OLC Innovate: Big Ideas From the Big Easy

This post has been updated with news from Day 2 of the conference.

We’re jazzed to be on the ground in New Orleans for the Online Learning Consortium’s Innovate conference, where academic leaders, faculty and administrators are challenging assumptions about online and blended learning. The conference features hands-on workshops (design your own online syllabus), research presentations (what kinds of training have online instructors received?) and interactive experiences (Google Cardboard giveaways and telepresence robots).

It’s a fun atmosphere: a live brass band provided background music to the opening keynote. But attendees have a serious mission. “We must use these digital tools not only to better prepare today’s students but to serve the millions of students that are currently not served,” said Conference Chair Karen Vignare. “Innovation requires more than a brainstorm. It requires constant pacing, iteration, improvement and measurement.”

We’ve already heard the word “innovate” too many times, but we’ve also picked up on a few big ideas challenging the status quo in higher ed.

Day 2

SOFT INFRASTRUCTURE AS INNOVATION: For a university like Stanford, situated at the heart of Silicon Valley culture, hard infrastructure isn’t an issue. But amidst the labs and d.schools, do faculty feel empowered to innovate? Amy Collier, associate provost for Digital Learning at Middlebury College, and Andy Saltarelli, director of Digital Learning Initiatives at Stanford, argue that we need “soft infrastructures” to empower faculty voices. These are the invisible systems that provide faculty, staff and students the support they need to do their best work. Collier and Saltarelli ask, "What's important to the faculty members? What gets them out of bed in the morning? What makes for good teaching?”

For Collier and Saltarelli, the foundation of soft infrastructure is empathetic qualitative research—gathered sitting down with faculty and listening to their experiences. Oftentimes the simple listening exercise between administrators and faculty provoked ideas for innovative digital partnerships. Collier claims that through this empathy, we can “empower faculty to find wonder and awe in their discipline, to get back to the roots of why they're in the discipline in the first place."

PEER-LEADER: When freshman matriculate into the University of Washington, they can sign up for First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs)—10-week courses designed to help them adjust to life on campus both socially and academically. While many schools offer such programs, FIGs are taught exclusively by current students. Student teachers build their own course sites in Canvas, where they assign homework and grades. It takes more work to put on these classes than to assign them to existing instructors on campus (the university has to train student FIG leaders to teach), but it’s worth it, said Julie Larsen, program manager of First-Year Programs at the University of Washington. “Peer-to-peer interaction has always been more important than what faculty can add to that.”

BADGE DEBUT: The University System of Maryland is halfway through rolling out a Digital Badging Initiative to help students better communicate career-ready skills to regional employers. “We see it as closing the gap between curriculum (academic affairs) and co-curricular (student affairs), because our students don’t see that difference. Their learning doesn’t end when they walk out of the classroom,” said MJ Bishop, director of the University System of Maryland's Center for Academic Innovation. When the project first started, Bishop and her colleagues were discouraged by how little regional employers seemed to care about badges: Only 15 percent had even heard of digital badging. Beth Mulherrin at University of Maryland University College—one of the school’s testing digital badging—stressed the importance of including employers in conversations about badges: “Know what skills they’re looking for, what their gaps are,” she said.

INNOVATION? DEFINE IT: In the middle of a crowd of vendors in the main exhibition hall, Rolin Moe of Seattle Pacific University hosted an immersive exhibit tracking the history of innovation. Why has that buzzword risen to such dominance in education? Using Google Ngram trackers and historical anecdotes, he walked a crowd of academics and industry representatives through political, social, religious and political innovation. He discussed innovation in relation to revolution, action, imitation, invention and reformation.

Amidst the data and explanations, his point rang clear: innovation is neither good or bad, but carries a whole host of implications: When everything must be innovative, what do we do about our crumbling infrastructure? If we can’t stop innovating, can a university research and adopt technology before its obsolete? Does innovation help those most in need of help? Moe demanded we be critical of the very word we so endlessly use.

IF I HEAR 'INNOVATE' ONE MORE TIME: When the title of a conference is Innovate, you expect to see and hear the term everywhere. But Angie McArthur, co-founder of Professional Thinking Partners and co-author of “Collaborative Intelligence,” forced us to think about the word a little differently. “Innovation is within us, but it’s also between us,” she said in the keynote. McArthur challenged attendees to “grow our ability to think with those who think differently.” She invoked Ned Herrmann's research on creative thinking and even busted out a Hoberman sphere to demonstrate what different states of attention look like in our brains. All of this was to encourage people to seek out and work with people who think differently. “Some of the greatest thinking partnerships can happen between departments, between generations,” McArthur said.

Day 1

INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN ON THE TENURE TRACK? Peer-reviewed research is the gold standard for faculty scholarship. It’s the ticket to tenure. But innovative content that faculty spend countless hours developing for their courses? It gets little to no recognition. Noreen Barajas-Murphy is frustrated with this reality. She’s been an educator and instructional designer at the University of La Verne in Southern California, where she worked to develop a “culture of instructional design.”

“Designing curriculum and authoring course texts are products of innovative faculty members and should be considered a form of teaching effectiveness and scholarship,” she said at OLC. Faculty don’t have any incentive to develop stellar course content if that work won’t be valued or advance their careers. “Honoring the time needed to develop exemplary digital content will fuel innovation,” Barajas-Murphy said. A few of her ideas for helping faculty make the time: Offer course-development sabbaticals, showcase exemplary work in faculty research days and get buy-in from those who control tenure and promotion.

FORK U: That’s a pun that made the morning session chuckle. Adam Croom and John Stewart, of the University of Oklahoma, argued that the open-source principles of GitHub could be useful in the classroom. But, you might ask, isn’t GitHub made for coders, not academics? The presenters explained that “the way open-source coders think, document and openly collaborate on their work can be an approach one can take pedagogically and in our profession.” In GitHub, each user can copy (fork) a file (such as a syllabus), create their own edits and then request to merge those edits with the original file. All these changes are documented in versions (like drafts). What if a class could use GitHub to collaboratively write a paper, or PhD students could keep track of the versions of their dissertations? Fittingly, the presentation was hosted on GitHub and is now free and open to forking.

VIRTUAL EMPATHY: Anyone who’s ever joined a Google hangout knows the limitations of virtual connectivity: screens freeze, audio cuts in and out, and sometimes you’re staring at a blank wall instead of the speaker. Virtually Connecting, a volunteer group that connects conference presenters with virtual participants in small groups, gave conference attendees a glimpse of how virtual interactions for conferences and online classes can be better.

In a session on “Access, Hybridity, and Virtually Connecting” members of the Virtually Connecting community, including Maha Bali who joined from Cairo and Alan Levine who connected from Arizona, shared ways to improve virtual connections: create orientation materials for first-time participants; facilitate backchannel conversations via Twitter and Slack; and encourage interactions between people who are physically present and those on the other side of the screen.

DIGITAL REDLINING is a verb, said Chris Gilliard, a professor at Macomb Community College, just north of Detroit. The practice of redlining dates back to the early 20th century, when residents of certain areas were denied access to mortgages and other financial resources. It’s come to represent discrimination against a particular group of people. Gilliard said redlining is happening with access to information in higher ed. He studied acceptable use policies at colleges and universities and found that schools with more money tend to have more liberal policies—they don’t block many sites.

At Macomb, Gilliard’s students couldn’t access an article on Playboy.com, but not for reasons you would think. The article’s title was “The Death Penalty is Arbitrary and Racist.” He reminded the audience that many students from low-income families have no or limited access to the Internet outside of school. “Walling off access to housing is not much better than walling off access to information,” Gilliard said.

LOST IN JARGON: A course lecturer and an instructional designer speak different industry languages. A group of faculty from Dartmouth College argued that these communities must work together to bridge the gap and establish a common language around effective teaching.

Noting the lack of shared understanding between faculty, learning designers, technology staff, administrators and students, the team designed an “inventory” for effective teaching (eg. syllabus design, construction of learning outcomes and disciplinary expertise). They asked different stakeholders to define and prioritize these skillsets. Using the results, the researchers will create a model for faculty development that considers the jargon and priorities of each party on campus.

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