15th Annual Sloan-C Conference – A Review

John SenerBy John Sener

Disclaimer: I am both uniquely qualified and perhaps ill-suited to write a review of this conference. Uniquely qualified as Director of Special Initiatives for Sloan-C and as one of a handful of people who have attended all 15 Sloan-C conferences; ill-suited because of the possibility of “bias” but also because, frankly, I spent most of my time there as usual talking with colleagues rather than attending conference events. So this will be a more impressionistic review of the conference rather than a comprehensive one. In reality, the conference has gotten so big that it’s not possible for a single individual to provide a complete review.

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Up front, one new development is worth noting in particular: tweeting. I started tweeting at conferences earlier this year, but this was the first time for me to do so at a Sloan-C conference, and I did so throughout. The evolution of the tweetosphere even over the past few months is remarkable. People were coming up to me afterwards and thanking/complimenting me for my tweets; I found myself scanning session rooms to find fellow tweeters posting on the same presentation; I was able to get tweeted summaries of other presentations without attending them or being burdened to find print handouts; and I even met someone new because I mistook them for a fellow tweeter — so it’s becoming a notable social undercurrent at many conferences. Oh, and tweets make great notes for preparing articles like this one . . .

Frank MayadasThe person primarily responsible for bringing the Sloan-C conference into existence, Dr. Frank Mayadas, was the keynote speaker. Frank offered a three-part view of the current state of online education: retrospective, current, and future. The retrospective piece was of course gratifying for us “old-timers” who always appreciate the opportunity to reflect on just how far we and the field have come. How in the early days (in my case, pre-World Wide Web) we cobbled together makeshift or relatively primitive products (e.g., Lotus Notes, First Class, Web Course in a Box, Allaire Forums) to create online courses, while remembering the first Sloan-C conference where everyone knew everyone else (95 participants) and there were two presentations for each concurrent session.

Fast forward to the current conference with almost 1400 attendees total, including ~170 virtual attendees, and 40-50 presentations per concurrent session. Online higher education has entered the mainstream and continues to grow at a brisk clip thanks to the development of a lively practitioner community capable of rapid response, along with the growth of a healthy vendor community which has provided tools to fuel online education’s growth. But what about its future? Dr. Mayadas called for online education to reach truly full scale (as also reported in this Chronicle of Higher Education article), which would likely involve additional changes to the current landscape, such as more targeted government support and greater attention to making online education attractive to a much larger proportion of faculty.

Unlike many conferences which are struggling with conference attendance due to budget crises and constraints, this conference actually grew in size relative to last year, with a 5% growth for onsite attendance and 20% overall growth for the conference including virtual attendees. On Thursday morning, I “convened” the plenary session for the virtual attendees, which meant I monitored the computer feed (messages and questions), responded to any transmission issues as well as I could, and relayed any questions or comments to the speaker during the Q&A period. Although it was difficult to know from the messages, it appeared that many if not all of the virtual attendees were finding value in this presentation at least; and as one virtual attendee noted, virtual attendance was good not only for his budget but also for his waistline, as he was eating a lot less food than if he were attending the conference in person. ;-)

Andrew KeenThe speaker, Andrew Keen, has attained some fame due to his book The Cult of the Amateur, and his self-professed aim as a “polemicist” was to provoke thought and discussion through expounding his contrarian positions, for instance:

  • The Internet poses a danger precisely because it makes education too inexpensive (cheap/free).
  • Educators’ authority is based on the authority conferred by their hard-won wisdom and must be maintained; kids don’t really know anything of value (i.e., wisdom).
  • The Internet’s real-time speed prevents thoughtfulness, which is another challenge to educators.

Needless to say, Keen’s talk provoked a fairly lively Q&A session (and evoked strongly contrasting reactions from attendees afterwards). It would have been nice if he had understood his audience a little better; at one point, his speech was proceeding under the assumption that most of his audience were tenured faculty, so he seemed a bit surprised when he actually polled his audience to find that very few (<10%) were in fact tenured faculty. All in all, however, Keen succeeded in his goal to provoke thought and discussion about the issue, even if IMO he missed a golden opportunity to have a more nuanced discussion of the issues with an audience that was more sophisticated about the issues than what I suspect he customarily faces. Then again, perhaps his aim was more on target: over the past several years the Sloan-C conference has evolved into a conference which attracts a large proportion of first-timers, and this year was no exception, with perhaps as many as 50% of the attendees being first-timers (based on a show of hands at a plenary session).

I also attended several concurrent sessions which reinforced for me that online education continues to evolve, expand, even backtrack in a myriad of directions. One of them had a “back-to-the-future” feel for me, as the presenter was advocating a return to modularized learning management systems as an alternative to the current crop of LMSs and their relative inflexibility and drive toward being enterprise-level solutions. The discussion at another session on learning objects reminded me that we were well past the days of attendees looking for wisdom from pioneer presenters; instead, the audience is often at least as knowledgeable as the presenter(s). That session generated a side conversation with an attendee about a particular learning object repository solution her institution was using, so I did that in lieu of attending additional sessions that afternoon.

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During the panel, I had an epiphany of sorts, realizing the extent to which online education has provided an opening for private sector companies to become more deeply involved in higher education.

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The next morning, I served on a panel discussing the issue of relationships between higher education and the corporate sector, specifically vendors serving the online higher education market. During the panel, I had an epiphany of sorts, realizing the extent to which online education has provided an opening for private sector companies to become more deeply involved in higher education. Some may react to this insight with a “duh!”, and to some extent I also wondered why it took me so long to realize this. I’d been more focused on the other unanticipated effects of online education on higher education, such as the creation of higher, more concrete standards and expectations for course quality and instructor involvement.

Later that morning, I attended a session which described research showing how the Quality Matters project has positively impacted its users several years later. After the session, I got involved in yet another extended  “shop talk” discussion. No doubt I missed lots of good conference sessions, and indeed that’s now unavoidable. But for me the great value of this conference has been, and continues to be, the quality of interaction with long-time colleagues and meeting new ones. In other words, for me the conference is a non-stop schmoozefest.

Some would say this is a highly ironic observation to make about an online education conference. I would say that an in-person conference is an excellent form of tribal gathering to touch base with those numerous colleagues with whom the primary relationship is an online one. Virtual conferences are on the rise, they already have some advantages, and they will only get better. In-person conferences may be attended less frequently, but they are not going away anytime soon — at least if they maintain the quality provided by events such as the Sloan-C conference.

One Response

  1. Thanks for this summary. I attended some of the same sessions, including Keen’s general session and the panel on corporate partnership. This was also my first conference experience using Twitter. I felt a bit like a cub reporter and enjoyed the in-session interaction. It was also interesting to follow the Twitter exchange from other sessions. This experience at Sloan-C led me to seek out #educause09 on Twitter. Following that stream and the live online sessions made for a conference experience I highly recommend. I agree that the virtual conference venue has promise and look forward to more opportunities to participate. Thanks again.

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