Two things are clear from EDUCAUSE 2014:
1. The EDUCAUSE Annual Conference is expertly planned and exceptionally well-run, reflecting both the status of the higher ed tech ecosystem as healthy and vibrant, and the high levels of skill and professionalism of the EDUCAUSE staff and the larger EDUCAUSE member community.
2. The EDUCAUSE Annual Conference needs to change.
The problem with the EDUCAUSE Conference is not in any of its component parts. The pre-conference seminars, general sessions, and individual talks are uniformly of high quality. The vendor floor is packed with innovative booths and engaging demonstrations. The social and informal gathering places and opportunities are numerous and well-designed.
The problem with the conference is that the thinking, solutions, services and products on offer at EDUCAUSE have collectively failed to reverse (or even significantly impact), the negative trends that unfortunately define so much of the higher ed sector. EDUCAUSE has become an agglomeration of smart people and expensive technologies that appear to have very little ability to influence the larger higher ed story.
Where does the EDUCAUSE Conference, and by extension our larger edtech community, need to go in the future? 3 Ideas:
Idea 1 - Define the Problems - A Day 1 Conference Teach-In:
I’m not sure that our EDUCAUSE community shares a common understanding and language around the big challenges facing higher education. There seems to be broad agreement that these challenges coalesce around costs (prices and debt), access (both enrollment and retention), and quality (learning and improving long-term life chances). How many of us at EDUCAUSE, however, could authoritatively put some numbers to these higher ed challenges? What if the first day of EDUCAUSE was devoted to a giant teach-in. To a boot camp on higher ed issues, from finances to demographics, economics to learning theory. And if the result of that giant day 1 EDUCAUSE teach-in was the development of a common knowledge base and framework about the challenges facing higher education for all EDUCAUSE attendees.
Idea 2 - Connect All Presentations and Sessions to the Big Higher Ed Challenges:
Every presentation, talk, and discussion should be framed around addressing the big higher ed challenges. This is not to say that every presentation is about policy or larger trends. An institutional focus is appropriate when that focus is around improving access, lowering prices, and improving learning. The solutions for the problems facing higher education cannot be imposed from above. Progress will be made at the individual institutional level, and will aggregate up into larger systemic improvements. I suspect that many of the content of the talks and sessions would cover similar ground as in previous EDUCAUSE conferences, only the framing will be different. Hopefully, each session and talk will be situated in the larger context of the higher ed trends that were discussed in day 1.
Idea 3 - Organize the Vendor Floor Around the Big Problems:
Every single vendor represented at EDUCAUSE has a value proposition built around addressing issues of cost, access, or quality. For any edtech vendor to survive they need to create shared value with their higher ed customers. The challenge at EDUCAUSE is that the vendor floor is organized around a conceptual model of vertical technical solutions. It is impossible to tell by the layout of the vendor floor what higher ed problem the vendor is addressing, and where the vendor fits in the larger ecosystem of other companies that are also also addressing similar problems. Changing the geography of the company placement to cluster around higher ed challenges will shift how attendees interact with the vendors. Interspersing the vendor floor with educational opportunities (brief talks, short films, digital signage with higher ed stats etc.), will help reinforce the shared understanding of the higher ed issues that the companies should be addressing. Bridging the divide between vendor solutions and higher ed problems may uncover new opportunities for measurable progress, particularly if the vendor community is pushed to attach outcome data to its marketing claims.
Making a radical shift in the organization of EDUCAUSE is a risky proposition. Perhaps a shift can occur over a series of conferences, with some aspects of this proposal being baked into the traditional EDUCAUSE structure.
How would you like to see the big EDUCAUSE conference evolve and change?
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