Higher Education’s 2020 Trend Watch and Top 10 Strategic Technologies

Introduction, Overview, and Summary

Introduction and Overview

As colleges and universities journey down the road toward digital transformation, their success depends on certain capabilities that can help these institutions achieve lasting change. Chief among these capabilities is the ability to contend with and become resilient against larger social, cultural, economic, environmental, and political trends taking shape in the world around and within higher education, and institutions must learn to adopt strategic approaches to their technologies, organizational practices, and digital environments. This report offers a closer look at those trends and strategic technologies, practices, and digital environments that will be most important for institutions to plan for and adopt in 2020. Institutional leaders and practitioners can use this information to advance their own institution's capabilities and to be better equipped for the digital transformation road ahead.

Institutions of higher education are a part of the fabric of the world in which they exist. The people who inhabit these institutions think and act in ways that reflect larger cultural and social norms and trends; institutions often struggle or thrive in direct response to changes in economic or political climates; and ideas of what higher education should be or accomplish can depend on what the world demands of an educated, skilled workforce. From the growing complexity of security threats in our increasingly digital world to the burgeoning industry of big data and all it means for our personal experiences and privacy, to our very survival as a species in the face of climate change—institutions of higher education are no less immune to these and other trends than any other organization or industry. Indeed, these trends are perhaps finding their way into the day-to-day structuring and activities of higher education more than we know, as they always have.

As the world around institutions continuously moves and changes in these ways, so too do our technological capabilities and the ways in which we apply those capabilities. While technology in and of itself can never be fully responsible for an institution's missional success or failure, the institution's flexible adoption of new technologies, or its strategic approaches to using those technologies, can be vital supports to the institution in achieving its goals. Of course, technologies and tools like mobile devices and learning applications matter to the experiences of instructors and learners. But, just as important, it matters how institutions and practitioners engage with those technologies and tools and do or do not embed them within their institutional strategy. Mobile devices as classroom technologies can impartially enrich or impoverish the learning experience. Instructors who leverage mobile technology to help bring a lesson to life for their students, however, have unlocked some of the strategic potential of that technology.

The trends and technologies covered in this report all carry the promise of that strategic potential. With thoughtful planning and preparation, institutions can be in a better position not simply to respond to the trends discussed here but to flourish. With leadership and staff buy-in, and with the appropriate resources and supports in place, any one of the technologies and practices discussed here can help move an institution forward in accomplishing its mission. That is the intent behind this report and what we hope the reader will take away from it: information that helps IT and higher education leaders know where to focus and that enables a more thoughtful and strategic approach to practice.

These trends and technologies were identified through an EDUCAUSE survey conducted in the summer of 2019 and completed by 312 US institutions. This report focuses first on the 2020 Trend Watch, a summary of survey responses to a list of trends and their anticipated level of institutional influence. Trends are pervasive external factors that influence institutional and IT strategy and often shape the adoption of technologies. This report examines the trends that institutions are paying the most attention to and that are influencing emerging institutional IT strategy the most. This year's trend list included 48 items.

The second section of the report focuses on strategic technologies and the degree to which institutions are paying attention to and implementing these technologies. Technologies are what IT organizations do. Mature, commonly deployed technologies (such as financial information systems or networks) may be among the most mission-critical technologies, but they are generally more likely to receive operational rather than strategic attention. Strategic technologies, by contrast, are the relatively new technologies institutions will be spending the most time tracking, planning for, and implementing in 2020.


  • The six trends exerting the most influence on higher education's IT strategy are (1) the growing complexity of security threats, (2) student success focus/imperatives, (3) data-informed decision-making, (4) privacy, (5) enterprise risk management, and (6) institution-wide data management and integrations. The top three trends exerting the most influence on higher education's IT strategy this year repeat the top three from 2019. Privacy is a new trend added to the survey this year, while both risk management and data management and integrations have moved up in the rankings this year. Each of these trends is influential at 61% or more of colleges and universities.
  • Three trends that were reported to have a "limited impact" in 2019—Internet of Things, cross-institutional and international scholarly and research collaborations, and bimodal IT—are considered "worth understanding" in 2020.
  • Two trends that were "worth understanding" in 2019—blending of roles and blurring of boundaries between IT and academic/administrative areas, and financial uncertainty for the institution—are "taking hold" across institutions in 2020.
  • The top 10 strategic technologies are characterized by features that will facilitate student access and success; improve data collection, security, and use; and mobile technologies.
  • Uses of APIs remains at the top of the strategic technologies list in 2020. Seven other technologies from the 2019 list also appear in the 2020 top 10 list: institutional support for accessibility technologies; blended data center (on premises and cloud based); incorporation of mobile devices in teaching and learning; open educational resources; technologies for improving analysis of student data; integrated student success planning and advising systems; and predictive analytics for student success (institutional level).
  • Two technologies are new to the top 10 list this year: security analytics, and mobile apps for enterprise applications.
  • With the exceptions of private doctoral and public master's institutions, all institution types are in the planning-expanding phase of "support for accessibility technologies."
  • Public master's institutions are devoting more attention to technologies for improving analysis of student data than other types of institutions. Associate's institutions are devoting more attention to integrated student success planning and advising systems.
  • Wi-Fi 6 and support for 5G are the two most-tracked technologies in 2020, highlighting the need for faster and more robust technology experiences in the future.

We advise institutions to consider the trends and technologies in the context of the Top 10 IT Issues, and we provide a mapping to facilitate institutional conversations and planning.

© 2020 EDUCAUSE. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Citation for this work
Mark McCormack, D. Christopher Brooks, and Ben Shulman. Higher Education’s 2020 Trend Watch and Top 10 Strategic Technologies. Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, January 2020.