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SAN DIEGO – Education technology can help higher education up its game. But adaptive learning, digital badges and free online courses don’t spell doom for colleges. And plenty of yeomanlike work needs to be done before those innovations can reach their potential.

Those were common messages at two recent higher ed conferences: the annual meeting of the American Council on Education here this week and, somewhat surprisingly, at last week’s SXSWedu in Austin.

According to an unscientific sampling of sessions at the two gatherings, some of the soaring “disruption” rhetoric was ditched for nuts-and-bolts talk about how registrars, financial aid administrators and regulators are dealing with colleges’ experimentation.

At the meeting here of the council (the main national association of college presidents), for example, one panel looked at how to improve the conventional transcript, such as through the inclusion of competencies.

If there is resistance to competency-based education, Aaron Brower, interim provost and vice chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Extension said during the session, it’s not coming primarily from faculty members.

“It’s the registrars,” he said, who are “trying to figure how you manage these crazy transcripts.”

Some of the shift in tone about education technology at the two meetings was intentional.

SXSWedu is a subsidiary of South By Southwest, a hipsterish film and music festival with associated conferences on tech startups and environmental issues. In its fourth year, the education gathering featured more discussions about higher education than in more K-12-focused past iterations.

The event would have been irritating to many faculty critics of ed tech enthusiasm. But it wasn’t just cheerleading.

For example, Diane Ravitch, a history professor at New York University and fiery critic of standardized testing and privatization, kicked off the conference with a keynote. Also on the agenda in Austin was Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a major faculty union and usually no fan of Silicon Valley’s incursion into the classroom.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also sponsored a series of sessions at SWSWedu this year. Dubbed HigherEdNext, those panels featured a fairly broad range of viewpoints. (Disclosure: this reporter spoke on a panel about news media coverage of education technology.)

The Gates track included discussions of adaptive learning, massive open online courses and alternative credentialing. The general conclusion of most sessions was not that such innovation would lead to the closure of all but 10 colleges in the next 50 years, as some have famously predicted. Instead, panelists suggested that ed tech will continue to be used as a complement to traditional higher education.

This was the first year that the foundation’s higher education team contributed to SXSWedu, according to a spokeswoman.

“The goal was to share what our partners are learning” about personalized learning, she said via email, “as well as bringing in the thoughtful experts in this space.”

One Gates-sponsored panel tackled the potential of “stackable” alternative credentials, such as digital badges. The three participants included an official from the Mozilla Foundation, which has played a lead role in badging, the registrar for Western Governors University, and the CEO of Parchment, a digital transcript company.

All three panelists said the conventional degree was not threatened by badges, for now. Change is happening in higher education, they said, but it is incremental.

Matthew Pittinsky from Parchment said badging could be a technology platform and a common language for describing learning and skills. But badges will be an add-on to conventional degrees, he predicted.

“Credentials are a currency,” he said.

Reverse Engineering

The annual meeting of the ­­­­­American Council on Education (ACE) is not a likely place to hear about the looming demise of higher education. But in recent years many of its members – college presidents – have worried about what online learning might mean for the bottom line of their institutions.

The theme of this year’s conference was “seizing opportunity.” And that appeared to sum up the mood of many of the sessions, which featured cautious and intentional ways of trying out emerging technologies.

In one session, Jeff Olson, vice president of data science for the College Board, said he has developed an aversion to the term “big data,” which has gotten a bump from Hollywood in recent years.

“It becomes a way for people to sell stuff,” Olson said. “And it becomes a little divorced from its meaning."

He prefers more descriptive ways of talking about the potential of predictive analytics. In his presentation, Olson used a graphic of 10 million data points representing how students submitted SAT scores to colleges.

Few topics have gotten more hype in higher education than massive open online courses. But a presentation at ACE by Michael J. Cima, a professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), featured substance rather than hype.

Cima taught an introductory course on solid state chemistry for edX. He conducted an analysis of students’ achievement in the course and was surprised to find that they outperformed MIT students in his regular course.

His conclusion? The assessment process in most traditional courses – midterm and final – is flawed and should be replaced by one that looks more like the “mastery-based learning” approach of his edX course.

Cima did exactly that. He experimented with using 37 proctored, online assessments arranged around key concepts of solid state chemistry. His MIT students could come to a room from 7 to 10pm most nights and use 40 Chromebooks to try to complete the assessments. They got two attempts each time around, and did not need to succeed in all 37 to pass.

Students learned more in the same amount of time, or maybe even a bit less time, according to data from the course.

“It allows me to raise the bar,” Cima said.