CT 2014 | Feature

Leading Ed Tech Innovation and Change

Campus Technology 2014 brought together technology thought leaders for a dialogue on data, change, MOOCs, innovation and more.


Watch a video mashup of highlights from the CT 2014 keynotes.

As technology continues to turn higher education upside down, perhaps it's fitting that those at the forefront of change should meet in Boston, a place full of revolutionary history, to plan their next steps. This July the city was host to approximately 1,300 ed tech leaders for Campus Technology 2014, our annual conference devoted to technology in post-secondary education.

Innovation and change were a running theme throughout the event, evident in inspirational keynote addresses, detailed panel sessions and a vibrant exhibition hall.

Driving Change With Data
In his opening keynote, Stephen Laster, former CIO of Harvard Business School and currently chief digital officer of McGraw-Hill Education, encouraged IT leaders to collaborate with others on campus in order to better support the teacher-student relationship and experience.

Although the title of his talk was "How Big Data Is Changing Everything We Know About Education," Laster switched things up by arguing that the standard definition of big data really doesn't match up well with education. "I do not believe higher education is about gathering terabytes of data and asking it to tell me the patterns. I love the idea of bringing data together to look for patterns and insights, but not in education," he said.

"We need measurement to have feedback and drive engagement, and we need data," he continued. But setting aside the hype around big data, Laster argued for the potential of "small data" to create personalized learning experiences that cut down on student frustration and confusion.

Laster gave an example from the University of Texas at El Paso that included the use of a knowledge map and an artificial intelligence engine to help guide students through a summer bridge course and prepare them for college math classes. UTEP is seeing much better graduation and completion rates from this small data initiative, he said. "There were no big datamarts or a massive campus initiative," Laster noted. "Small data is not going to be the sole driver. But it can be one small piece. We cannot unilaterally drive the change. But we can drive a lot of it. Let's start small."

New in 2014

This year, special 50-minute interactive panels focused on three critical technology trends: mobility, security and the cloud. For instance, on the cloud panel, Dennis Ravenelle, senior project manager for Harvard University Information Technology, talked about why Harvard IT intends in the next three years to have all new services deployed in the cloud and migrate 75 percent of existing services to the cloud. "It is an audacious goal," said Ravenelle, who talked about some of the cost and scalability benefits the university is considering.

IT as Change Leaders
The keynote by University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski III reminded attendees always to keep the larger context of their work in mind.

"We have so much data around us, but a story is what gives it context," Hrabowski said. For instance, he talked about the importance of the GI Bill as a great experiment in opening up higher education to the middle and working classes, as was the Higher Education Act of 1965. Millions of people were able to go to college and better themselves. "The work we do is noble," said Hrabowski, who has been president at UMBC for more than 20 years. "Where would we be without the education we received?"

He implored the IT executives to see themselves as thought leaders. Too often, people tend to question the value of what IT does, he said. "You do not want people to pigeonhole you as technologists. You are thought leaders who happen to be experts in technology."

Hrabowski used his relationship with UMBC CIO Jack Seuss as a positive example, noting that it was critical that his CIO report directly to him. "I wanted to send a message. There was nothing more important than making clear that technology is not separate but infused into the fabric of what we do," he said. "This expert in technology is at the table from the beginning and not as an afterthought."

He rhetorically asked the audience what it means to be academically innovative. "It means that success is never final. We are always asking, 'What's next?' We know we can be much better. We focus on the use of technology to redesign teaching and learning."

Returning to his initial theme of huge societal change agents such as the GI Bill, Hrabowski said, "The vets who went to college knew the world of tomorrow did not have to be the same as today. That was innovation." Today we can improve outcomes, he added, "if we change the way we do business. You have the ability to help campuses use technology to transform the institutions as they transform the lives of students."

New in 2014

In a new "Goldfish Tank" session, presented in partnership with the SIIA Education Division, entrepreneurs took the stage to share brief descriptions of their new product or service. After their presentations, attendees voted for the solution they would most likely use in higher education. The winner was a company called Campuscene, which is building a college search site that includes virtual tours, video content, interactive maps and social media content for every school on a student's list.

The MOOC Movement
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been a hot topic at past Campus Technology events and this year was no different. In his keynote speech, Anant Agarwal, CEO of the nonprofit edX platform, talked about edX's potential for using big data to improve teaching and learning outcomes, both online and in blended learning environments.

EdX was launched in 2012 with seed funding from MIT and Harvard. Agarwal, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics. It drew 155,000 students from 162 countries.

He tried to put those numbers in perspective to stress the impact edX has already had. "That 155,000 figure is more than the total number of alumni of MIT in history," he said, adding that the 7,200 who passed the rigorous course are more than the total number of students he will ever teach in his career at MIT. "From a lark two and a half years ago, it is becoming a movement."

The next step is to use all the data being gathered from the edX platform to study how people learn.
In the space of a few years, edX has amassed more than 3 billion records. Agarwal wants to use that data to find out how students learn, in order to continuously re-engineer the platform in much the same way that Google tweaks its Web site. "We have terabytes of data, including students working on problems," he said. "We know they got it wrong four times and right the fifth. We can see what they did in between the fourth and fifth try. We know which parts contribute to successful outcomes."

Empowering Innovation
The conference closed with a keynote talk that broadened the focus on higher education and technology with a global perspective. David Sengeh, a biomechatronics researcher at MIT Media Lab, talked about what's involved in empowering people to innovate.

At MIT, Sengeh, a native of Sierra Leone, is working to design better, more comfortable prosthetic sockets and wearable interfaces. The work combines medical imaging, materials science, human anatomy, computer-aided design and manufacturing. He's also the founder of Innovate Salone, a group aiming to inspire innovation in Sierra Leone.

He noted that he and colleagues had the creative freedom to tackle problems at MIT. In that vein, rather than having foundations impose solutions to problems in Africa, it is important to encourage the same type of problem-solving mentality among young people there. "How do we create an ecosystem," he asked, "a network of opportunities so people can stop to think about challenges in their community and learn how to attempt to solve them? That is the only way to guarantee a sustainable future."

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