ProfHacker Goes to Educause

Moodlerooms Educause Booth

Last week, as part of its coverage of the 2010 Educause conference, the Chronicle sent George and Jason to spread the good word about ProfHacker. This was the first time either of us had ever been to this conference/bazaar, and so this post won’t be a proper review, but rather a set of joint impressions. (You can see tons of reporting from the conference floor at Wired Campus.)

If you’ve never heard of Educause, it is a “nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology.” What’s genuinely outstanding about Educause is that it brings together groups of people who don’t always talk productively: CIOs, directors of academic or administrative technology, ed tech folks, faculty, provosts, university presidents, and more. It also brings these groups together in the presence of technology vendors, which is another voice that isn’t always heard very clearly on campus.

The annual meeting is a little weird, in that there are all these rooms where very cool sessions and workshops are taking place, often about homegrown, open-source technologies. And then there’s this massive exhibit hall, where Blackboard and Lenovo and Dell and Adobe and a dizzying array of vendors hawk their wares educate people with purchasing budgets about where they should spend their money. (Joshua Kim characterizes this as the difference between the conference and the Conference at Educause, and while we might reverse his capitalization choices, the distinction’s basically apt.)

The first thing that we want to say is that the promise of Educause–those conversations among disparate groups–is real. In addition to meeting people like Baylor’s Gardner Campbell, who is so electrically inspiring in conversation that he should be tattooed with a warning label, one can also discover vast cohorts of people working on similar problems as you, but from different disciplinary or employment vantage points. For example, George has been researching accessibility issues and universal design principles from a digital humanities perspective for the last eighteen months or so, but Educause 2010 was the first time he ran into so many people addressing these issues and principles in a digital environment. The majority of these people are CIOs or ed tech staff, rather than faculty; there just aren’t that many other venues where this combination of people is going to be engaged in such cross-pollinating conversations.

And in so many ways, Educause and its participants get what’s interesting about some of this technology. Each session–and there were many sessions!–was assigned its own Twitter hashtag to facilitate “backchannel” discussion. Conference-goers were able to stay online just about everywhere, thanks to a very strong wireless signal available throughout the conference venue. Even when you’re not at the conference, you can get an account on the Educause server, create a profile that includes your interests, use an “Affinity Finder” to identify others with similar interests, create wiki/blog pages, and more. The conference even provides pretty cool stickers, which more meetings should do. We’re suckers for stickers.

To get a feel for what’s disturbing about the conference, however, take another look at the sticker in the bottom right, which had the meeting’s slogan: Uncommon Thinking for the Common Good.

This slogan is sheer ideology, when viewed from the perspective of the exhibit hall. Because it turns out that the thinking was perfectly common: “There’s nothing wrong with higher ed that a massive purchase order or site license can’t solve.”  Far from uncommon, this is simply the apotheosis of higher education’s thirty-year change from a public good to a commodity.

Relatedly, the conference suffers dramatically from the absence of publicly-voiced skepticism about technology. (Said the editors of ProfHacker–not exactly neo-Luddites!) There’s an unusually high percentage of technofuturist rhetoric in play. (“Why can’t an MBA be $250?,” someone asked. And instead of laughing in the person’s face, there’s a pretense that this is somehow a profound point.)

But what’s really–not to put too fine a point on it–genuinely rotten about Educause is signs like this one:

Blackboard-sponsored party at Educause

That party, complete with drinks and other blandishments–and only one corporate-sponsored party among many at Educause–came a day or two after the announcement that Blackboard has signed a deal to provide content for remedial courses. If you like, the drinks at their “Hang 10.0 Surf Social” were bought with faculty jobs, and by the systematic dismantling of public education at all levels in this country. ( It’s not just the parties, either: In the exhibit hall, if you didn’t win an iPad, you probably weren’t trying very hard. There’s something a little unseemly, in higher education, of the richest and most secure entering lotteries for more baubles, while plotting the further marginalization of our most vulnerable colleagues.)

The split that’s evident at Educause is an important one. On the one hand, you have a vision of a university education as “content” that can be delivered equally well by a platform as by a faculty member, a world in which the members of a university community are all “constituents” linked by a top-down implementation of a technology solution. On the other hand, there’s a vision of technology as facilitating conversations and exchanges of ideas and tool-building–precisely a world in which ideas complete, rather than compete with, one another.

Important structural changes threaten higher education, many of them technologically driven. We fear that some in higher ed don’t realize just how starkly these changes loom. Critiquing these threatened changes is important, of course, but actively participating in the process by which these decisions are being made is extremely important. In short, people from your campus should be at Educause, and they should advocate for a higher education system that’s humane and sustainable. Unless you think a $250 MBA is a good idea.

Image by Flickr user Martin Dougiamas / Creative Commons licensed

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