Education technology is now an essential asset to connect the classroom to the rest of a student’s life. A recent Deloitte survey called The Future of Learning found that students are keen to learn inside and outside of the classroom, but they want to use a device like a phone, tablet or computer to do so. That makes sense—42 percent of teachers say that at least one digital device is used every day at school, and 75 percent believe digital learning content will replace printed textbooks within the next 10 years.

At the ASU+GSV Education Summit in April, Bill Gates gave a keynote address that neatly summarized how we should think about today’s classroom. He said educators should “get engaged in making it better for the students, a place they want to be, making their learning experience every bit as engaging as all the other digital experiences they have… I believe success will come to the innovators who focus on these new needs, who look at this new majority, who look at why kids are dropping out now, why costs are going up.”

With that in mind, here’s our roundup of the 10 most compelling education technology stories and trends for 2016.

Students want high-tech learning—as long as it comes with a real-live prof

In April, MIT’s Online Education Policy Initiative published a comprehensive report that recommended a synthesis of online and offline learning and also of pedagogies for professors to successfully engage their students. Course content with short lecture videos and quizzes helps students retain knowledge but it is most effective in a blended setting where students regularly interact face-to-face with faculty members who provide context and mentoring, and foster reflection and discussion. “Technology will not replace the unique contributions teachers make to education through their perception, judgment, creativity, expertise, situational awareness and personality” the report reads. “But it can increase the scale at which they can operate effectively.”

A $25-million, no-strings-attached windfall for community colleges

An injection of cash to be used in just about whatever way a school deems most useful? Dreamy. In the State of California, the Awards for Innovation in Higher Education fund gives colleges the freedom to try new ways to help students from all economic backgrounds make it to college, and then to graduate in a timely manner. “It’s not about one single innovation, but creating cultures of innovation in California that support questioning existing structures, practices and policies,” said Christian Osmena, principal program budget analyst in the California Department of Finance. Innovation here is loosely defined, but the program gives preference to ideas that hit on one of these categories: redesigning curriculum and instruction, competency based education, finding new ways of addressing financial aid (like reducing textbook costs) and using technology in ways that are uncommon in higher ed.

Minecraft blows open educational gaming

The global educational gamification market has been steadily growing over the last several years, and now the big players are now making bold moves. In November, Microsoft released its learning-focused version of the stratospherically popular Minecraft game. Minecraft: Education Edition is available in 50 countries and in 11 different languages, and includes the Classroom Mode companion app that lets teachers manage settings and interact with students in the game. (The original game was already being used in 7,000 classrooms in 40 countries without the company’s official involvement, according to Microsoft.) It offers lessons for five-year-old kids up to college-age students, plus a dedicated website for educators with lesson plans, tutorials, starter worlds and the option to collaborate or be tutored by other teachers.

Zuckerberg dives into Indian edtech

The Indian tech scene, long dominated by e-commerce, is shifting to ed tech and is expected to hit $2.5 billion this year and grow at 15 percent over the next three years. In September, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s philanthropic arm, invested a whopping $50 million in BYJU’s, India’s biggest tech company and a champion of personalized learning. It’s an app that provides supplemental school curriculum classes (like test modules, watch-and-learn videos, animations and interactive simulations) for grades 6 to 12, plus advanced prep for post-secondary ed tests (and has been downloaded 5.5 million times already).

Amazon Inspire is a hot marketplace for teachers

Another tech giant is making big moves in the edtech space. In September, Amazon launched an Inspire, an online store with free lessons plans and tools for primary and secondary school teachers—and a platform familiar to anyone who shops on Amazon (search bar, user reviews, star ratings). It’s a one-stop shopping marketplace for learning materials and, eventually, for schools’ wider academic and institutional software needs. The growing market for digital educational materials, where Amazon is gaining a foothold, is likely to prove much more valuable over time than the school computer market (where Microsoft and Google have been focused), say ed tech industry analysts. The expansion into post-secondary needs is inevitable.

Schoold app goes after Viewbooks, a university marketing staple

Like many print publications, Viewbooks, the glossy and expensive promotional pamphlets published by post-secondary institutions are being usurped by an engaging, easy-to-use mobile product. The upshot for prospective university students? Schoold turns months of researching colleges into a 20-minute search. The app pulls together data from 3,125 colleges, including graduation rates and salary projections, adjusts tuition based on family income and background and estimates what each student will get in financial aid, scholarships and work study. (The owner boasts that Schoold helps applicants, with the right grades and scores, realize that attending schools like Stanford and MIT can actually be cheaper than state schools because of all the financial aid available.)

New Master’s programs focus on tech-enabled teaching

Georgetown University now offers a master’s degree program in Learning and Design, a new discipline built around the study of education technology, learning analytics and higher education leadership. (Stanford University also has a Learning, Design & Technology master’s degree, as does Perdue.) Eddie Maloney, executive director of Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, has observed a trajectory in education technology over the last four years: 2012 was an inflection point for the MOOC movement, which he believes rose, crested and fell. “We need to challenge some assumptions we have about the role of technology in teaching and learning; and how technology, design and analytics are helping us to do that better,” he said in a September interview. “Many of us have been talking about this for a long time—that colleges and universities are not just about research and creating new knowledge, and that the practice of teaching needs to be brought back to the center. You can credit the pressure of technology and online education as pushing learning back to the center of a lot of conversations.”

Gen Z is forcing schools to rethink how they teach creative tech

A staggering 85 percent of students and 91 percent of teachers see creativity as essential to students’ future careers, and 93 percent of students and 73 percent of teachers view technology as key to their career preparedness, according to a recent Adobe education survey. Parsons School of Design, Clemson University and Rochester Institute of Technology are just some of the post-secondary institutions prepping for Gen Z students with programs that combine creativity and tech. Leading the way is the Rochester Institute of Technology’s new Magic Spell Studios, a high-tech 43,000-square-foot building dedicated to game development, film and animation and other digital media. The studios, set to open in fall 2018, will house a sound stage, theater, AV system and several labs and production facilities to provide students with the creative tools to launch their own startups.

VR technology expands beyond gaming

As VR technology becomes more sophisticated and accessible, its applications become more wide ranging. Almost two-thirds of the population are visual learners, according to the Social Science Research Network, and studies have shown that using interactive 3D content for learning is significantly more effective (improved understanding, attention span and engagement) than traditional textbooks and 2D resources. For elementary and secondary school students, Lifeliqe Go released over 1,000 interactive, augmented 3D models in September to enhance STEM curriculum–aligned lesson plans. In the post-secondary universe, med students are using VR technology to practice tricky procedures where skill can only be developed over time and with repetition. Further to that, Embodied Labs, which creates virtual reality programs that capture patients’ experiences to train caregivers, launched “We Are Alfred” earlier this year. It allows young medical students to experience what it’s like to be a 74-year-old man with audio and visual problems, all to underline the importance of empathy and bedside manner. And in June, Google said it was making Expeditions, a free virtual reality app for students that has been available on a limited basis to schools, generally available.

Arizona State University continues to win the innovation game

For the second year in a row, the U.S. News and World Report ranked ASU as the number one university for innovation, surpassing Stanford and MIT. The voting cohort of college presidents, provosts and admissions deans liked that the university continues to grow its online degree programs (it offers the world’s first online, accredited engineering degree), reduce the cost of getting a degree (students can take online classes and decide later whether to pay for the credits), and offer expanded services at its downtown campus in Phoenix, which services 11,000 students and includes a fitness center in partnership with YMCA, journalism school, center for law and society, nursing school and college of public service, along with a light rail transportation system that connects to the Tempe campus.


Rebecca Philps

Rebecca Philps

Rebecca Philps is Top Hat's Editorial Director.