Waking Up at Educause

Walking through the doors of the main hall at the convention center for the general session, my jaw drops. Flashing lights of all colors, a large sound system blasting techno music and a huge stage flanked with stretch fabric and hanging shapes the likes of a bonafide rock concert.  What is going on here?  It’s my first Educause

Just moments before, I adorn my obligatory conference badge and pick through the affiliation stickers to self-identify areas I work in: Teaching and Learning, Web & Multimedia and last but not least: First Time Attendee.  

I work in a Teaching and Learning Center that sits in the siloed landscape of a medical university who finally scraped together enough funds to send three of its Instructional Designers to Educause 2015. We face what  many Instructional Designers or Faculty Development Specialists do at a public institution.  It is what I call ‘swimming in molasses’.  Especially at a medical institution with HIPPA compliance parameters that struggles to collaborate across 3 medical schools, we are swimming in molasses to advocate for new technologies – it's frustratingly slow.

We left “helpdesk cubicle-land” ready to discover what new educational technologies we might offer our faculty and to learn how other universities run their operations.

What I found was the future.

I scroll through the conference program app on my ipad and read, “Waiting for the Cloud: technology, security, and organizational issues”.  Yes, that one is all too familiar to me.  Data security is an important issue and the monetization of learner data is of real concern leading to rich conversations around the question: How can policy makers create standards that do not hamstring innovation?  

There is a special reception and even an exclusive lounge available to just CIO’s.  They are the gatekeepers to investment in instructional technologies which are lagging far behind investment in traditional administrative IT. How smart of Educause to court them. Other session titles included “Blended and Online Learning”; “Factors of Online Course Design that Promote Student Engagement”; “Metacognition in a Technology-Enhanced Environment”, “Mixing it up: Blending Technical and Pedagogical Faculty Development”, “Scaling Content Creation: The One Button Approach”; “Enablers: Academic and Technology Partnerships that Changed the Student Success Game” and many more.  

What caught my eye were the many sessions on competency based education and adaptive learning courseware.  Is this the future?

After the general session, I head to the gigantic exhibit hall filled with over 300 booths of all sizes and configurations.  Google for Education, Microsoft Office 365 for education, all the LMS companies, Amazon Web Services, Echo360, Kaltura and more.  All of them staffed with 5 to 25 staffers ready to help enhance your Institutional Edtech Ecosystem.   I walk past the big company booths with gigantic hanging logo signs to find the Learning Theater, nestled in the middle of the maze of booths to attend “Under the Ed Radar: An Ed-Tech Business Pitch Competition”.  This is where I found the finalists for the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation Digital Courseware Challenge. Unaware of their existence until now, my brain goes into overdrive.

Talk about innovation.  These folks are charged with the task of studying the science of how we learn to inform the development of personalized and adaptive courseware with the goal of helping low-income and disadvantaged learners succeed.  My brain ignites into the possibility of designing curriculum with tools like this.  I want to know more. I walk down to “Start up Alley” in the far corner of the exhibit hall and watch the promo videos for both Smart Sparrow and Acrobatiq, who had just presented.  My mind is blown. They claim to be the world’s most talented online learning teams who will leverage their expertise to bring content alive.  I think, where does this fit in the current ecosystem of edtech in higher education?  Won’t this be cost-prohibitive?  What kind of grants can I find to fund this?  Perhaps rural health initiatives? And how can we design more comprehensive collaborations across systems to harness “big data” to feed this? Is this the answer to the promise that MOOC’s tried to deliver? And so my mind spins...

As I hunt for the answers, I continue on to sessions and walk into “What’s after “Next” in Higher Education?” presented by Michelle Weise, PhD, Director of Sandbox Collaborative. Here is where I find the missing context for where competency based education and start-up’s adaptive learning coursewares fit into the landscape of higher education.  Weise speaks to the ‘elegance of disruptive innovation’ and writes: “Workforce training, competency-based learning, and online instruction are not new phenomena; it is the combination of all of these into one learning pathway that shows true disruptive potential”.  Is this the answer to the growing income inequalities and current demographic trends that fuel students need to find more direct pathways to “skill up”?  The numbers Weise shared included that 42 percent of all college students will be 25 years of age or older by the year 2020 (National Center for Education Statistics) and McKinsey & Company analysts estimate that the number of skill sets needed in the workforce has increased from 178 in September 2009 to 924 in June 2012. My curiosity continues to grow. Later I found her popular article Got Skills? Why online competency-based education is the disruptive innovation for higher education, where she declares “online, competency based education can even out the playing field by taking students to the farthest point possible in their learning experiences, regardless of their starting point, race, geographical location, or family income”.  And she is in an innovation lab at Sandbox collective to make it happen.

Session after session, conversation after conversation, I piece together what the future might hold.  I walk into futurist, Bryan Alexander’s session “Looking ahead to 2026: Trends in Technology and Education”.  It is packed, so I have to sit on the floor.  Among many head spinning trends he shares that income inequalities are still on the rise, we have a ballooning senior population, rising student debt (1.3 million), adjunct faculty are increasing, cloud migration continues, and social media is triumphing.  Some of his “What’s Next?” include  that the average student age will be 40, there will be more transnational campuses, hourly faculty, privatizing of public universities, gamification, student as producer, extensive data analysis, and big changes to the scholarly publication ecosystem as a result of the quietly growing popularity of OERs. My head spins again at the implications, but now I am ready to engage.

I can confidently say “I woke up at Educause”.  Adaptive learning and competency based education may not be the be all “fix” for higher education, but it certainly triggers important questions.  Now I am voraciously reading across the edtech blog-o-sphere where I found a wonderful post from Amy Collier called “Not-yetness” where she suggests that educators stay open to what may be genuinely surprising when online learning and teaching meets emerging technologies. She echoes my experience of finding beauty in the complexity that is the landscape of digital learning.

Not only do I see more clearly where my career as an instructional designer can go, but my curiosity is re-ignited to watch this story unfold.  Prior to arriving at Educause, I had lost hope.  I saw no way out of the reality that Michelle Weise astutely asserts: “colleges and universities are incapable of facilitating innovations that deviate from the way they currently deliver education”.  She taught me why they struggle to do this within the confines of a successful revenue formula.  It’s because new solutions generally appear at odds with existing business models. I am fascinated by the notion that disruptive innovation can not only improve the quality of educational products, but make education more accessible and affordable.

How will I contribute? Where will I leverage my skills to play more effectively in this new and innovative arena? I am all in and ready to play.