When the Stars Align: A New Constellation of Innovation

Opinion | Digital Learning

When the Stars Align: A New Constellation of Innovation

By Samantha Becker and Seth Greenberg     May 7, 2018

When the Stars Align: A New Constellation of Innovation

Innovation is happening all over higher education today—but it is happening in islands, pockets and clusters. Around the country it’s happening at large four-year public institutions like Arizona State University and small two-year colleges like Wayfinding Academy in Oregon. On campuses, it’s happening in the Office of the President, where grand visions find their footing, and in the office of an instructional designer, who may be helping a faculty member create their first course integrating VR content. Each of these institutions are home to optimistic changemakers: people who are passionate about supporting engaging, relevant learning experiences that are accessible and affordable to all.

But who are these people?

At the end of April, about 130 of these “dreamers, doers, and drivers” gathered for an unconference at Arizona State University’s research center, EdPlus, under the umbrella idea of Shaping the Future of Learning in the Digital Age. The event was brainchild of ASU’s new CIO, Lev Gonick, and co-convened by 13 institutions and organizations, and included representatives from industry as sponsors and thought partners. The backdrop of ASU was a fitting one; Edplus represents arguably the largest innovation hub at any higher ed institution and the university more broadly has been recognized as the most innovative school in the country by US News and World Report, in part for leading the charge for more accessible, affordable education.

The format of the event is worth reflecting on. Intimate events for increased information sharing, network-building, and cross-campus collaboration are becoming more popular. And the unconference format enables participants to engage with major themes—and each other—in ways that deeply resonate with them.

Even in a space where everyone was bound to have their own institutional and personal agendas, we saw several themes emerge, some of which become became fodder for “neighborhood” action-oriented discussions.

1: Innovation in the Neighborhoods

As participants leveraged the power of ideation and design thinking, along with a helpful tool called Ideation360, here are a few of the ideas that bubbled to the top:

  • How to foster personalized learning environments (PLEs):
  • Understanding the implications and use cases of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality VR) -- categorized as extended reality (XR), along with artificial intelligence (AI);
  • More effective understanding of how to use data and analytics to measure learning and drive decision-making;
  • Applying micro-credentials to recognize all forms of learning;
  • How to nurture the next generation of diverse, university leaders
  • Rise of new organizational models for collaboration

Each of these topics shared more questions than answers. A collection of popular tweets represents the ideas that inspired the group:

Additionally, many of these topics have been explored in depth by recent Horizon Reports (annual industry research now under the purview of EDUCAUSE). That shouldn’t be a surprise; many of the unconference attendees contributed to those reports in the past. The difference was the encouragement of design-thinking around these ideas, making for dynamic contributions in real-time with a broader set of perspectives.

2: Forging Authentic, Cross-Institutional Relationships

There is some irony in having conversations about authentic learning in the digital age while packing 130 people into the same room for a face-to-face gathering. And yet, strengthening old relationships and forging new ones is invaluable when there is so much to be shared across institutions —whether they are one or ten thousand miles apart. Participants hailed from as far as Australia, reinforcing the notion that US institutions have something to learn from our fellow post-secondary leaders across the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Events like the unconference at ASU can catalyze the creation of networks. Look no further than the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) to see the power of multiple institutions working together to share data for the purpose of better student outcomes. In fact, Anne Keehn, Founder of Quantum Thinking, based in Washington DC, led discussions to describe how unconference relationships could lead into similar “Academic Innovation Networks.”

One such initiative that recently launched is the CoAction Learning Lab at Penn State, which is incubating and prototyping a global higher education collaboratory of senior leaders, faculty and students to champion the meaningful use of technology for teaching and learning. The Lab seeks to establish a shared set of core values across higher education to inform technology decisions through the creation of an open online library of resources.

In addition, event advisor Bryan Alexander gave a lightning talk on a new community project called FOEcast, which aims to help higher education leaders make sense of technology trends and other evolving facets that comprise the future of education.

Susan Metros, formerly with the University of Southern California, later pointed out that many of the networks and initiatives operate with similar goals—yet remain insular and closed off from one another. She asked the group: what if we substituted “Constellations” for “Networks?” For example, does your “network” include large, Big Ten public universities? Or are you including others, say, community college innovators, library professionals or the biggest employers in your region? Constellations have many more interwoven connection points or nodes where people and organizations with different perspectives spur us to think beyond the familiar.

3: Including Excluded Voices: Students and Employers

A third thread running through the event was a recognition of voices notably absent from the event: students. Could a bunch of 40+ year-olds (with a few millennials peppered in) authentically design learning experiences for 26-year olds (the average age of a US college student)?

Dave Thomas, director of academic technology at University of Colorado Denver, and Instructure Engineer and CU Denver Adjunct Faculty Brian Yuhnke spoke on intergenerational differences, especially around how students have different ways of interacting with technology. Yuhnke recalled asking his students to create a comic that reflected their vision of the future of higher education. One student portrayed education taking place exclusively online—not because of digital developments, but out of fear for the growing number of school shootings. The image provoked audible gasps around the room.

And it’s not just students; much of the conversation about redesigning learning experiences usually has minimal influence from companies. But this event had representatives from the likes of LinkedIn Learning to Adobe to Hypothesis; there were companies present who are trying make products to better support teaching and learning—and who may eventually hire or promote graduates. In addition, there is an opportunity for institutions and industry to partner around continuing professional development in service of lifelong learning. ASU’s President Michael Crow described the idea within a Universal Learning framework as “an evolving model of higher education that is capable of being of service to all learners, at all stages of work and learning, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, through educational, training, and skill-building opportunities.”

4: United in Mission

In an event that could have been all about technology and digital tools, there was a clear “people-first” mindset. Michelle Pacansky-Brock, from California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative, introduced the theme of “Humanizing Online Learning.” While the institutional impetus is to increase online enrollments and hybrid models, it is the role of faculty, instructors and learning designers to focus on fostering authentic, interpersonal interactions in course design. Learners come from all backgrounds with different needs so accessibility and equity must be at the core of designing learning experiences.

The unconference was a refreshing reminder that dreamers are already doing and driving this work around innovation today at once tradition-bound institutions around the world. And one more tip off: Even the physical environment inside of EdPlus looks more like a Silicon Valley campus than the classic ivy-bound institutions of the past.

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