The Mirage may have been the name of the host hotel, but the turnout for EduComm 2010 in June was anything but an optical illusion. With more than 800 attendees representing colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada, as well as some from overseas, the seventh annual conference was the most successful yet.
Opening night brought a mix of music, magic and Mahajan. The music was a set of rock and roll classics by the Lon Bronson All-Star Band, and comic/magician Mac King provided the magic. Then Sanjoy Mahajan used a different kind of "magic" to challenge common education practices in a keynote presentation called "Street Fighting Higher Education - Get Ready to Rumble."
Mahajan, associate director of the Teaching and Learning Laboratory at MIT, told the audience that the teaching methods that were thought to improve education are instead undermining it. Using a series of puzzles, he showed how intuition often takes a back seat to rote learning when it comes to problem solving.
"Years of rote learning do not teach real understanding," he said. He illustrated this concept by comparing chess champion Gary Kasparov's ability to analyze chess moves at the rate of approximately one position per second to IBM's Deep Blue chess computer. Deep Blue can analyze moves at the astonishing rate of 100 million per second. What it can't do, Mahajan said, is make judgments based on perception and experience, as Kasparov can.
"So when we're teaching students to reason symbolically and memorize rules, what are we doing? We're combining the calculation ability of a person - one position per second - with the perceptual capacity of the computer. We're not tapping into the perceptual capacity of the student," he said. "Now we've got the worst of both worlds. It's not skilled computer chess, and it's not skilled human chess. It's just a problem-solving disaster."
Mahajan encouraged the audience to look at problem solving in a variety of ways that may not seem to make sense outwardly, but ultimately result in a greater understanding.
Tuesday morning's general session was a wide-ranging discussion on the role of technology in higher education.
Cameron Evans of Microsoft, Ian Temple of Cisco, and Obadiah Greenberg of Google shared their thoughts on a variety of topics, including collaboration, cloud computing, accessibility, and more.
The session was streamed live via EduComm Virtual, and virtual attendees were able to send questions to the panelists, as were those live in the audience.
Asked whether technology was moving faster than education could keep up, Evans agreed. "We don't need more technology, we need more technology that works in a practical way."
Temple added, it can't just be IT's responsibility to bring higher ed up to speed.
On the topic of security and accessibility, Evans held up his passport and said, "I do a lot of traveling with this passport. It is far easier for me to go into another country than it is for me to log onto a university network."
Asked how video and social media could benefit recruitment, Greenberg said that yield rate was higher when prospective students at one university received video acceptance messages.
Greenberg responded to a question about Google's free Apps for Education model by saying there were no plans for Google to start charging. This brought a counterpoint from Evans: Nothing is free. The technology, servers, and resources used to create and produce such content cost money that will have to come from somewhere.
Evans said we should be thinking about what third graders are doing today and plan to reach them, as they're the class of 2020.
EduComm favorite David Pogue returned for an entertaining look at current technology trends during a lunchtime general session called "How to Think Like an 18-Year-Old." Pogue told how he has learned through his college-aged assistant that "nobody uses e-mail anymore," and then he discussed the variety of ways that people communicate and socialize online, from texting to Twitter and beyond. He also gave a look at some new technologies that will appear in cell phones, cameras, and mobile devices in coming years.
Day two featured a lunchtime keynote from Curtis Bonk, a professor at Indiana University and the author of The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education (Jossey-Bass, 2009). Dressed like Indiana Jones, Bonk gave a whirlwind presentation that included video and audio clips and pictures taken from his journeys around the world. It was during these trips that he identified 10 technology trends, including wikis, open courseware, social networking tools, videos, and virtual worlds that he says could change the way learning takes place. The convergence of these trends in whole or in part could result in entirely new ways to teach and learn. The point, says Bonk, is that "anyone can now learn anything from anyone at any time."
Bonk's presentation was an ideal precursor to the final panel session called "Disruptive Technology in Education."
The title describes a process by which a product or service relentlessly moves "up market," eventually displacing established competitors. This includes, as Bonk said earlier, online and virtual opportunities to challenge the current model of higher education.
Joe Schuch, senior associate for New Learning Environments with Thorburn Associates, a technology planning and design firm, was joined by Sarah Robbins, director of emerging technologies at Indiana University, Kelley School of Business, and Phil Ice, director of course design, research and development at the American Public University System. The three agreed that higher education is undergoing an irreversible transformation.
"We are currently witnessing the demise of the college campus," said Ice. "The numbers speak for themselves: There's a 17 percent growth in online learning, and a quarter of all students now take classes online. We are seeing a shift to students wanting the online model." The traditional legacy model is "bankrupt," he said.
"In the past, the two products that a university sold were access to experts and access to a community of fellow learners - both of which I can get for free online," Robbins said. "I can e-mail anyone I want who's an expert in his field and get him to answer my questions and create a community of people who are interested in what I'm interested in. We can no longer sell that, so I think that the structure of the university is going to go under because of that. What we have to do is change to a model where we teach people how to learn rather than focusing on just delivering content."
Schuch joked that he thought the panel was about "destructive" rather than "disruptive" innovation. "Anything that destroys the gap between the institution and the student has got to be a good thing," said Schuch. "Anything that makes quality higher education more accessible to underprivileged students has got to be a good thing."
As they do every year, EduComm breakout sessions covered a variety of topics, including classroom technology, facilities and systems support, and social media use.
During a session called "Down the Rabbit Hole," Indiana University's Sarah Robbins and David Eisert, manager of emerging technologies at Purdue University (Ind.), showed how augmented reality games can get students involved in examining different sides of an issue. In the months preceding EduComm, Robbins and Eisert created an online "game" pitting two fictional characters in a debate over the value of using social media in the classroom. Using blogs and Twitter posts, "Erica Drake" debated "Kenny Livengood," maker of a product that blocks Wi-Fi and cell signals in the classroom, forcing students to pay attention.
How effective was the game in generating buzz? One attendee said that the posts were picked up on another blog and had launched a heated debate among readers. Robbins said she even received a few inquiries for the nonexistent "DataBlocker 5000" product.
In the session "Interactive Digital Signage for Donor Recognition, Way-finding, and Student Communication," Jason Berberich of Rise Display, said that traditional bulletin boards and printed posters are being replaced on many campuses by digital signage. He offered advice and a multitude of application examples for campuses.
For example, digital signage can be used for room scheduling or to preview dining menus (where students can click on pictures of meals). It can help lost campus visitors find their way beyond "You are here." It can help library users find the right location for the information they seek, or highlight student and faculty accomplishments. And it can act as a virtual concierge in lobby areas of buildings so that visitors can get help when staff isn't on hand to ask.
As for getting digital signage equipment on campus, he suggested that local businesses and alumni be approached as possible donors. And when that equipment will be used in a new building, it can be sold as a naming opportunity.
Rivalries for universities often are held on the field or the court, but a friendly one spilled over into social media last year. It involved Texas A & M University and Louisiana State University in a session called "Faceoff with Facebook."
Diane McDonald, who leads TAMU's social media and mobile app efforts, and Brad J. Ward, CEO of BlueFuego, explained the history behind this web-based bout and how other institutions can best use a Facebook page as a promotional tool.
McDonald said TAMU's Facebook page was intended to target future students. "We're trying to reach students through the voices of current and former students," she explained. "Their engagement on our page is important in terms of reaching our target audience."
She offered tips on building engagement on a Facebook page, including allowing the poster's personality to show through. Content doesn't always have to be dry or straight on. Post content at different times during the day or on weekends, McDonald said, as alumni might be more likely to log on in the evening rather than during the work day.
Finally, she said, be sure to respond to negative posts with accurate information. When TAMU fans questioned the school's financial support of an alumnus to participate in a fishing competition at a time of deep budget cuts, an official responded with a post explaining the source of the funding.
All the EduComm 2010 breakout sessions, keynotes, and entertainment can be viewed online at educommconference.com.