NCAN at SXSWedu, Day One

March 10, 2015

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst

Hello from South by Southwest Education (SXSWedu)! This four day festival/conference/get-together takes place annually in Austin, Texas and brings together individuals from across the education industry to meet, mingle, debate, and discuss critical issues in our field. I’m fortunate enough to be able to attend on NCAN’s behalf this year, and I want to share some of the lessons learned from the sessions that I attend. Look for my dispatches every day this week. If you have any questions you want me to explore, be sure to let me know on Twitter at either @2collegenetwork or @billdebaun.

My SXSWedu panel experience started off this afternoon with a topic near and dear to NCAN’s heart: “Student Success 101.” The panelists, who were from the University of Texas-Austin, discussed the groundbreaking predictive analytics and student supports that have been geared at (and largely successful for) minority and first-generation students. (More here via the New York Times). Some of the interventions offered by UT include boot camps for skills in which students are particularly weak, small learning communities of typically around 17 to 30 students, and communities specifically for transfer students. All of these interventions are data-driven and intensely analytical, but the aim is ultimately that “everyone graduates.”  When students are targeted for these interventions, they receive messages that reinforce a growth mindset and encourage student engagement as well as the idea that students really do belong on the UT campus.The extent to which UT is willing to share the student-facing early warning system portal with other campuses was unclear, but I hope that other campuses are taking notes. While this kind of intervention does indeed require a reform of a campus’s practices and philosophy, it seems worthwhile given the retention outcomes UT is achieving.

There is definitely a concentration on data privacy issues here at SXSWedu this year. Many of the panels revolve around questions of how to make student data more safe from misuse and whether education technology and reform interests are using “big data” too much. In a session yesterday about “disrupting the disruption in higher education,” panelists tried to make the case that #edtech innovations are more interested in profit-making than real learning. This argument struck me as painting with too broad a brush. The use of data in and of itself should not be demonized, instead we should be considering to what ends that data is used. True, to “really know” an individual student, having a conversation with them building that relationship is important. But that isn’t feasible for large numbers of students; data provides a way for us to look for patterns and interventions that can help large numbers of students. The battle between big data and interpersonal relationships is one that is not going to go away, nor will it be settled here. At least in this session, panelists were pushing back strongly on the idea of what they see as reducing students to numbers and quantifying them rather than understanding them as people.

The following session also tackled data privacy, but from the perspective of how to develop education data privacy standards. Keith Kruger of the Consortium for School Networking asserted that since the passage of No Child Left Behind, data has widely been viewed as a tool for accountability, but he maintains that it is much, much more than that, specifically it can be used to inform learning and teaching. On the actual question of data privacy, the panel fielded a question from the audience about why all student data points are viewed as equally important when it seems that something like a student’s first initial is not nearly as sensitive as their Social Security number. That seemed sensible to me, but the panelists cautioned that if organizations let their guard down on some of these lesser points that it is possible that they could be combined to identify an individual student. This is an important piece of food for thought for NCAN members who manage student data. In order to protect student data, the panel called for penalties/liabilities for education data handlers who mismanage student data; we see this kind of accountability in other industries. For example, the National Transportation Safety Board holds auto manufacturers accountable for their vehicles’ safety.

My last session of the day had Jeff Selingo, contributing editor to the Chronicle of Higher Education and leading higher education author and columnist, presenting on “redesigning the overworked bachelor degree.” Early in his presentation the timeless question of “classical knowledge” versus “practical skills” rose again. I was pleased to hear that this argument has been going on at least since the 1800s. What is old is new again!

Selingo’s argument was that the bachelor degree, as currently designed, unrealistically tries to do too much in four years. In order to try to fit all of this in, graduates are missing out on developing skills that could make them successful in the workplace. For example, graduates are so used to getting a set curriculum through a syllabus and then following it step by step that they don't have the problem solving skills they need in the workplace. The same is true for time management.

Selingo proposed that the bachelor’s degree change to offer more on- and off-ramps for students, i.e., multiple pathways through which students could complete a degree based on their preferences and needs. Here are some of the different pathways proposed:

  • Gap year pathways: Everyone takes a gap year. This is a work-education pathway where students toggle between campus and jobs. This would include on-the-job training and apprenticeships.

  • “Easy on/easy off pathway.” Students can exit school for a job and then re-enter school easily when they need new skills for a new position. Students might only need to come back for a semester or two to get the specific skills they need for their next professional endeavor.

  • Traditional pathway: Certainly the traditional pathway will always be around, but it is important to remember that today only 20 percent of students today go to a four-year residential school and graduate in four years. For many students this pathway just doesn't work

Selingo pointed out that all of this can be accomplished under the current Higher Education Act regulations, but it is more difficult to do and requires a registrar willing to tackle changing the pathways at their university.

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