Are We Asking the Right Questions at EDUCAUSE?

The limits of technical solutions and the vendor floor in 2020.

September 30, 2014

I had one of the weird out-of-body experiences while walking around the vendor floor at EDUCAUSE today. My mind flash-forwarded to 2020.  The booths were bigger and fancier.  The technologies on display were more powerful and flexible.  The state of the art for learning analytics and adaptive learning platforms had improved exponentially.  

But yet, even with all this wonderful tech progress on display on the EDUCAUSE vendor floor in 2020, nothing had really changed in higher ed.

The 2020 future I imagined as I wondered from booth to booth was one where:

  • The higher ed price curve had not been bent, resulting in ever higher levels of student debt.
  • The proportions of students from low-to-moderate income families enrolling and finishing a postsecondary degree continued to lag dramatically behind kids from wealthier households.
  • The level of student learning continued to vary considerably by institution, with a liberal arts type education that stresses critical thinking and leadership skills (as well as small classes taught by scholar-educators) continues to be available to only a select few.

At some point those of us who attend EDUCAUSE year-after-year need to ask ourselves about what we are really accomplishing. If we are not a part of driving down prices, increasing access, or expanding quality, then why are we here?  

What would happen if EDUCAUSE 2015 put the big higher education goals front-and-center? If when we walked into the Conference Hall in Indianapolis we saw big banners detailing the 3 biggest problems facing higher education. We would have banners detailing how much more likely kids from wealthier families are likely to go to and finish college. We would have banners showing the relationship between course size (enrollment) and a student’s wealth. (Has this been done before? I bet that access to seminars is highly dependent on family wealth?).  

I’d put these big banners everywhere at EDUCAUSE 2015. They’d be prominent in the vendor hall. The keynote speakers would be chosen to speak about the big challenges in higher education. If they could connect these big challenges with technology that would be great.

Could we take this a step further? Could EDUCAUSE commit to tangible higher education outcomes and goals? Could we say that the success of our edtech community will be judged on the degree that we contribute to big higher ed solutions?

Are we running up against the limits of technical solutions for intractable higher education problems?

Is the EDUCAUSE conference, by being the place where technological interventions are most prominent, inadvertently contributing to the maintenance of a higher ed status quo?

Does the mismatch between our progress in improving key higher ed outcomes, with the ever-fancier and more comprehensive vendor solutions on offer at EDUCAUSE, in any way an indictment on our higher ed tech community?

Has our belief in the power of the next big technology limited our ability to focus on the hard political and organizational work that may be necessary to fundamentally address issues of higher ed prices, access, and quality?

Is the EDUCAUSE community even the right group of folks to take responsibility for tackling the larger challenges in higher education?

Come EDUCAUSE 2020, how will we know if we as a community have succeeded or failed?


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