This was my second time to attend Educause, an international conference for people who are involved in IT in higher education. Luckily, it is not limited to just folks in IT (whether that’s instructional technology or information technology). This year I met lots of faculty who were doing interesting things with technology in their classrooms. I always feel like an outsider at this conference. I don’t have my PhD yet, so I’m not fully accepted as a peer by the faculty. I don’t often relate to the IT folks because I tend to focus more on results than the technology being used (for me, technology is just a tool). The administrative groups seem frustrated with everyone (faculty and IT) and want me to take their side (but become annoyed when I don’t do that). It’s fun to sit back and watch the groups interact, and my outsider status allows me to do that. Coming to higher ed from the corporate world (and one year of teaching at a private school and another year spent teaching at a conservatory), people sometimes think I don’t yet have enough higher ed experience to understand the problems they face. They may be right, but sometimes I think they just don’t want to hear what I have to say. So I’ll say it here.
This year the conference took place in Anaheim, California. California is a huge state with lots of interesting places, and it breaks my heart that we were brought together in such a distasteful place. Having dinner one evening with some folks from Uppsala University (Sweden), I wanted to assure them that California had some lovely places, not covered in plastic and concrete. I hope they had a chance to see them.
The first half-day session dealt with pedagogical issues in social media. I sat beside a librarian who had never used Wikis, Twitter, Facebook or other social media. I helped her set up accounts so she could follow along. The speakers showed lots of poorly produced video (or played audio podcasts) for most of the session. While I appreciate their attempt to create small working groups to produce content to share (and I won a copy of Camtasia for my contributions – yay!), I could have watched YouTube videos from home. If your presentation consists of 70% video (and loud music), you’ve not really done a good job preparing your thoughts. Rather than having people talk about how cool social media is, it would have been useful to see students using it to learn something. Twitter can be interesting, but if you want that kind of tool, you could also use the chat feature in something like Elluminate (and also have other pedagogical tools). Show me what is different or unique or transformative. What did the students create? What did they learn?
The second half-day session was very well done. Two science professors gave an excellent talk (with a well-produced presentation) called “Learner-Centered Instruction in an Age of Mass-Market Education”. It was impressive to see two science geeks not only know their own subject matter so well, but to also understand (and use!) pedagogical approaches promoted in my field. Would love to be in their classes!
Gary Hamel was the keynote speaker. He had some insightful (and sometimes brave, considering the audience) things to say. He compared higher ed to healthcare, suggesting that both industries had to find ways to dramatically lower costs. He felt that technology would allow that to happen in both fields, but that it was going to be a painful process. He threw in ideas like “imagine a university without faculty” and “why can’t you get an MBA for $250”. Some comments were provocative, but I appreciate his willingness to throw these ideas into the mix (even the ones I don’t necessarily think are valid). I am going to read some of his stuff because I’m curious if he is a cult of personality figure or really bright. We’ll see.
There was an all too brief talk about learning environments, and ways to set them up (physically). I find the research here to be fascinating and am surprised that most universities continue to build classrooms that go against what the research tells us. I sat with a guy from Lancaster University and we tried to understand why classroom designers didn’t get it right. We decided it was because they weren’t talking to the educational researchers who studied learning environments.
ACU gave an excellent talk about what they were doing with mobile technology. Their research results are confirming many of the same findings I am getting at GSU. There are some interesting differences. I have to say, I was impressed with what they were doing and how they were managing the program. Very sharp faculty.
Poster sessions were good too (including the one done by one of our own – hey James!). Arizona State had an interesting table about their one-minute video for students (something I would like to see done for The Exchange and Digital Aqaurium), and my absolute favorite table was by Virginia Kuhn (from University of Southern California) who addressed assessment issues in scholarly multimedia. I also want to give a shout out to Kathryn Tomasek from Wheaton who is doing cool stuff with her history class and digital archives. To Educause, I would just say that you absolutely need to give more physical space to the poster sessions. I couldn’t even get to some of the tables, so who knows what I missed. Those folks put a lot of work into their material and you should honor them with adequate space.
I went to a talk given by folks from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation about getting some ed tech grant money. I have an idea that I am not going to write about here just yet…but I think I may have a shot to do something cool if I can get funding…stay tuned.
Attended an eye-opening presentation from two guys from Purdue, all about their product called Hotseat. I think the product has a lot of potential in some well-designed learning spaces. But it also has a lot of risks. I repeatedly heard the presenters saying that this kind of tool was very useful in a class about human sexuality, where people wanted to remain anonymous. Ironically, on the flight home, I watched a Harvard podcast of a classroom of perhaps 200 students, discussing the highly-charged topic of GLBT marriage. The students stood up and articulated their thoughts, and I think it’s important that we learn how to do that. We cannot always hide anonymously behind our technology. Because we were using Hotseat during the presentation, I found myself tuning out the presenters and paying much more attention to what people were posting. Does this mean that the presenter wasn’t interesting? Does this mean that the posts provided better learning content? It’s hard to say, but many folks commented on how they zoned out when they were posting (and others said they would be zoning out anyway). The presenters did a great job either way, and I want to explore their other tools.
Neil Gershenfeld gave the keynote on Thursday. What a brilliant guy. I loved that he sees the importance of vocational schools, and acknowledges how we have disconnected vocational skills from intellectual skills. I totally want to go back to Galloway and set up one of his FabLabs. Galloway would be perfect for just such a thing.
The hot seat session about games as a way to learn was well done. This was presented by folks whose title included emerging instructional tech. I realized, that’s me – I like working with the new stuff, doing experiments and trying things out with faculty. I need a new title! They did a super job, making folks uncomfortable and getting us to see games in new ways. I love the idea of incorporating a sense of play into teaching. As human beings, we do love to play and shouldn’t feel bad about playfulness in our learning. And I want to give special kudos to Sarah Smith-Robbins who was quite comfortable responding on the fly to a variety of questions and jabs.
In closing, I hope that Educause will continue to push the boundaries, opening themselves up to more faculty involvement and participation. For years, faculty have been accused of living in ivory towers, but IT needs to be cautious about living in a digital tower. We should learn to work together to improve our universities. I think Educause could be a forum to make that happen. Hope to see you next year!