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Educause 2015: Reflecting on the How and Why of Education

Posted by Carrie Watkins on Nov 10, 2015 8:30:00 AM
Topics: Higher Ed, ed tech

Last year, I attended EDUCAUSE virtually and was inspired by the hand-picked selection of sessions I watched from the comfort of my spinning office chair. This year, when I put together my request for conferences, I knew I wanted the full EDUCAUSE experience. The salmon-like feeling of walking crowded halls, the spontaneous conversations around charging stations and the frustration that the biotechnology industry has not yet perfected teleportation. 

The annual EDUCAUSE conference is one of the largest gatherings of higher education technology leaders in the U.S. The conference this year drew more than 4,000 people to Indianapolis, representing both institutions and companies working to identify, understand and implement meaningful advancements in higher education. With sessions focused on redefining the meaning of a degree and protecting data from those with nefarious purposes, the agenda hit on many of the topics keeping administrators up at night.

Based on the sessions I was able to attend, the Twitter conversation and discussions I had with exhibit hall vendors, here are my thoughts on EDUCAUSE 2015.

Recognize Learning

It was difficult to find a time slot without a session on competency based education. It was nice to see the conversation move from explaining what CBE is, which happened a lot at EDUCAUSE last year, to tackling the bigger picture of whether the traditional credit hour is the best way to measure learning. Does seat time really tell a school or an employer what a student actually learned? Outside of the discussions, several schools provided first-hand accounts for their alternative credentialing models. There were several conversations about microcredentaling and at least six opportunities to hear first-hand how badging is working in higher education.

Even if schools can come up with a viable alternative to the credit hour, the next hurdle is helping other schools, businesses and employers understand them. As Joellen Shendy from UMUC mentioned on her panel on Advancing a New Era of CBE, the transcripts have to change. CBE has the potential to wipe out what she describes as the “transfer tragedy,” where schools won’t accept credits because they don’t know what those credits mean in terms of learning. But it will be a long, uphill battle to get everyone to understand and embrace a list of skills acquired through competencies as opposed to the traditional list of courses and letter grades.

Platforms that allowed for flexibility in learning paths dominated the exhibit hall. While the line between personalized and adaptive learning was often blurred, the technology is there for students to have completely customized routes to the same learning goal. Some platforms, like LMSs, are simply calling out features that allow for timed distribution based on understanding of previous material. Other platforms are creating very specific paths based on pre-assessments and on-going data collection. The best platforms make sure students repeat their success several times before awarding a competency. I got to see some impressive products from companies like zyBooks and Smart Sparrow, both of whom understand that mastering a concept takes more than guessing the right answer on a multiple choice test.

Learning Spaces

With the conversation around how we define learning, it only makes sense to also have the conversation about the physical space where students learn. The traditional grid-paper desk layout is not conducive to collaboration, unless you are interested in talking with the back of someone’s head. Do you really need computer labs when everyone has a computer in their pocket? And heaven forbid you need to charge your device and use it at the same time. The exhibit hall was peppered with vendors that understood this. Booths were lined with seating depending on what was happening – a quick chat with a current client while charging a device directly from the cushy couch they were sitting in, or perhaps a high-top table good for doing a one-on-one demo. As we look at what we are asking students to do in the classroom, we need to make sure the space available is conducive to those tasks.

Fact is Stranger than Fiction

One of the benefits of working with some of the top private K-12 schools in the country is that we have significant insight into what the college students of the future will look like. A lot of what we’ve told our HE partner schools also came out in the sessions on preparing for the next generation of students. Chief Education Evagelist at Google, Jaime Casap, Education Consultant and Futurist Bryan Alexander, and Executive Director of Sandbox ColLABorative at SNHU, Michelle Weise, all had individual talks that encouraged institutions and faculty to understand the needs of the future student and be ready for them.

Yes, technology is an immovable object in the life of students. Yes, they are multimedia driven. Yes, they are used to technology being in a constant state of flux. Yes, these are things that institutions and faculty can use to their advantage.

The technology of the future is not so far in the future anymore. While there weren’t any hoverboards roaming the exhibit hall, I was able to finally try out Google Cardboard and Google Expeditions to see Mount Rushmore for the first time. While there is a lot to be said about standing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, taking in the smells and sounds of the national monument, imagine the worlds you unlock for students in the urban concrete jungles of the world. Immediately, everyone has a similar vantage point and can get a different perspective on a place, time and environment that supplements all their other learning material.

 This type of virtual and augmented reality is shifting the meaning of course material. For a century, we learned from a book and a subject matter expert. Over the past few decades, we have started to see recorded videos and games become elements in learning. Now, real-time video and virtual environments we can interact with are making the entire world our course material.

The final keynote of Educause 2015 featured Emily Pilloton of Project H Design, an architect who provides experiences as course material to her students. She reminded all of us that learning doesn’t stop once we’ve gotten our degree.  

About Carrie Watkins

Carrie is a former digital consultant for MBS Direct, who specialized in traveling around the country to learn about new products and services MBS Direct can provide to partner schools and bringing those ideas back into the office to work on with the digital solutions team.

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