Ed tech highlights: 10 things to note from Educause 2013

Hundreds of exhibitors promoted their wares on the floor at Educause 2013, giving attendees a look at the latest and greatest education technology solutions. If you couldn't make it, believe us when we say that there was a lot to take in—so much, in fact, that even those who did make it probably didn't see everything. 

From SPOCs and MOOCs to big data and personalization, and in no particular order, we put together the following list of 10 things to note at this year's event.



Harvard and the University of California-Berkeley made headlines in September for their experimentation with small private online courses, or SPOCs—MOOC alternatives limited to tens or hundreds of students. Silicon Valley startup Rukuku is taking that notion and applying it to its global online learning marketplace, though it brands its offerings as "small personalized online courses." Through its software-as-a-service suite of tools, instructors, trainers and tutors can design courses and materials with the Composer, monetize that course and its content in the company's Marketplace and conduct courses in real-time in an interactive, online Auditorium.



For Instructure, Educause saw the launch of Canvas' Innovation in Education grants. The five grants of $10,000 each are meant to spur innovation in education and will be awarded to the best ideas across five categories: facilitating competency based learning, engaging students throughout their academic career, blending online and face-to-face courses, new models of content and curriculum development and sharing, and applying universal design to online learning. Submissions opened Oct. 15 and will close Jan. 20, with the winners announced at SXSWedu in March 2014. A total of $100,000 in grants will be awarded (an additional 10 at $5,000 a piece are available in as many categories).



Last year's Educause saw the announcement of CourseSmart Analytics. A pilot program including 3,700 students, 76 faculty and 26 administrators tested the product during this year's spring term. At Educause 2013, the digital content services company unveiled a white paper, "Evaluating How the CourseSmart Engagement Index Predicts Student Course Outcomes," based on research by Reynol Junco, an associate professor of library science at Purdue University and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. "Interestingly enough, when we made the announcement last fall, he approached us," CourseSmart Senior Vice President of Marketing Cindy Clarke told us at the show. "He sought us out because he saw such a great correlation with the work that he had already been doing."

The white paper concludes that the CourseSmart Engagement Index transparently, unobtrusively and effectively gages student progress in an easy-to-access manner. For faculty, it's an efficient method of formative assessment, and it works in real-time to identify students at risk of failure without being attached to a student's learning management system activity.

CourseSmart also continued to promote its successful subscription packs, which gives students access to six textbooks of their choice for $200, as well as its interactive content platform and flexible rental options, which gives students who might have procrastinated on renting textbooks earlier in the semester shorter rental options instead of punishing them. 



Further demonstrating how huge big data is right now, Top Hat—a startup providing technology-based homework and classroom innovations like the ability to use any device as a clicker—announced a student success platform of its own at the show. According to the company, their platform is the first to provide real-time data from within the classroom, as well as campus feedback, allowing faculty and administrators to get that 40% of students at four-year schools who don't graduate in four years back on track. Among the data collected are attendance, participation and likelihood to recommend their school to others. 



Three major products figured prominently into LMS provider Desire2Learn's agenda at Educause. The first, naturally, was the recently announced Open Courses platform. While much has been made of the platform's implications for MOOCs, there's much more to it than that. "We saw a fragmented solution set in the marketplace," Founder and CEO John Baker told us, mentioning solutions like MOOCs, SPOCs and blended learning. "Instead of all the frustrated students having to go to all these different systems, [it was about] being able to integrate all of those solutions together in what we call an integrated learning platform... bringing all those pieces together in that integrated experience to really have a transformational impact on student and faculty user experience, and getting them truly engaged and inspired." 

For MOOCs in particular, however, the focus of the platform is to provide a client-friendly experience that gives universities control of factors such as monetization, credit and the rights to their content. 

Additionally, LeaP—the adaptive learning engine produced by recent D2L acquisition Knowillage Systems Inc.—was also heavily promoted as a personalization enabler. The tool allows individual learning pathways to be created for each student, using available resources to automatically adjust courses for specific students. 



Atomic Learning—which supplements curriculum and serves as a software training resource for thousands of schools, colleges and universities in more than 45 countries—had its new Learning Tools Interoperability feature on display. The new tool lets instructors embed Atomic Learning's search library into an LMS for easy video integration in their courses. At the show, CEO Lisa Barnett and Higher Education Sales & Service Director Deb Meester told us that the idea was to have those resources in a centralized location in the learning management system, instead of requiring users to go search for it.

 Being able to provide that resource and support is key for a lot of the company's clients, which range from small private schools to community colleges to public universities. For more information on how Atomic Learning has benefited these schools, check out their case studies for clients like Virginia Commonwealth University and Fresno Pacific University.



George Mason University's Institute for Humane Studies unveiled EDvantage, its new, free online curriculum hub. Using EDvantage, college professors and high school teachers can supplement instruction with high-quality videos, articles and other resources, as well as upload their own. "The goal is that we're putting together resources that are available online that educators can use in their curriculum, and we're putting it all in one place," Scott Barton, the IHS' director of online education, told us. "So if you're teaching from a particular textbook or you're teaching on a particular topic, you can go to one place and get a high-quality list of resources"—all of which are vetted by the institute's staff and editorial board of professors.

The 1,000 resources currently available are primarily focused on the social sciences, with economics and philosophy material currently available, and history, law, political science and business on the way.



Just four months after acquiring adaptive learning tech startup ALEKS Corp., McGraw-Hill Education announced the launch of ALEKS Placement, an online adaptive math program. The company says it's the only program that improves placement accuracy, student preparation and learning outcomes, as it utilizes open-response questions to assess what McGraw-Hill calls a student's "ceiling of knowledge," or where their mastery of a particular subject ends. Ideally, this will remedy the over 50% of students in two-year colleges and 20% in four-year universities inaccurately placed in remedial courses, alleviating pressure and frustration shown to result in poor student retention.

Poll Everywhere was also on hand at the McGraw-Hill Education booth to promote its new partnership, which will see the publishing giant utilize a newly released clickable image poll in its products. The real-time polling capability made possible by the partnership should serve to boost the adaptive, dynamic learning environment McGraw-Hill aims to facilitate.



While we gave a fair amount of attention to Blackboard's MOOCs in our interview with Product Management & CourseSites Director Jarl Jonas, that wasn't all the LMS provider was showing off at this year's Educause. Blackboard Learn, for example, has an all new look that calls to mind social networking sites. The company found that students don't want their LMS linked to their personal social media presences, so it adopted its own approach. Posts within Learn aggregate discussions, assignments, notices and more from all of a user's courses, and ad hoc work groups can be formed for networking, study groups, project groups and more. The calendar feature can also now be exported to Google or Outlook, the virtual classroom is now part of the LMS, and a recently launched Polls app allows students to use mobile devices as clickers.

Blackboard is also focusing heavily on mobile. The mobile version of Learn has an entirely different presentation from the desktop version, optimized for mobile devices. The app (as well as the desktop version) can be personalized, and features push notification functionality and the ability to change class names and colors, as well as reorder them. Better still, students can now participate in discussions from their mobile devices, meaning they no longer have an excuse for not participating because they weren't around a computer.

Blackboard also develops campus apps for 300 clients, with features such as virtual tours, coursebooks, campus chooser for schools with multiple campuses and augmented reality maps. These apps are more important than ever, with two-thirds of students at Loyola Marymount, for example, saying that university's app heavily influenced their decision to attend. The company's Mosaic platform even simplifies the app-making process by allowing universities to upload data and push out an app.



Education publishing giant Pearson showcased its Open Class Exchange, launched in June, at this year's show. Like many of the other learning and content management systems being demoed for attendees, it contains a variety of social functions on its dashboard, which can be filtered by specific courses, as well as the typical features you would expect from an LMS. 

Open Class is available through the Google Apps store, and as a result, features tight Google integration. Thus, users at Google Apps schools can automatically have access to things like email, calendar events and Google Docs through Open Class—and receive updates to those items through the LMS' notification system.

Social learning elements aside, Open Class Exchange's most promising feature is the suite of learning tools and applications it makes available to educators. The interface allows administrators to discover new applications to be integrated into the platform, and the over 26,000 digital assets from Pearson, NuSkool, YouTubeEDU and more have free trial periods available. There's a reason why seamless learning environments like this are becoming the norm—the streamlined experience gets technology out of the way of education, putting complexity in the background and allowing more focus on content and instruction.


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