, on higher education trends, challenges and technologies.

The report identifies common threads in 2017 and the last five years that connect some of the major issues confronting higher education. For the last 15 years, the consortium has been putting together reports designed to help education leaders plan ahead for trends, challenges and technologies that could affect their institutions. 

Blended learning has appeared on each list of trends over the last six years as universities figure out how to mix in-person classes with online resources. For the previous five years, competition from new models of education made the challenges list as informal learning spaces and for-profit colleges made major headway, said Samantha Becker, one of the report's authors. And learning analytics showed up as a top technology influencer for a three-year streak, then reappeared again in 2016 as colleges continue to focus on measuring learning and improving student retention.

The longevity of these three areas reveals higher education's long-term focus. And it also means that university leaders who haven't been creating strategic plans that include these three will be left behind, Becker said.

"It's a matter of survival and maintaining relevance," she said.

Even technologies or trends that just appeared on the report for one or two years have something to teach higher education leaders. They're not failed technologies, but rather they force education leaders to start serious conversations about what they're doing, Becker noted. 

For example, massively open online courses appeared in the 2013 report on a wave of hype and promise to educate students worldwide at low or no cost, but they didn't become mainstream.

"While it's debatable whether those have been super-effective yet, what they did tell us is to frankly evaluate whether traditional models are working or not," Becker said.

In 2017, the report included two new challenges for higher ed leaders to tackle: the achievement gap and digital equity. Not every student has access to high-speed broadband and knows how to stay on track to graduate, particularly students who are the first in their family to attend college, come from a low-income family and belong to a minority group.   

That's where data-rich student advising can play a major role as colleges continue to look for answers in the data that show them what helps students succeed and where students might stumble. Adaptive learning tools can also help identify where students are in their learning, what holes they need to fill and provide resources to fill them. 

And on the technology front, two new tools appeared on the higher ed list for the first time in 2017: next-generation learning management systems and artificial intelligence. Similarly, the report included six big-picture themes that stretch across the 18 trends, challenges and tools to watch this year. It will also be translated into six languages so more educators around the world can learn from them. In fact, the expert panel that ultimately chose the topics to include in this report represent 22 countries and included many examples from around the world.

Becker said, "It's really important for us to be able to shine a light on the trends and challenges that are happening everywhere."

For more details, check out the report.