As a Giant Edtech Conference Returns in Person, a Focus on Putting...

Higher Education

As a Giant Edtech Conference Returns in Person, a Focus on Putting Humanity First

By Rebecca Koenig     Oct 28, 2021

As a Giant Edtech Conference Returns in Person, a Focus on Putting Humanity First
Educause 2021

PHILADELPHIA — College tech leaders gathered here this week for the first in-person Educause conference since the start of the pandemic. Attending sessions and walking the exhibit hall, it felt like the focus was on the city’s founding value: brotherly love.

“Empathy seems to be a theme at this Educause,” said Ken Graetz, director of teaching, learning and technology services at Winona State University.

That’s a stark contrast from the last in-person Educause event back in 2019, which was all about humans as data points. This year’s conference stressed humans as … humans. The raw emotion of the last year-and-a-half was the subtext—and sometimes actual text—of several breakout sessions and keynote speeches. After all, exhaustion is widespread in higher ed these days, Educause president and CEO John O’Brien said to a ballroom of attendees wearing masks, adding that “we can’t assume our colleagues are OK.”

Some speakers discussed empathy directly, like Graetz, who co-led a session about building more of it into the design of online courses. Another was Ruha Benjamin, a Princeton professor of African American studies who gave a speech about how racism can seep into and be shaped by education technology and other tools.

“The way we ration empathy is not natural, but shaped by our environment”—such as our digital environments, Benjamin said.

College leaders and others gathered this week in Philadelphia for the first in-person Educause conference since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Other presenters encouraged attendees to strive for better work-life balance, embrace newly flexible work arrangements and lean into vulnerability. That’s the kind of advice a quartet of chief information officers gave while describing how they’ve led college tech teams through the COVID-19 crisis.

“Your staff need to see you’re taking care of yourself so they feel empowered to take care of themselves,” said Helen Norris, vice president and chief information officer at Chapman University.

Even the event revealing Educause’s annual list of higher education’s top IT issues for the upcoming year approached “brand-new territory,” said Susan Grajek, Educause vice president for partnerships, communities and research, because the inventory for 2022 is “all about people.” It’s the first time ever that the list looks at students as not just learners or customers, she added—but as humans.

Amid the chorus of concern, a note of dissonance sounded from the exhibit hall, where controversial test-proctoring tools and services were prominently displayed and their booths generously staffed. Many students and faculty have objected throughout the pandemic to the use of surveillance systems that monitor students who are taking tests remotely—a measure that other professors say they turned to because they noticed a rise in cheating.

Tension about assessments, trust and technology surfaced in conversations and materials throughout the conference, such as in a poster presented about “promoting academic integrity in online ‘open note’ exams without surveillance software” and a session description that said “e-proctoring may be the most problematic of solutions” that colleges use in online learning. Leaders at college teaching and learning centers are trying to resolve what one called the “great proctoring debate” by encouraging professors to move away from high-stakes tests, but even though many instructors seem newly willing to try alternative approaches, that sometimes requires more time and energy than they have these days.

Meanwhile, signs posted around the convention center drove home the importance of wellbeing to the more than 3,000 in-person attendees, reminding them to “respect comfort levels.” Only approach other people who have indicated they’re ready—either for “cautious chatting” or “elbow bumps.”

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