Scouting the Trends in Higher Education

Civitas Learning Blog

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About a twice a year, flight schedules align and three experts who speak around the world about education (while also leading successful organizations committed to improving education) are in the same room at the same time. When this happens, it’s a lot like watching three professional sport scouts in the stands as they swap stories from the road, and provide a glimpse into the road ahead.

The three big scouts at this year’s EDUCAUSE were John O’Brien (President, EDUCAUSE), Ron Reed (Executive Director, SXSWedu) and Mark Milliron (Co-Founder, Civitas Learning), and this season they were scouting trends in higher education.

Fittingly, Milliron opened the session with a metaphor in the form of a personal story from his weekend’s work coaching middle-school boys in a regional fall league in Austin, TX. His team was set to play a private school that no one had seen, so they decided to scout them to get a sense of what to prepare for. “We were looking at a court filled with a team of really talented, kids – about 4’11” to 5’10”. But then suddenly out comes this kid who looks like he’s 17-years-old. He’s 6’ 3” and he’s a super athletic child who can play strong inside and outside.” Milliron was thankful he had taken the time to scout this team. He took the news of the ‘giganta-man’ back to his assistant coaches, and together they worked to design a specific defensive strategy to keep their team from being clobbered. Because of this look down the road ahead, his team wasn’t surprised by the challenge they were about to face and were better prepared to hold their own. “I’m using this example because a lot of the reasons people go to conferences like EDUCAUSE is to connect with colleagues around the country and get the scouting report so they know what’s coming down the pike. You come to see what you need to prepare your teams for.”

Here’s are some excerpts from this session’s scouting report. If you missed the panel, you can catch up on the full conversation in the video below.


John O’Brien led with security. “On the way here I was in an airport reading about the DDoS attacks that took out many companies on the east coast, so it’s not a surprise that security continues to be on our EDUCAUSE Top Ten IT Issues for 2016.” It was, in fact, number one on the list. “We have to approach security as what we are going to do, not what we are not going to do. We have to be proactive and positive.

“Someone discovered my password. Now I have to rename my dog.”

The biggest trend we are seeing is toward awareness training. I still remember a poster in 2006 that said ‘Someone discovered my password. Now I have to rename my dog.’ Our ECAR (EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research) data show three in four institutions have mandatory training now for staff, which is great unless you are the 25 percent that don’t. And only one in four have mandatory training for students.”

Connected IT Infrastructures

Milliron and O’Brien discussed the need for deeper IT and academic collaboration as learning infrastructures become more creative and more robust. They pointed to another big trend connecting IT and facilities, and IT and academics. “We’re moving beyond old arguments about online vs. on-ground learning to the need to build out an infrastructure to support ubiquitous integrated learning,” said Milliron. They talked of combining online and on ground, then adding in augmented reality, and virtual reality. “Suddenly you have a very rowdy digital infrastructure that can enable all kinds of personalized learning, but there’s a weakness on the security side. So you’ve got this challenge of advocating for this new and interesting set of capabilities that we really want to take advantage of, but we really have to measure twice and cut once.”

Next-Gen Learning Environments

Ron Reed is seeing a shift in learning environments across the education landscape in what is now a K-20 conversation, not just K-12 or higher education as stand-alone sectors. At the 2017 SXSWEdu, Reed is launching a new competition called Learning by Design. “It focuses on what can be done to really enhance the learning environment,” said Reed. “We’re looking at three categories: a concrete for completed projects to be reviewed and pitched to the community; a conceptual for projects that are in design and development; and an experimental that we hope opens up the category more broadly beyond physical spaces.” The vision creates a collaborative “maker-space” type environment with design thinking elements interwoven throughout. Reed says what they have endeavored to do at SXSWedu is to move away from silos and segmented education and look at the whole ecosystem with a view for greater inter-connectivity. Citing that 85 percent of low income and middle class students tend to stay within their region for higher education, Reed called for increased collaboration and connection in the K-20 landscape.

Analytics & Agency – Shifting Focus

Milliron spoke to an emerging trend around data. “One of the things we’re seeing in our work is a huge need in the world of higher education to make a shift. We have been living in a world where our data orientation has been accountability analytics – it’s been about getting data to accreditors, to legislators, to trustees,” he said. “Now we’re actually seeing the build out of this new infrastructure and new opportunities. There’s a real push for IT and academics to get data in the hands of advisors and faculty so they can be their own kind of student success scientists with the proliferation of apps that go right to the advisors and right to the students where students can experience an almost Amazon-like experience.” Milliron advocates for a move to a data culture that is more orientated to what we see in healthcare, saying we must also “make a move away from autopsy data and actually get data during the operation to help the patient, or even better, get diagnostic data so the person never ends up in need of help. We have to use data to help students make the most of the learning experience.” He pointed to the need to take data from an orientation of sickness to orientation wellness in how we can help all students be their best and have students take agency in their own success.


The submissions for speaking sessions Reed is seeing at SXSWedu are less focused on systems and structures such as common core and high stakes assessments than in the past and more focused on the individual learner. Reed has been traveling extensively as this conversation has taken hold internationally with education continuing to be a critical driver of economic development. He’s heading to Singapore and is recently back from Moscow. “I was at an event called Head Crunch in Moscow,” Reed said. “Anant Agarwal and others were there to announce a large open source university initiative with multiple universities. The audience was largely K12 with an interest in personalized learning. They came to try to understand what tools, what technology and what lessons could be applied to their learning environments.” Reed said he was struck to be so far geographically from the conversations in the US and see the conversations still focused on the same things. “And recently I was in the Middle East at a lovely event called the World Innovation Summit, and again, it was the same conversations. What I’m realizing as we grow our international involvement at SXSW is that we share more in common that we have differences as we look at the international cultural considerations for how we really attend to the needs of learners.”

The CIO’s Challenge

O’Brien advocated for a conversation on the road ahead so academics and IT can understand shared goals, costs and value. “We need academics to understand the genuine contribution and cost of IT, and we need IT to understand some of the exigencies of academic life – it’s a door that swings both ways.” He says we’re not there yet if we look at ECAR data. “Depending on what data you look at from ECAR, I’d say at least half of the CIOs would say we don’t have effective IT governance, and that has to be dealt with. I think only 35 percent of CIOs say they are often involved in academic strategic decision-making. We need to build that relationship.” He urged a look at the EDUCAUSE Student Success Research and Benchmarks and pointed to the fact only a handful are technology-based, while most rely on people processes, leadership and collaboration.

Integrated Infrastructures & Collaboration

“If I’m going to pick a trend coming on the road ahead it’s pretty to clear to me from the conversations in this room that we need to start pulling together this idea of a transformational infrastructure,” said Milliron. “It has to be able to pull together your academic planning, your technology planning, your facilities planning, together with a data infrastructure that helps you understand how those things are working or not working.” He says conversations can then go beyond planning to execution. What we’re learning in our work is we have these DIAL working groups, where people look at data to generate insights to inform and instrument action and continue learning, but the only way it works if you pull the pieces and parts together. “

For more from this interactive scouting report on the field of higher education, check out the full video.

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