Upon the return in person of a gigantic Edtech conference, a focus on putting humanity first


PHILADELPHIA – College technology leaders gathered here this week for the first in-person Educause conference since the start of the pandemic. By attending the sessions and walking into the exhibition hall, it seemed that the focus was on the founding value of the city: brotherly love.

“Empathy appears to be a theme in this Educause,” said Ken Graetz, director of teaching, learning and technology services at Winona State University.

This is a stark contrast to the latest Educause in-person event in 2019, which it concerned humans as data points. This year’s conference emphasized humans as … human beings. The stark emotion of the past year and a half has been the subtext – and sometimes the actual text – of several discussion sessions and keynote speeches. After all, exhaustion is rife in higher education these days, Educause president and CEO John O’Brien told a ballroom of attendees wearing masks, adding that “we can’t assume our peers are fine. “.

Some speakers directly discussed empathy, such as Graetz, who co-led a session on how to build more of it into online course design. Another was Ruha Benjamin, a Princeton African American Studies professor who gave a talk on how racism can penetrate and be shaped by education technology and other tools.

“The way we rationalize empathy is not natural, but shaped by our environment,” like our digital environments, Benjamin said.

University leaders and others gathered this week in Philadelphia for the first in-person Educause conference since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other speakers encouraged attendees to strive for a better work-life balance, embrace new flexible work arrangements, and bow to vulnerability. This is the kind of advice a quartet of chief information officers gave describing how they led college technology teams during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Your staff needs to see that you take care of yourself so that they feel empowered to take care of themselves,” said Helen Norris, vice president and chief information officer at Chapman University.

Also the event revealing Educause’s annual listing of higher education major IT problems for the next year it has moved into “brand new territory,” said Susan Grajek, Educause’s vice president for partnerships, communities and research, because inventory for 2022 is “all about people.” It’s the first time ever that the list considers students not just as students or customers, he added, but as human beings.

Amid the chorus of concern, a note of dissonance rang from the exhibition hall, where controversial test supervision tools and services were prominently displayed and their booths generously staffed. Many students and teachers they objected during the pandemic the use of surveillance systems that monitor students who are taking remote tests, a measure that other professors say they have turned to because they have noticed an increase in cheating.

Tension over assessments, trust and technology emerged in the conversations and materials during the conference, as in a poster featured on “Promoting Academic Integrity in ‘Open Notes’ Online Exams Without Surveillance Software” and a description of the session which said “e-proctoring may be the most problematic of the solutions” that colleges use in online learning. Leaders of university teaching and learning centers are trying to solve what one has called the “great supervision debate” encouraging professors to drop out of high-risk testing, but even though many instructors again seem willing to try alternative approaches, it sometimes takes more time and energy than they have these days.

Meanwhile, signs posted around the convention center have made the more than 3,000 attendees aware of the importance of wellbeing, reminding them to “respect comfort levels”. Only approach other people who have indicated that they are ready, either for “cautious chatter” or “elbow strikes”.


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