One of the best things about the Educause Learning Initiative (ELI) annual meeting is the broad spectrum of institutions represented, from the Ivy League to large public and private universities to community colleges and small liberal arts schools. If you’re looking for colleagues who are grappling with the same challenges you’re experiencing at your institution, chances are you’ll find them at ELI.
The ELI audience is as diverse as the institutions they represent and includes instructional designers, faculty with a passion for technology, and IT professionals working in higher education. Unlike conferences that focus primarily on distance learning, ELI attracts a large proportion of CIOs and people passionate about the intersection of technology and physical learning spaces. As a result, the conference typically includes ample hands-on time with new gadgets and hardware. On Tuesday, I learned more about Arduinos during a hands-on “maker-space” session that left me missing my old Capsela set. At breakfast on Wednesday, I had a chance to chat with remote conference participants who roamed the venue using a device designed by Double Robotics. And just before heading to the airport, Jeremy Littau, an Assistant Professor at Lehigh University, let me test-drive Google Glass.
Of course, you don’t have to be on a first name basis with the staff of your local Radio Shack to get something useful out of ELI. The annual meeting agenda is brimming with presentations on everything from faculty development for online learning to predictions on the future of open-source textbooks and MOOCs. Here are a few highlights from some of the sessions I attended.
The Learning Brain
The opening keynote, “The Learning Brain,” was presented by John Medina, Developmental Molecular Biologist and Research Consultant at the University of Washington. Medina began with a few concepts related to memory that are probably familiar to most educators:
- Short-term memory can hold seven pieces of information (plus or minus two).
- The brain contains a mix of crystallized and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence is similar to a database of facts, while fluid intelligence is used to combine facts into new theories, creative works, etc.
- Information must be repeated within 30 seconds to move from short-term memory to working memory where it can remain accessible for up to two hours.
Toward the end of his presentation, Medina proposed that our current approach to course scheduling is out of touch with what we know about how memory works. He suggested structuring coursework into smaller chunks around 20 minutes in length, then repeating those chunks throughout the day. In theory, this would ensure enough repetition to allow new information to move from working memory to long-term memory. Of course, I’m sure many instructors would argue that it’s impossible to cover complex topics in 20 minute intervals, so I have a feeling we’ll be sticking to our current scheduling system for a while. However, for anyone who teaches courses longer than two hours, Medina’s proposal was a great reminder to reserve time for repetition and practice, and to avoid overloading students with too much new information.
Questions of Cost and Access
The following section summarizes key points from two presentations: “Higher Education Innovation: Facilitating Global Access to the American Dream” by Deborah Quazzo, Founder and Managing Partner, GSV Advisors, and “Higher Ed Next: Innovations That Will Change the Face of Public Higher Ed by 2015” by Steve Mintz, Executive Director, Institute for Transformational Learning, University of Texas System.
If there’s one thing I’ve heard repeatedly at conferences over the last few years, it’s that the higher-ed business model is broken. Steven Mintz drove this point home by citing the 50% decline in the number of students taking courses like U.S. History 101 at the University of Texas at Austin. Universities have traditionally relied on these types of large, lecture-hall-style courses to subsidize smaller, higher-level courses. In recent years, more students have been taking advantage of AP testing or taking these foundation-level courses at more affordable community colleges. The number of alternative routes to complete these types of prerequisites is likely to grow as organizations like the Educational Testing Service and MOOC providers look for ways to help students demonstrate key competencies.
Mintz also cited cost pressure from institutions like Georgia Tech, which now offers a Computer Science M.A. for under $7,000 through a partnership with Udacity, and the University of Texas system, which is developing multiple avenues to allow students to obtain a bachelor’s degree for around $10,000. This emphasis on value and access was echoed by Deborah Quazzo of GSV Advisors. During her presentation, she mentioned several companies that help students identify and receive credit for their existing knowledge and skills, including:
Quazzo also mentioned a company called Creative Live, which broadcasts live lectures and demonstrations related to art, design, and business management. Anyone can watch the live broadcasts for free, and viewers can pay a fee to access archived courses.
For now, the types of courses being offered under this one-to-many model continue to focus on technical skills and subjects with clear right and wrong answers that can easily be graded by computers. MOOCs have brought this low-hanging fruit to our attention, but for highly profitable video-tutorial companies like Lynda.com, this is nothing new. What remains to be seen is how this race to cut costs and consolidate lecture delivery will impact faculty in the humanities and other subjects where a student’s creative process and problem-solving approach are as important as her finished products and final answers.