Last week, Course Hero joined thousands of educators, administrators, program designers, edtech companies, students, and entrepreneurs in Austin for the eighth annual SXSW EDU conference. It was the team’s first time attending. Our objective? To spend four days learning as much as possible about how to improve educational outcomes for college students.
In the 12 years since Course Hero was founded (by two college students in a dorm), our online learning library has snowballed: Today, it’s a resource of study materials contributed by more than 24 million students and educators. And while we’re amazed to see so many community members adding to Course Hero, we can’t help asking ourselves: What more can we do? With such a vast library, how else can we support deep learning? How can we complement what’s happening in the classroom? And how can we support the real rock stars — the educators?
Armed with these questions (and a bag full of awesome Course Hero swag), we arrived in Austin on Sunday night. We combed through the jam-packed agenda of more than 400 sessions and made difficult choices about which ones we’d each attend.
What followed was a journey of learning and inspiration. Some of the key themes of the week were equity, the power of story, competency-based education (CBE) and personalized learning, higher education outcomes, and emerging technologies.
But many more ideas, topics, and discoveries arose as the week progressed. Here, a somewhat eclectic assortment of just a few of our aha moments:
1. VR can help recruit women to an engineering program
NYU Tandon School of Engineering had a problem: They wanted more women to accept offers of admission and enroll in the college. Their innovation? Leverage the power of virtual reality to engage admitted students in exciting research. In a cross-departmental collaboration, Cindy Lewis (Admissions), Krysta Battersby (Student Affairs), and Mark Skwarek (Faculty) create a new VR game app every spring. Each game is more than a “tour” — it’s an interactive, fun game that lets students learn about research while they enjoy tackling a challenge. For example, one year’s app had students driving a rover on the surface of Mars. This year’s app will let students use a robot to lure schools of fish away from danger.
Each year, the new game goes live in app stores on April 1; meanwhile, the admissions office sends out a Google Cardboard kit with every acceptance letter, so students can use their smartphones to play the VR game. The exciting thing is — it works. Numbers of women students have gone way up, from 29% of the Fall 2015 class to 40% of the Fall 2017 class. We came away inspired by the collaboration, innovation, and creativity of this initiative.
2. Social listening isn’t just a social media tool
How do you manage the flow of information when you’re in a crisis? This is a challenge that Nicholas Love, director of NC State’s Social Media Strategy Hub, had to face in the most difficult possible scenario. On November 28, 2016, Love was responsible for social media strategy at Ohio State University, and there was an active shooter on campus. Because he’d had the foresight to implement social listening tools, he had access to vital information; he had real-time insight into conversations that were happening all over social media and could spot trends, communicate more effectively, and respond to inaccurate information.
As he shared this story, Love walked the audience through more details about how social listening works and why it’s important for colleges. He and his co-host, Liz Gross, founding director of Campus Sonar, coached attendees about how to spot social media trends and how to leverage their insights to create engaging content and convey value to audiences. They concluded the session by offering a link to their Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook — we can’t wait to dive in.
3. Should students learn how to learn?
We all know students benefit from having really extraordinary educators, but Dr. Bob Duke, professor of Music and Human Learning at University of Texas at Austin, believes students need tools to wring more from their educational experiences. This notion is what led to the birth of Push, a program on the UT Austin campus that helps first-year students adopt strategies that improve learning. Duke believes that while a lot of educator professional development focuses on ways to change the educator, we also need to change student behaviors.
“Learning requires more than listening,” Duke explained. He discussed his work encouraging students to become active participants in their education, learning when and how to ask questions during class, among other strategies. Part of his goal is to debunk the notion that students simply aren’t good at certain subjects. As Duke puts it, he wants to prove to them that “smart isn’t something you are, it’s what you do.”
4. Education is a movement
Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, is revolutionizing higher education by seeing his institution not just as a college but as a movement. PQC is building a network of Urban Work Colleges that transform students’ lives. As he puts it, “We believe that higher ed institutions should turn themselves outward and address the needs of the communities and students they serve.” To really understand what it’s all about and to hear about PQC’s values and beliefs, goals, and formula for growth, take time to watch Sorrell’s inspiring speech.
5. How AI is shaping the future of higher education
There are many ways that artificial intelligence (AI) is already being integrated into our daily lives — think of the rapid adoption of voice-enabled smart speakers with Amazon Echo and Google Home. However, it is fascinating to think about how AI will have a profound impact on the education industry. In this session, led by Curtis Patrick, senior architect at Ellucian, discussion focused on how AI — from chatbots to adaptive learning systems — already affects the student experience. There is no question that we are at the forefront of leveraging AI technology that will change the way students learn and interact with their campus environments over the next 10 years.
6. Not all change is driven through technology
The US has more than 80 million adults who graduated from high school but never earned the postsecondary degree that is often an essential requirement for career stability and mobility. Adult students face numerous challenges in attending college and completing their degrees. The Graduate Network, a foundation whose mission is to increase the number of adults completing college, is actively working with key stakeholders such as businesses, institutions, and government agencies to help develop a regional infrastructure to better serve “comebackers” and minimize or remove some of the obstacles standing in their way.