A pair of consultants who run a popular edtech blog plan to start offering events—in hopes of getting people at colleges and companies who don’t usually talk to each other to join forces on innovative teaching efforts.
The consultants—Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill—are best known for the blog they co-publish, e-Literate, and for their coverage of the many existing edtech meetings held by vendors and associations. But they argue that their new effort, called the Empirical Educator Project, will serve a convening and support role not done by those other groups or foundations.
Feldstein said this week that while there are more conversations about college innovation going on these days than in the past, they’re usually in pockets. “We still have tribes,” he said. “Open-ed people, personalized-learning people, and the learning-analytics people, they don’t talk to each other that much.” He made the remarks during a session this week at the annual conference of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, where he announced the project.
He said their model will be to play the role of matchmaker to help get specific projects started. They’re encouraging pairs of people from each institution to attend, especially people from departments who might not usually interact.
The effort takes inspiration from the field of medicine, Feldstein said, which in earlier days did not have clear methods to widely share best practices. “In the 1840s, if you wanted to publish what you thought was a new innovation in medicine, you took out an ad in the newspaper. That’s how you did it. There was no New England Journal of Medicine. There was no conference where people got together and talked about advances in medicine.”
In the same way, he argued, professors and researchers today don’t have clear ways to get their ideas on new teaching techniques to others who could use them. “Educational researchers very often do not have a strong motivation, having made a discovery, to take the next step and put it in a form that will diffuse.” While professors do publish teaching research, often in journals in their disciplines, those articles don’t reach a wide audience, and there isn’t a culture of scouring such journals for new techniques.
The first event is scheduled to take place from February 28 to March 1 at Stanford University, with a group of about 50 people from colleges and companies who have committed to attend. While they don’t plan to admit anyone else to the first session, Feldstein says future events will be opened to a wider audience. The goal will be to get attendees who are working on efforts that fit the mission, “are not product specific,” and “contribute knowledge to the public domain,” according to the project’s mission statement.
A group of corporate sponsors have signed on to support the event, and the money will go to paying the travel costs of academics who attend and paying Feldstein and Hill for their time and overhead costs, said Feldstein. “There’s no profit margin on this project,” he said in an interview. He said any extra money will be “plowed back into the project” to expand it. He said some of that money may go into giving small grants to help support projects discussed at the event. “We’re not looking to make this a money-maker for us, at least not right now,” he noted during the project announcement.
The initial sponsors include 2U, Lumen Learning, Pearson, RealizeIt, Blackboard, McGraw-Hill Education, iDesign, Unicon and Hobsons. The amount of the sponsorships was not disclosed.
After the announcement this week, one representative from a company, one that plans to attend the first event, asked how Feldstein will handle the fact that companies who send representatives to the meeting might be competing with each other and may not want to share their plans. Feldstein said that he understood the challenges of such conversations.
The venue for the first conference is Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Mitchell L. Stevens, an associate professor there, said he will be a participant as part of his project at Stanford on Responsible Use of Student Data in Higher Education. “The future of education data science is inseparable from the proprietary education sector, since so much instruction and its digital traces will be produced by private firms,” he said in an email interview. “I am participating in this convening because I am convinced that a cumulatively correcting education data science requires shared understandings and active collaboration among academic researchers, educators, and business leaders.” Stanford is not a funder or formal host of the event, though, he said.
With so many events already aimed at connecting players, how can this one break down long-standing barriers?
“We’ve all been to a lot of great conferences and summits and convening and seminars where we have really satisfying conversations with super-smart people and we all walk away feeling really good—and then a year later we get an invitation to another one of these and we have another great conversation. And in between it’s really the same old thing,” Feldstein said when announcing the project. “If that happens with the Empirical Educator Project, we will consider it a failure and will not have another convening of the same type.”