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Talking With Students: Analysis of the Evolve Conference

Mar 21, 2014

In January of this year I attended and helped facilitate a conference sponsored and hosted by the 20 Million Minds Foundation called “Evolve: Engaging Students in the Online Conversation.” The concept of the conference:

Major stakeholders have weighed in on the role of online and educational technologies–we have heard from faculty, unions, system leaders, policy makers, and leading ed-tech innovators. However, the ever-critical student perspective has largely been absent.

Building on the success of the 20MM “Re:Boot California Higher Education” symposium of January 2013, “EVOLVE California Higher Education” is the second installment of the collaborative discussion series that will shift the focus to ensure that the student voice is given prominent placement in the state and national conversations surrounding online learning and technology. Student presenters will be joined by a myriad of post secondary leaders and technology innovators.

The basic design was to seat a student panel for the entire conference, with the panel first describing their college experiences related to online courses then listening and questioning a series of “post secondary leaders and technology innovators”. Prior to the panels there was a keynote presentation from California State Senator Holly Mitchell.

The specific sessions and topics were as follows:
• Student Experiences: Describe your experience with online education.
• Scaling Access: How will online offerings expand access to undergraduate and bottleneck courses?
• Academic Services: How can online offerings support the needs of a diverse student population?
• Online Faculty: How will faculty use online platforms to design robust course offerings?
• The Big Picture: What policy recommendations support online initiatives that increase graduation rates?

My specific role was to co-facilitate the conference along with Isa Adney, who has written a book based on her experiences in Community College.

The conference was  unique in keeping students front and center for the whole conversation. Based on conversations between 20 Million Minds and MindWires Consulting, we agreed it would be useful to highlight and describe some of the themes that emerged during the conference into a format that is more digestible than having people wade through 4 hours of streaming video. What will follow will be three articles by MindWires (Michael Feldstein and myself) analyzing some of these themes, using video segments to share the actual conversations.

Before we get to the analyses, however, it is important to highlight once again how unique this format is in education or ed tech settings. There is plenty of discussion about needing course design and support services that are learner-centric, yet typically ed tech conferences don’t have learner-centric discussions. We need to stop just talking about students and add the element of talking with students.

With the conference organized in this manner, attendees got to hear from students in their own words on their perception of the value and challenges of online education, and attendees got to hear how students reacted to higher ed faculty, administrators, staff and policy advisors.

It would be naive to think that a panel of eight students could adequately represent all students or even cover a majority of student issues. This selected group at the Evolve conference was fairly balanced in terms of having positive and negative experiences with online education, but the group was a highly-motivated group of students with a common sense of “I’m going to do what it takes to succeed and get my degree.” This inspiring attitude is not common across all student segments, but at the same time, all conferences by definition have particular biases. To get an idea of the highly-motivated, and inspiring, students at the conference, consider this introduction:

Perhaps as or more important than the specific input from this group of students was the resultant focus of each panel discussion. The structure of the conference meant that virtually all other panelists spoke to the students and listened to the students. They weren’t just talking amongst themselves about students, but for the most part changing the focus of conversations. For example, watch this segment:

At the end of the conference I issued a call to action for other groups to follow the lead of the Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation.

WCET has stepped up to the challenge, and we have discussed how to add student panels to their conference this fall:

Next up – analyses and highlighted video segments from the conference.


The above post–pertaining to developments in the education technology space of mutual interest to the Michelson Twenty Million Minds Foundation, Inc. and MindWires Consulting–represent the opinions and views of the designated authors, Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein, who maintain editorial independence.