Ed Tech Academy Takeaway — Day 1

Today was Day 1 of my college’s annual Ed Tech Academy. Ed Tech Academy is our annual professional development conference around issues related to teaching, online education and classroom technology. I had the honor of working with a team of great people to plan, market and deliver this year’s academy.

Today’s keynote speaker was Dr. Mark Milliron, Chancellor for Western Governors University Texas. He has worked with the Gates Foundation, NISOD, Civitas and the League for Innovation in Community Colleges among other organizations. That’s not what’s important about him. What is most impressive about Dr. Milliron is his ability to talk about the changes in higher education in a way that makes sense. He connects the dots.

The past year has been a swirl of new ideas, technologies and potentially “disruptive” innovations in online and traditional instruction. My college is working with iPads, eText, textless courses, flipped classes, open education resources, and, most recently, MOOCs. It is a fascinating time to be a teacher. It is also nerve-racking.

With all the new tools and technologies, it is very easy to loose sight of our purpose. Here’s a secret. None of these technologies matter unless they can help students connect to their own sense of purpose, tenacity and engagement. Students cannot learn unless they have a clear sense of why they want to learn. Students cannot learn until they are committed to working hard and sacrificing immediate gratification for a future reward. Students cannot learn unless they actively participate in the process and can contribute to the goals of the class. Milliron talks more about this in his article “An Open Letter to Students: You’re the Game Changer in Next-Generation Learning“.

There has been an ongoing conversation about student engagement for several years. I have heard the term “student engagement” so often, I have forgotten what it means. There is, I think, a tendency to conflate engagement with entertainment and make engagement equivalent to interest. That is a lazy way to think about engagement. Engagement is about responsibility. Engaged students take responsibility for their own learning. This still feels like a magical pass phrase, something students are given or give.

My big takeaway is this: students can’t take real responsibility for their learning until educators find meaningful ways  to share real-time feedback about how students are performing. Amazon and Ebay do this with online shopping. Pandora and Spotify do this with music. Why can’t we do this with learning? The trick is gathering data about how students interact with their classes and then develop an algorithm that can offer real-time predictions about how likely a particular student is to succeed based on specific actions taken by that student. In other words, we need to figure out how to gather lots and lots of data points about student success, use that data to extrapolate predictive models of student success and then boil all of that down into a simple, easy-to-understand message to students about specific actions they might take to be more successful.

Let me put this another way: the challenge before us is to make learning very, very personal. We need to find ways to personalize the learning environment to present learning resources and challenges that are personally meaningful to the specific learner and then offer real-time advice on how students interact with that course. It would be very powerful if librarians, teachers and other learning professionals could figure out a way to curate and recommend specific learning resources for specific learners in specific situations. To offer a video, animation or infographic that best meets the learner’s needs at that exact moment in the same way that Amazon recommends a specific shirt with a pair of pants.

The technology is available. We just need to figure out how to use it.

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