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.


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.


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.


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.

Poetic Faith—the Magic of Belief

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer

Bill Turque’s January 5 Washington Post article on Michele Rhee’s reform efforts contains this interesting comment in reference to staff development efforts:

  • Within the first five years on the job, most enroll in The Skillful Teacher, a program of six day-long sessions devised by Jon Saphier of the Massachusetts-based Research for Better Teaching program.
  • Saphier said the program fosters teachers’ belief in their power to lift student achievement despite conditions outside school.
  • An independent study in 2004 showed that before taking the course, Montgomery teachers rated students’ home life and motivation as the factors that most influenced learning. After the course, home life dropped to 11th on the list, and teacher enthusiasm and perseverance were described as most important.

A skeptical reader’s response would almost certainly be “So what? What difference would that change in attitude make?” In my experience, it is the most important difference-maker of all, for it is the basis of all other positive change.

In my own teaching, nothing transformed what I did more than adopting that attitude. Once I believed that all students could succeed if I made the right instructional decisions, I became diligent in seeking those approaches, but before that I just accepted student failure as a problem beyond my control.

When I was still a relatively young teacher, I was assigned sections of sophomores with a history of failure in writing. I saw that they universally wrote in fragments and run-ons, so I dedicated the next few weeks to intense, traditional, grammar-based instruction on sentence structure. When I saw scant improvement despite my most diligent efforts, I determined that they were incapable of doing better and moved on. There was no reason for me to change because their failure was their fault.

Not many years later I was a department chairperson trying to improve a school’s horrid writing achievement. I created an innovative (and controversial) approach, and, as a part of it, I assigned myself a class of sophomores with a history of writing failure. Once again, I had an entire class writing in fragments and run-ons, but this time I was armed with a new belief, a belief that they had the ability to succeed if I did the right thing. I therefore abandoned that intense, traditional, grammar-based approach that had failed in the past and did something totally different.

I taught almost all mechanics through editing. In my mastery learning system, students could not get credit for a piece of writing until the conventions met standard. A draft might be met with a response like, “Great ideas and support! This makes a lot of sense! Now, just fix those fragments and you’ll be done with it, and you’ll get a great grade!” Within a few weeks, 100% of the students were writing in complete sentences.

coleridgeNot long after that, I was part of a research team examining the results of a writing assessment given at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in a low SES area in a large school district. The overall results (a little over 50% proficient) had been reported for each grade level, and we surveyed the teachers to try to get more information. What none of the teachers knew was that none of them had anywhere near 50% proficiency in student performance. Teachers had either nearly all of their students proficient or nearly none of their students proficient. Even though our survey was anonymous, it was therefore easy to tell from their responses to certain questions which camp they were in.

We asked them for their overall beliefs about student achievement, using the kind of wording you see in the Turque article. All the teachers with high success rates believed that their actions were the primary forces determining student success. Every single teacher with high failure rates believed student success was entirely determined by student ability and other factors beyond the teacher’s control.

Just after Turque’s article was published, my hometown newspaper published an article about a similar survey done by the state department of a school with a history of failure to meet No Child Left Behind achievement goals. The school has a large Hispanic population, and the audit revealed that teachers believe that their population is not capable of achieving at a high level on state tests. The report noted that “Some parents and students feel that some of the teachers do not believe that all students can achieve at high levels. . . . It was observed and reported that there are some populations of students held to higher standards than others.”

Once you have accepted a reason for failure that is beyond your control, you are freed from any obligation to try to succeed.

In his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the famous phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he called “poetic faith.” In modern terms, this is the human trait that allows us to weep as a movie actor pretends to die. It causes us to jump in fright at the flickering image of a monster on a TV screen.

Poetic faith is a trait that serves a teacher well. The effective teacher looks at every student and thinks, “I believe that if I make the right instructional decisions and follow the right approach for you as an individual, you will succeed, despite all that stands in the way of that success. If I look long enough, I will find the path to your success.” The effective teacher searches education literature for strategies that will lead to that success.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen predicts that technology and online education will transform education because it will enable the teacher to identify student learning needs and take the appropriate steps to meet those needs. That cannot happen, though, until teachers fully believe there is a reason to make that effort.

Technology Must Be Based on Quality Instructional Practice

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer
5 November 2008

Four decades ago the Coleman Report examined student achievement and concluded that the primary factors for student success belonged to the student—ability and socioeconomic status. The school could not control those conditions of success. Recent research has revealed the fatal methodological flaw in the Coleman study and reversed those findings. The primary factor in student success is now believed to be that student’s teacher.

Coleman compared the average results of schools, without comparing the results of individual teachers within those schools. I once participated in an internal study for a school district. Students had taken a pilot writing assessment in grades 4, 8, and 10. The average results for each of the schools was about the same, and they were consistent with what would be expected for the socioeconomic status of the area—something over 50% of the students were proficient or better. Our research team had access to the raw data, though, and the results were startling. Many of the teachers had more than 80% of their students rated as proficient, and some had 100% proficient. Many of the teachers had fewer than 20% proficient, and some had none at all. (These were all heterogeneous classes.) Not a single teacher had results between 20% and 80%.

Because of this huge disparity in results, it was easy to tell which teachers were in each group when we analyzed the anonymous surveys. Most interestingly, 100% of the low-performing teachers believed that academic success depended upon the abilities of the student, and 100% of the high performing teachers believed that the teacher could make any student successful by applying appropriate instructional techniques to meet that student’s needs.

adsit05For much of educational theory, research has shown us what methods are most effective. Convene a meeting of the top theorists in instruction and they will spend their time agreeing with each other. Unfortunately, much of what they will be agreeing on is counterintuitive and non-traditional. School districts must officially adopt them quietly, or the local newspapers will scream that they are destroying education. Even when they are officially adopted, most teachers ignore them and go on as they always have, so nothing actually changes.

At the college level, those theories are rarely even introduced. I was once invited by a prestigious technical college to help them improve their writing program. It did not go well. When I told them my plans, they were aghast and would have none of it. If I were to use those techniques, too many students would be successful, they would earn high grades, and the school would be accused of grade inflation. In higher education, educational excellence is still too often believed to occur in a 400 student lecture hall.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen identifies the primary path to student success, and he predicts that technological changes, particularly in the world of online education, will make it possible. The successful teacher diagnoses the learning needs of individual students and makes appropriate adjustments to that student’s learning plan. The truly skilled individual teacher is able to do that in a face to face classroom, but it is not easy. Technological advances to make that possible would indeed disrupt all of education.

That means, though, that these changes must serve those counterintuitive instructional strategies that actually work.

I was approached by a vendor with the technology that would supposedly solve all my online education instructional needs. They had gone into the lecture halls of various colleges and recorded lectures. On your computer you could watch the fascinating talking heads and view the accompanying PowerPoints. Instead of being mind-numbingly bored to tears in a 400 seat lecture hall, you could be mind-numbingly bored to tears in the comfort of your home.

Much of the educational technology I see is imitating the bad instruction that produces poor student achievement. Technology developers must seek out what really works and focus their attention accordingly. I visited such a program recently, and what I saw gave me great hope for the future. As a developer of online education curriculum, I know what kind of technology we need to be successful, and when it comes, it will certainly transform education.