Campus Tech 2016: Recognizing—and Questioning—‘Inevitable’ Futures

Campus Tech 2016: Recognizing—and Questioning—‘Inevitable’ Futures

Ray Batra

Technologists are known by many names, but to some, they are simply “wizards.” Last week at Campus Technology 2016, higher-ed technologists joined forces with administrators, instructional designers, and faculty to explore another realm many consider “wizardry”—predicting the future. In Boston, conference-goers heard how higher-ed tech will affect teaching and learning in years to come, questioned the values and assumptions behind those predictions, and learned predictive techniques to apply to their daily lives. Here are some of our biggest takeaways from the marathon event:

INNOVATION OR TRANSFORMATION IN EDUCATION? Stephen Downes, senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada and co-creator of the MOOC, began with an overview of the predictive process, saying it “isn’t magic, but it’s not mechanical either.” He explained prediction as a form of recognition, noting that the two processes are philosophically equivalent. In his talk Downes explored the concepts of “change,” “innovation” (which, in Downes’ view, is defined in part by whether or not the observer benefits), and “transformation.” Which goal should we strive for? Downes suggested higher ed needs true transformation, not innovations of efficiency. Downes also emphasized that change is a function of perception: “People often say ‘change is inevitable.’ That’s the most ridiculous statement in the world. Everything that exists is inevitable. What counts as change is based on what matters to you.”

READING THE TEA LEAVES: Futurist Bryan Alexander’s pre-conference workshop delved into techniques for predicting the future, as well as an overview of higher-ed technology trends from the New Media Consortium’s recent Horizon report. Alexander shared some of his methods of forecasting, including the “Delphi Method,” which relies on a panel of experts to provide their forecasts over multiple rounds of questionnaires (the Horizon report leverages a form of this method), and “environmental scanning,” the practice of comparing multiple sources and perspectives to look for new projects and trends. Audience participation was required: Alexander challenged his audience to work in teams and put their predictive prowess to the test. The challenge left at least one head “spinning” (in a good way)!

RISK, LOVE AND TECHNOLOGY: Amy Collier, associate provost for digital learning at Middlebury College, spoke in the closing keynote about the roles of risk and love in education. “We have taken the risk out of education,” Collier declared. Collier also emphasized the need to question “learnification,” which describes not only the shift toward learner-centered models of education, but also, in her view, a push for compliance with learning outcomes and a resulting transactional relationship between faculty and students. “If we can accept that the world is complex, that education is complex, why are so many of our technologies about compliance?” Collier also spoke about the role of love in educational experience, and that it, too, is a valuable frame often missing in higher-ed discussions and institutions. “Love is the orientation we need more of in education. Love is the orientation that can move us from systemically decomplexifying education to embracing its richness.”

IT’S NOT ABOUT ‘FEELING THE BERN’: If you want to transform a system of higher education, how would you do it? Richard DeMillo, executive director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, says that instead of trying to fight the existing order head-on, he’d put his money on “trim tabs,” projects that seem innocuous but have the potential to draw people in and slowly change the way higher ed does business. And he’s seen “a laundry list” of promising examples over the last few years. “One way to think about revolution is through people in the streets saying, ‘I want a revolution.’ I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. But I do see a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking about what’s going on in our institutions.”

MAKING THE DATA ENGINE WORK: Unlike spiking interest in MOOCs or even competency-based models, interest in institutional and learning analytics has maintained a “slow and steady burn,” said Tyton Partners’ Adam Newman. According to a panel that included Newman, James Caras of Macmillan Learning and Darren Catalano of HelioCampus, a key challenge right now is integrating learning analytics with broader institutional analytics. The panel called for institutions to require integration compliance in their RFPs. Without the pressure to share data, vendors have no incentive to open up their products for integration, panelists said. Finally, Newman noted that he’s seen institutions frequently overinvest in their analytic engines while simultaneously underinvesting in helping stakeholders actually understand the data, or in the change management processes that must accompany the data to actually make a difference.

“AN EXPLOSION OF CONNECTIVITY”: Kokoon. Samsung’s Bio-Processor. The rubber ducky internet of things. Emory Craig, director of e-learning and instructional technologies at the College of New Rochelle, and Maya Georgieva, co-founder of Digital Bodies, showed how wearable tech isn’t just on its way; it’s already here. As wearables make their way into our fabrics, and even our bodies, what will this mean for higher ed? Craig and Georgieva said look out for virtual and augmented reality to make anywhere a “learning space,” for students’ default expectations of privacy to shift to “public,” and more questions for administrators and technologists about balancing security with freedom. As Craig warned: “Everything that can be tracked will be tracked. We’re only at the tip of the iceberg with learning analytics. Trust me!”

YOUR FUTURE STUDENTS: Jamie Casap, chief education evangelist at Google, shared a glimpse of what Gen Z students—most of whom were born after 9/11—may have in store for higher ed. According to Casap, 64 percent of Gen Z is worried about being able to find a job, 81 percent believe college is extremely or very important, and 82 percent will use websites that rate colleges according to graduation or employment outcomes. Casap outlined one challenge he’s pondering: “60 percent of kindergarten kids today will be working in jobs that don’t exist right now. How do we prepare kids for those types of careers?”

Our diverse perspectives of the future—whether of Gen Z, wearable devices, the need for transformation, or “trim tab” projects—ultimately return to a shared belief in the power of education to improve people’s lives. Casap shared one of his reasons to believe in the work of educators: “The power that we have in education goes beyond the students that we face in our classrooms. You can be working in a classroom for 20, 30 years, and you are having an impact on kids that you will never meet in your entire life. That’s the real power education has.”

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