By Kevin Bell, Executive Director of Curriculum Development and Deployment, Lecturer
Last month I was happy to be back in Austin, TX, for the 5th annual SXSWedu conference. This year I felt embraced by the “little brother” nature of the event — appreciating it for what it is — the palate clearer in Austin before Lady Gaga and/or Snoop Dog/Lion swing into town on a wave of hedonism, brisket and moonshine. I’m, of course, talking about SXSW, the “big brother” event for the music, film and interactive industries that more people may be familiar with, which immediately followed the SXSWedu conference. I enjoyed all of the events and features at SXSWedu before buying a cool hoody that made it look to all my friends that I had been at the SXSW main event — I’ll be rocking that for the next week or two at least.
Before going all rock-and-roll, I participated in a panel entitled “Re-designing Higher Education for Student Success,” hosted by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. My fellow participants were Tiffany Mfume of Morgan State University, Lawrence Morales of Seattle Central Community College and two students from local colleges. The host/compere was Casey Green, the founding director of the Campus Computing Project. The focus of the panel was, “to discuss the causes of low college completion and explore innovative strategies for improving student success.”
The session was interesting if a little wide-ranging. The students addressed issues of financial aid, student advising and military competencies mapping to credits. Mfume, Morales and I focused more on applications of technologies to promote scale and affordability; referencing the Gates-funded projects we had all been part of at our respective campuses (for me, this was our adaptive learning project in Seattle). The event was interesting as much for the preparation and logistics as for the actual content.
We convened the night before in the convention center where a young man fresh off the Netflix series “House of Cards” barked orders, tape measured the stage, the podium and the angle of the lights, not so much in preparation for the aforementioned panelists, but rather for the final presenter of our panel, a very approachable professor of English from Northern Virginia Community College. “Dr. B.,” as the “House of Cards” guy called her. She also happened to have a second day job – spouse to the Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, a.k.a. the Second Lady.
Dr. Jill Biden’s speech during the panel event was more of a synopsis of her recent visits to community colleges than a strict summary of the discussion, but she covered many of the same aspects. Her presentation was polished and positive, stressing some of the successes of the current administration and featuring clips of her previous day’s visit where she had spoken at Santa Fe College. The picture on The White House blog features her on stage with participants at Santa Fe College but the speech and video she presented at SXSWedu can be found here.
Despite limited stage time, we did get to meet and greet Dr. Biden in a calmer manner in the Gates’ lounge. She seemed very nice, personable and interested in our work and the students’ experiences. The jury is still out on adaptive learning but, as the panelists agreed, it presents interesting potential to provide support for students tailored to their specific needs. In particular, institutions with an access agenda and lower level students are seeing promising results. These technologies support just-in-time low-level support, helping students persist in introductory courses without having to drop to remedial levels.
Our panel took place on the first full day of the conference, which left me three days to visit other sessions and utilize the conference’s social app to meet with people working on projects similar to mine. Among the keynotes that I attended, Goldie Hawn discussed her work with the Hawn Foundation – established in 2003 to “provide vital social and emotional learning programs to reduce stress and aggressive behavior, improve focus and academic performance and increase resiliency for success in school and in life.” Sal Khan discussed his journey to fame and the Bank of America liaison with the Khan Academy. Both were engaging, compassionate, intelligent and seemingly genuine individuals. As SXSWedu concluded, SXSW started to ramp up. Coffee bars were switched out for Miller Lite promotional bars – which tells you something. As Private Benjamin rolled out, Snoop Dog rolled in. I surfed the interface in my new hoody and enjoyed the Austin sunshine for a lazy afternoon before heading back to the warm embrace/frosty hug of Boston and its diminishing snow piles.