ed. We welcome Sasha Thackaberry with this post summarizing observations at last week’s WCET conference in Denver. We met Sasha while consulting at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) and were impressed with her breadth of knowledge. We’ve asked her to provide her own take on the WCET conference.
It was my first time at the WCET Annual Meeting in Denver. I was extremely fortunate to attend and thrilled to present with Luke Dowden, whom I met for the first time at the conference. To hang on to some of the great learning, I wanted to create a brief recap of the conference and some thoughts on the next evolution of edtech in higher ed.
One theme that emerged from the conference was that higher education is moving beyond an era of traditional online courses and programs toward a more simultaneously disaggregated and integrated future. This evolution is creative, messy, and occurring on multiple fronts, with the twin drivers of tightening budgets and the need for college-ready graduates propelling new models of learning and teaching. Individual and highly specialized innovations are converging to create entirely new ecosystems of learning, both pedagogically and architecturally.
The overall tenor of the conference was future-forward. Not focused on limitations, instead the sessions and keynotes centered around a common theme: We can rebuild it. We have the technology…. We can make it better, stronger, faster, (and cheaper.)
1. We’re beyond “traditional online courses.”
Though this may seem like a “duh” moment to many of us in edtech, this is still news to parts of the higher education industry. There is a wide spectrum of implementation of online courses and programs in higher ed – anywhere from cohesive online programs that have a formalized course creation, redesign and QA process to those institutions that we liked to call to as the “Wild West” of online learning, which refers to courses created at will without formalized quality review, partnership with instructional designers or developers, or in some cases even required faculty training.
However, on the other end of the other spectrum, that Wild West concept referring to online courses is so last week. On the new frontier of digital learning innovation in higher ed we’re seeing modularization at a new level, competency-based education yes, but also microcredentials, integration of alternative providers like boot camps and incorporation of open learning like MOOCs. We’re talking convergence of digital innovation. Many national initiatives are supporting this evolution in various ways (see #2 about ecosystems.)
And how is this evolution occurring? These alternative learning models may seem like they’re fringe, outside of the mainstream, branded with the stamp of the all-too-overused “Disruptive Innovation.” However, we’re increasingly seeing these alternative models being intentionally incorporated into the fabric of higher education. The institutions leading the charge are strategically taking smart risks to be at the front-end of this evolutionary spectrum, meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse population of lifelong learners.
Check out Wichita State University’s Stackable Badges for awarding credit. The Colorado Community College System is conducting a system-wide digital badging initiative. There are initiatives to gain credentialing coherence like “Connecting Credentials” and the associated project the Credential Transparency Initiative. Colleges are increasingly aware of graduating students who can actually get jobs (note this is not a knock on a liberal arts education, which I passionately believe in; folks need to have a family-supporting wage too.) Adaptive learning was a big topic too – Colorado Technical University’s Intellipath is an example. Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) was a topic, and though it’s not new by any means, it is gaining additional adoption as colleges struggle to reconcile how credit will be awarded and transcribed. Competency-Based Education (CBE) was highlighted, with UW’x Flexible Option taking front and center for a session. There’ve been a bunch of new convenings and conferences popping up around this accelerating model, including CBExchange in Phoenix and CBE4CC in Denver. There were also the more traditional concerns about state authorization and student authentication as well as protecting student data. Less fun for my particular brand of geekiness, but no less critical to the success of our endeavors. There was also the groundbreaking work of scaling Open Educational Resources (#OER) that University of Maryland University College shared, which won them a WOW award. Dreaming the dream of a no-textbook-cost degree! All of these conversations – from talented colleagues – had one thing in common: they are deeply connected and intertwined.
2. We’re talking ecosystems and acceleration.
The portfolio approach is passe – the digital learning ecosystem is the new portfolio approach (for those of you unfamiliar, that was the world’s most awkward “Orange is the New Black” parallel.)
The interconnected nature of each of these elements means that institutions need to make decisions about scope and identity. First, institutions need to know where they are on the spectrum of innovation in digital learning. Secondly, they need to decide where they want to be. And – this is important – institutions that don’t make that decision consciously may find themselves overtaken by those institutions who have.
There are initiatives cropping up all over the place to bring the effectiveness of these new models to scale, including the Competency-Based Education Network (#C-BEN), CBEinfo.org which is another great organization/resource site, and IMS Global, which is attempting to solve the substantial system integration challenges that this ecosystem introduces. I could list them but it would be a long list, and it would be incomplete – it seems like new initiatives crop up every day.
This new digital ecosystem is like a living thing – it adapts, grows, rewires itself, makes new connections, mutates. The tightening of state budgets and the calls for job-ready graduates are the climate change of this digital ecosystem. Dramatic shifts in the environment are necessitating adaptation and change.
Though “evolve or die” may be a little dramatic, operating on the same assumptions that sustained higher ed a generation ago will not be successful for most institutions. Figuring out how to dig in with both hands and get messy and creative will be a successful strategy for institutions that are evolving, and improving student success as they go.
Interested in learning more about culture change and innovation? Check out the asynch resources from the presentation I did with Luke Dowden, “Strategic Innovation: Working Through the Strategy and the Skeptics.” Here’s the Google Site we used to curate resources and the strategies themselves: www.tinyurl.com/Strategy2Innovate. If you’re one of my Tweeple, you can catch all the action by searching #Strategy2Innovate on Twitter.
3. Oh the humanity – yep, we’ve got that too.
One of the challenges with “traditional” online education has long been “student engagement.” Student engagement is the strange and wondrous, amorphous term that we in education use to describe the human element – interactive communication, a sense of connection, a feeling of belonging and responsiveness that comes when learners – and college staff and administration – feel that they are part of a community. The complaint of asynchronous learning has long been that it lacks student engagement, and at least some data supports that the student grades and retention rates are higher in face-to-face classes and blended/hybrid courses than in fully online courses. This has been particularly pronounced at the community college level, though students who take online courses also graduate in greater percentages than those who do not. More than one study has found no difference overall in learning outcomes. And indeed, studies have revealed the importance of engagement within online courses for student success.
How do we square this lack of student engagement with the world in which we live where Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and a dozen other ubiquitous social media channels are a core part of how we stay connected to friends and family?
Here’s the secret answer – there’s a better way to do it.
When over one third of marriages in the U.S. start online, I think it’s time that we can squarely throw out the hypothesis that online interactions – in and of themselves – are less satisfying, less connecting, and less effective for learning than those in the ostensible “real world.” Our core business in higher education has not been wholly dependent on creating systems and processes to support meaningful interactions online. Harmony.com, however, has quite a bit invested in meaningful interactions online. Colleges and universities have long been in the business of information transference – a totally different purpose and one that is being fractured as our understanding of effective learning and teaching transforms. The legacy systems that still dominate the marketplace like LMSs are not designed for connection, they’re designed for information delivery and assessment.
Student readiness and instructional design are of course, the other two core components of the triad of effective elearning, but this engagement component can, will, and is being tackled. As more colleges experiment with what student support, coaching, and advising mean, they’re finding huge dividends in virtual connections. And we’re talking beyond email or phone calls, we’re talking mobile apps, texting alerts, and a Skype, Facetime, Google Hangout, WebEx, and Adobe Connect world. A panel discussion about virtual student coaching brought up many of these concerns and how some companies and institutions are making online coaching effective and engaging. Engaging faculty – both full-time and particularly adjuncts – is critical too. Excelsior College shared strategies for engaging adjunct professors while UC Online and Case Western Reserve University shared their alternatives to sit-and-get training.
The point of the technology is not technology itself. It is a tool that enables rich learning.
This human digital experience is indeed “sometime in the future” for many colleges and universities. Meanwhile, innovative institutions are evolving their very DNA, creating agile processes that support turning on a dime. Size, funding, and stature no longer guarantee success for institutions. In an increasingly unbundled world of learning, the student has a level of choice like never before. They will vote with their mouses, with their tablets and thumbs.
4. Insert pithy leadership-related title here….
The second day of the conference was kicked off with a fantastic panel on leadership in edtech. Ron Legon from Quality Matters, Loraine Schmitt from Portland Community College, and Ray Schroeder from the Center for Online Leadership, UPCEA shared diverse and convergent perspectives led by the facilitation of Michael Abbiatti from WCET. High on the radar was the need to mentor and coach the new generation of leaders, and the importance – and often neglected – necessity of succession planning. Those of us Gen-Xers looking to get into the C-suite had our hopes buoyed by the demographics. The numbers of baby boomers retiring will leave a void of leadership in higher education and the visionaries in our field are both concerned and committed to preparing the next generation.
This message was very similar to one that I heard at the ACE Women’s Network of Ohio conference at Corporate College East at Cuyahoga Community College week before last. Women are a large part of edtech and anyone familiar with the #LeanIn movement knows that tech in general needs more women leaders. Under the school of “Chance Favors the Prepared” I – who am working on my dissertation in #CBE – met several other women at the conference, also middle-managers, who are doing the same, prepping for the next step. The research that is being pursued is meaningful and exciting, and it was great to connect with so many other like-minded curious and passionate people – among them Phil Hill, Ron Legon, Kelvin Bentley (my old boss,) Luke Dowden, and new friends Brenda Perea, Cali Morrison, Meg Raymond, Dale Johnson, Amanda Shaffer, Catrina Roitman, Wendy Bullock and Tammy Vercauteren. I also enjoyed meeting Vernon Smith, Michael Abbiatti and Russ Adkins – follow-up is on the way, so that’ll be fun as well.
Wrapping it up….
This was my first time at #WCET15. I will definitely be back. There were so many great learning opportunities and sessions that they all couldn’t be mentioned here – this post simply mentioned the path I took at the conference.
The current state of edtech in higher ed is messy and looking to get messier. It’s in that interesting place of explosive creativity, where everyone gets all the materials out, looks at the current piece of art, and decides how to deconstruct and then reconstruct it. This time we’re doing it with the student – not the institution – squarely in the middle of the picture. And then we’re making an infographic of it. And PDFing it. And making a text-only accessible version. And an audio-version. And an animation of it.
Because that’s just how we roll.
Right over the meet the student where they are.