As giant Edtech conference returns in person, focus is on humanity first
PHILADELPHIA – Tech leaders from colleges gathered here this week for the first in-person Educause conference since the start of the pandemic. As I attended the sessions and walked through the exhibition hall, I felt the focus was on the city’s founding value: brotherly love.
“Empathy seems to be a theme of this Educause,” said Ken Graetz, director of teaching, learning and technology services at Winona State University.
This is in stark contrast to the last in-person Educause event in 2019, which was about humans as data points. This year’s conference focused on humans as… humans. The raw emotion of the past year and a half was the subtext – and sometimes the actual text – of several breakout sessions and opening speeches. After all, burnout is rife in higher education these days, Educause President and CEO John O’Brien told a ballroom of attendees wearing masks, adding that ” we cannot assume that our colleagues are doing well “.
Some speakers discussed empathy directly, such as Graetz, who co-led a session on integrating empathy into online course design. Another was Ruha Benjamin, professor of African American studies at Princeton, who delivered a speech on how racism can seep into and be shaped by education technology and other tools.
“The way we ration empathy is not natural, but shaped by our surroundings,” like our digital environments, Benjamin said.
Other speakers encouraged participants to seek a better work-life balance, embrace new flexible working arrangements and address vulnerability. That’s the kind of advice a quartet of CIOs gave when describing how they led college tech teams during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Your staff need to see that you are taking care of you so that they feel empowered to take care of themselves,” said Helen Norris, vice president and chief information officer at Chapman University.
Even the event revealing Educause’s annual list of higher education institutions the main IT problems of the coming year has approached “whole new territory,” said Susan Grajek, Educause’s vice president for partnerships, communities and research, as the inventory for 2022 is “all about people.” This is the first time the list has viewed students not just as learners or clients, she added, but as humans.
Amid the chorus of worries, a note of dissonance rang out from the showroom, where controversial test monitoring tools and services were prominently displayed and their booths generously staffed. Many students and faculty throughout the pandemic have opposed the use of surveillance systems that remotely monitor students taking tests – a move other professors say they have turned to because they have noticed an increase in cheating.
Tensions over assessments, trust and technology surfaced in conversations and documents throughout the conference, such as in a poster featured on ‘Promoting Academic Integrity in Grades’ Examinations. open “online without monitoring software” and a session description that said “electronic monitoring may be the most problematic of the solutions” that colleges are using in online learning. Leaders in college teaching and learning centers are trying to resolve what has been called the “great surveillance debate” by encouraging faculty to move away from high-stakes testing, but even though many instructors seem newly willing to try alternative approaches, sometimes it takes more time. and energy than they do today.
Meanwhile, signs posted around the convention center reminded attendees in person of the importance of well-being, reminding them to “respect comfort levels.” Approach only other people who have indicated they are ready, whether for a “safe talk” or “bumps on the elbows.”