A few weeks ago, Gina Siesing and I attended the ELI 2017 Annual Meeting to co-facilitate a workshop on digital citizenship for liberal arts colleges. ELI stands for EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, the arm of the EDUCAUSE professional association for technology in higher education that focuses on pedagogical uses of technology. Every year at the conference, ELI releases a list of “Key Issues in Teaching and Learning” based on a survey of educational technologists, instructional designers, faculty, and college administrators at member institutions (including Bryn Mawr College) about the technologies and issues that excite or concern them. Not surprisingly, many of the topics on this list featured prominently at the conference, and below are observations about the most prominent and how they connect with what we are doing here at Bryn Mawr College.
Virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing, and other emerging technologies. Virtual and augmented reality technologies especially seemed to be everywhere, perhaps thanks in no small part to a “Virtual Reality and Emerging Tech Playground” near the refreshments, where attendees could get hands-on experience (read: play) with different devices. Several common themes emerged from the seminars, presentations and posters related to these technologies. First, emerging technologies typically do not have immediate, obvious classroom-ready applications, so at most colleges the emphasis was on open-ended exploration and experimentation — getting the devices in the hands of students, faculty and staff and letting them drive discovery. Many initiatives involved collaboration with commercial hardware and software developers, much like Bryn Mawr’s partnership with Pearson Education to explore potential higher education applications for the Microsoft augmented reality device, who have access to beta versions of the technologies and are looking for educational partners to help develop tools and applications that will be relevant to higher ed. On the other hand, some educational technologists worried that exploratory initiatives like these diluted focus on and — given tight budgets — might even impede their primary mission of helping faculty and students to use established, classroom-ready technologies to improve teaching and learning. Those advocating exploration tended to define their responsibilities more broadly to include supporting faculty development and student digital literacies more broadly, and preparing community members for a future in which virtual and augmented reality devices are as common as smart phones.
Access and Inclusion. The ELI Annual Meeting underscored the extent to which all colleges are grappling with questions of access and inclusion. One of the key messages of presentations and seminars related to accessibility and universal design for learning (UDL), was that both were an extension of much older, learner-centered and inclusive pedagogical approaches that focus on meeting students where they are — which increasingly means considering how they use digital smart devices for learning. When you look at how students actually use things like video captions, for example, it becomes clear that captions are more than an accommodation for hearing-impaired students; all kinds of students use them in creative ways to enhance learning and cope with real-life learning environments that can be noisy, distracting or require silence. Another message was that UDL doesn’t have to be complicated: Thomas Tobin boils it down to “+1 one thinking”, or ensuring that there are at least two ways to access or engage with any course resource, assignment or learning activity. Presentations by the founders and members of the Open Textbook Network also discussed trends in open textbook publishing (that is, publication under a Creative Commons or similar license that allows conditional free usage) can help address barriers to learning created by the high cost of textbooks and other learning materials.
Learning analytics. Several presentations focused on using data from learning management systems (e.g., Moodle) or other online educational platforms to improve learning, improve learning technologies, evaluate courses and programs, and identify at-risk students. Research in these areas is typically carried out by large institutions or in partnership with LMS vendors that have access to larger amounts of data, and is driven by the need to assess and make recommendations in situations where human oversight is impossible or prohibitively expensive, such as quality control for online programs or ensuring academic support services are reaching those who need them in a study body of thousands. Learning analytics is also a core component of adaptive learning design, or the goal of creating courseware that can provide learners with appropriate feedback and next steps based on their performance. However, the research itself can contain valuable insights for smaller colleges, such as the behaviors within an LMS that are most predictive of course success or how “dashboards” that show students how their course activity compares to those of their peers can impact behavior. Discussion sessions typically raised questions and concerns about ownership of data and guidelines for its ethical use.
Next Generation Digital Learning Environments (NGDLEs). Conversations and work in this area begin from dissatisfaction with current learning management systems, which were designed primarily to enable FERPA- and copyright-compliant educational administration. NGDLE developers are trying to incorporate learning and learning resources that exist outside of the LMS largely, in one of two ways. The first keeps the LMS as the storehouse for educational data and central access point for resources, and focuses on refining interoperability standards to make it easier for instructors to integrate educational materials into it. The second, more radical, solution treats the LMS as one learning environment among many that feeds learning data (coded in a standardized format such as xAPI) into a separate Learning Records Store, and assumes that that data in turn will be analyzed and shared back with developers, learners and teachers through various independent “dashboard” tools or applications. While NGDLEs are already demonstrating benefits such as better, easier incorporation of assistive technologies, concerns about data privacy and security remain a significant barrier to scale.