Cleve Moler meets with students and faculty members after speaking at Eaton Hall.

By Doug Ward

“Look over Spock’s shoulder,” Cleve Moler told the audience at Eaton Hall on Thursday.

He was showing a clip from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the 1979 movie that revived the classic 1960s science fiction television series. In a scene from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, colorful graphics blink on a futuristic array of monitors.

Those graphics, Moler explained, came from what is now the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he was part of team that developed a computational math library and an accompanying library for computer graphics. That work, written in Fortran, was “just a matrix calculator,” Molder said, but it was the basis for Matlab, software that creates an interactive environment for computation, visualization, modeling, and programming.

Moler, a former professor at New Mexico, Michigan and Stanford, is the “chief mathematician” and chairman of MathWorks, a company he co-founded in 1984. He visited KU this week, speaking to an auditorium filled mostly with undergraduates, but also with faculty and administrators, for the Russell Bradt Undergraduate Colloquium.

Graphics from the Los Alamos National Laboratory were used in scenes from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

I’m not a mathematician, so I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of Matlab. What I do understand is that Matlab plays an important role in researching and teaching mathematics, engineering, and other STEM areas. It is an environment created by mathematicians for mathematicians, and it has attained near iconic status in the academic world, with more than a million users.

In his talk at Eaton Hall, Moler spoke in a gravelly but upbeat voice about his influences in mathematics and computer science and about the steps that led to the development of Matlab. MathWorks, the company, started in 1984 with one employee, doubling every year for the first seven years. It now has about 4,000 employees in 20 offices around the world, Moler said. It has also expanded into such areas as cell biology, image processing, hearing aids, and driverless cars.

About midway through his talk, Moler gleefully described a project called Eigenwalker, which is using Matlab to break the human gait into its mathematical components and using those calculations to create stick and dot animations. As half a dozen panels with stick figures walked in place on the screen, Moler grinned at the audience and said: “I enjoy that demo. Everybody enjoys that demo.”

Then his analytic side came out.

“It’s all very amusing,” he said, “but what do we see here that’s so enjoyable?”

Through those stick figures, he said, we can understand things like mood, gender, and personality just by observing the way they move, and researchers are using the animations to study how people perceive others through their walk.

At 78, Moler doesn’t move nearly as smoothly as he did when he created Matlab, but his status as a math star was apparent at a reception in Snow Hall, where he sat with a cup of coffee and a cranberry oatmeal cookie talking with Professor Marge Bayer and others from the math department. Graduate students ringed the room, seemingly reluctant to approach Moler. They needn’t have worried. Despite his genius, Moler loves interacting with people, telling stories of his family and of the evolution of Matlab.

He shared one of those stories at the end of his talk at Eaton Hall after a student asked about the “why” command in Matlab. The original Matlab used terminal input, he said, and provided answers for commands like “help,” “who,” and “what.” Moler and others decided that Matlab needed a “why” function to go along with the others, so they programmed it to respond with “R.T.F.M.” when someone typed “why.”

That stood for “read the manual,” he said, with an extra word in the middle starting with “f.”

The room erupted in laughter.

Over the years, the “why” function became an inside joke, an Easter egg in Matlab that provided random humorous answers. He gave his audience a sneak peak of 30 or so new responses, including “Some smart kid wanted it,” “To please some system manager,” “To fool a young tall hamster,” “Some mathematician suggested it,” and “How should I know?”

At the end of his talk, Moler made a pitch for his company, which he said was hiring 250 to 300 “good people who know Matlab.” It wasn’t quite the same as in invitation to the bridge of the Enterprise, but for young mathematicians, it was close.

An entrepreneur endorses the liberal arts

The liberal arts got a recent thumbs-up from an unlikely source: Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur, Shark Tank star, and owner of the Dallas Mavericks.

“Unlikely” may not be quite the right description because Cuban encourages high school students to attend college and has a college degree himself (Indiana University business administration, 1981). So he is hardly part of the drop-out-now-and-chase-your-dream crowd of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel. Neither is he bullish on higher education, though. He has argued that colleges and universities are constructing unnecessary buildings financed by rising tuition, and that higher education is in the midst of a bubble, much as real estate was before 2008.

“As far as the purpose of college, I am a huge believer that you go to college to learn how to learn,” Cuban wrote on his blog in 2012. “However, if that goal is subverted because traditional universities, public and private, charge so much to make that happen, I believe that system will collapse and there will be better alternatives created.”

In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Cuban said that students needed to think carefully about jobs, careers, and skills.

“What looked like a great job graduating from college today may not be a great job graduating from college five years or 10 years from now,” he said.

That’s because machine learning and artificial intelligence are changing the nature of work. Companies are hiring fewer employees as technology takes over more jobs, making it crucial for people to understand how to use computers and software, he said.

“Either software works for you or you work for software, and once the software takes over, you’re gone,” Cuban said.

He predicted enormous changes in the workplace in the coming years.

“The amount of change we’re going to see over the next five years, 10 years will dwarf everything that’s happened over the last 30,” Cuban said.

Because of that, Cuban said he expected English, philosophy and foreign language majors and others who are “more of a freer thinker” to have a distinct advantage.

“I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering,” Cuban said.

It’s refreshing to hear someone from the business world extoll the virtues of liberal education, especially as higher education – and liberal education in particular – have come under intense criticism from many sides. There is certainly much to criticize, but there is also much to be hopeful about. No matter their career path, students benefit from a broad understanding of the world, an ability to research effectively, communicate clearly and analyze critically, and a desire to keep learning. (I’ll be talking more about those skills in the coming weeks.)


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Mannequins have been a part of health care training for decades. As Matt Lineberry of the Zamierowski Institute for Experiential Learning demonstrated recently, though, those mannequins have become decidedly smarter.

Lineberry, director of simulation research, assessment and outcomes at the Zamierowski Institute, spoke with faculty members and graduate students in the educational psychology department in Lawrence, explaining how health care simulation has evolved into highly sophisticated mechanism for gathering data about students’ performance in a variety of medical settings.

The Zamierowski Institute, part of the University of Kansas Medical Center campus, expanded immensely with the opening of the new Health Education Building this fall. It now has spaces where students practice emergency room care, intensive care, operations and other aspects of medicine in realistic settings.

Mannequins are a key part of the learning process. The most sophisticated models, which cost about $100,000, simulate lung sounds, heart sounds, cardiac arrest and a variety of ailments. Students can use ultrasound, feed in catheters, deliver electric shock for cardiac arrest, and administer medication. Software that works with the mannequins gathers dozens of types of data and can even measure the type and dose of medication injected into the simulated patients.

Joseph Chapes, an e-learning support specialist at the Center for Online and Distance Learning, uses ultrasound on a smart mannequin as Vanessa Schott of the School of Nursing feeds in a catheter.

Students also work with actors who take on the roles of “standardized patients” for practicing interpersonal skills. Actors also play family members and colleagues to help doctors and nurses gain experience with interaction. In some cases, the actors wear gear that simulates injuries.

As students work, cameras capture video from many angles. That allows students and instructors to review students’ responses and interactions.

Lineberry said the training had helped cut down on response times in emergencies. He gave an example of a highly trained team of student doctors and nurses who went through a cardiac arrest simulation at the center. For defibrillation to be effective, he said, it must be administered within two minutes of a heart stopping. The team took about seven minutes to administer defibrillation, though. That was eye-opening, Lineberry said, but it demonstrated the value of having hands-on training in a setting where patients aren’t at risk.

The center’s approach has become common not only in health care but in other fields that have adopted augmented and virtual reality. For instance, Case Western Reserve’s use of Microsoft’s Hololens has transformed its teaching of anatomy. Augmented reality has provided architects and engineers new ways of creating and testing prototypes. A digital rendering of Pompeii by researchers at the University of Arkansas has provided new insights into ancient culture. And K-12 schools have found that virtual reality field trips improve students’ retention of information.

Those are just a few of the ways that educators have been using technology to enhance learning and understanding. As with the mannequins, that technology will only grow smarter.

*******************************************************************************************************************

New studio opens in Budig Hall

Information Technology and the Center for Online and Distance Learning opened a new studio in Budig Hall this semester. The studio provides expanded space for creating instructional videos. It includes a green screen for recording video and a lightboard, which allows instructors to write on a pane of glass as they work through problems or provide demonstrations for students.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

If you’ve noticed that your students still don’t have required course materials, you have lots of company.

That’s because more students are delaying purchase of course materials, if they buy them at all, and paying more attention to price when making decisions, according to a report by the National Association of College Stores.

That’s not surprising, as students have said for several years that they have been avoiding the purchase of course materials. It is still worth watching the trends, though, because it is difficult for students to succeed if they don’t have the books and other course materials they need for their classes. Students who avoided purchase of books reported lower GPAs, the report said, even though two-thirds of students said that they suffered no consequences.

Jeffrey Betts, Stocksnap

The report, Student Watch: Attitudes & Behaviors Toward Course Materials, is based on surveys of students at 90 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada in the spring. Among some of the findings that stand out:

  • 20 percent of students waited until after the first week of classes to buy course materials, compared with 12 percent in each of the three previous semesters.
  • Only 40 percent of students reported that they had all course materials by the first day of class.
  • 25 percent of students said they gained access to course material by borrowing, sharing or downloading them (most likely through illicit means). That is up from 15 percent in Spring 2017.
  • The amount students spend on required course materials has been on a steady decline over the last decade, falling to $579 in the 2016-17 school year from $701 in 2007-08.
  • Freshmen spent an average of $633 during the last academic year, compared with $481 for seniors.
  • The average cost of a textbook was $81 during the 2016-17 academic year.
  • Students in health professions and business spent the most on course materials, the report said. Those in computer science and math spent the least.

The takeaway from the report is that instructors must pay more attention to the cost of course materials they assign. More and more students simply won’t buy the required materials. I’ve heard many professors say that’s the students’ faults, but the reality is more complex. More than a third of students said instructors never used the required texts they bought, and more than a fourth said the materials were hard to understand or use. Nine percent of students at four-year universities said they had to borrow money to pay for their books, and 18 percent said they had to wait for financial aid before they could afford books.

Seemingly fishing for some good news, the report highlighted a finding that 97 of students bought at least one required text during the spring semester.

Yes, one.  If only learning were that simple.

So long, computers?

At least that’s what many faculty members speculated in a survey by the magazine Campus Technology. The magazine asked faculty members what technologies were most likely to disappear in the next decade. Desktop computers and laptops landed at the top of the list, followed by clickers and non-interactive projectors and displays.

Interestingly, the survey didn’t ask people what would replace computers. (Probably smaller computers.)

The survey was too small (232 volunteers nationwide) to provide any real validity, but the responses were interesting nonetheless. For instance, faculty expect virtual and augmented reality to grow in importance, along with mobile devices and apps, and 3D modeling, scanning and printing.

Here’s a conundrum, though: Eighty-one percent of respondents said technology had improved their teaching, and 81 percent said it had improved student learning. When asked to identify the technology they wish they didn’t have to deal with, though, faculty members said learning management systems, mobile devices, printers and computers.

Apparently faculty think technology works well as long as they don’t have to use it.

A thoughtful reflection on concealed carry

“To me, the college classroom is a sacred space—a place to practice dealing with conflict without recourse to violence,” Lisa Moore of the University of Texas, Austin, writes. “My professional judgment as a teacher is that the kind of security we need in the classroom is incompatible with the presence of a loaded firearm.”

Her thoughtful essay on the site of the Association of American Colleges and Universities is well worth reading.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A recent study about reading on mobile phones surprised even the researchers.

The study, by the digital consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, found that reading comprehension on mobile phones matched that of reading on larger computer screens. The results were the same with shorter, easier articles (400 words at an eighth-grade level) and longer, more difficult articles (990 words at a 12-grade level).

A similar study six years earlier found lower comprehension when people read on mobile devices rather than larger computer screens, so Nielsen Norman researchers started with that premise. Pretests showed no difference in comprehension levels, though, and the researchers scrutinized their tests for flaws. They found the same result in larger studies, though: Participants who read articles on phones had slightly higher, though not statistically significant, comprehension levels than when they read on larger computer screens.

woman reading magazine with phone and coffee on table beside her
Hoai Anh Bino, Unsplash

The researchers suggested several possible explanations for their findings. First, the quality of phone screens has improved considerably since the initial test was conducted in 2010. As mobile phones have proliferated, users have also gained considerable experience reading on those devices. Some participants in the Nielsen Norman study said they preferred reading on their phones because those devices helped blocked out distractions.

The study did find one downside of reading on mobile: speed. Those who read on phone screens did so at a slightly slower pace than those who read on larger screens, even though comprehension was virtually the same.

I bring up this study because it focuses on something we need to consider in college classes. I’ve heard colleagues speak disdainfully of students’ reading on their phones. This study suggests no reason for that. For articles up to about 1,000 words, there seems to be little difference on what size screen people read.

This study compared digital to digital, though, and did not include reading on paper. Many previous studies have found that not only do people prefer reading paper texts but that they also have slightly better comprehension with print. They also report feeling more in control of their reading when they have print books, which allow them to flip through material more easily and to annotate in the margins. Other recent research suggests no difference in comprehension between print and digital, with a majority of students saying they prefer digital texts.

I’m not suggesting that college work shift to mobile phones. We must pay attention to the way our students consume information, though, and adapt where we can. If nothing else, the Nielsen Norman study points to a need for an open mind with technology.

Skills for the future

I do a lot of thinking about the future of education, and this observation from Andrew McAfee, research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, rings true:

“Our educational system is well suited to turn out the kinds of workers the economy needed 50 years ago: those that could read, write, and do some math, and also were trained to follow the voice of authority. Computers are much better than us at math, are learning to read and write very quickly, and are unbeatable at following instructions consistently.

“We need an educational system now that excels at producing people to do the things that computers can’t do: figure out what problem to tackle next, work as part of a team to solve it, and have compassion for others and the ability to coordinate, motivate, persuade, and negotiate.”

Others, including Daniel Pink, and Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby make similar cases: That is, technology, computer learning and automation are constantly changing the landscape of work, although education isn’t keeping up.

Davenport and Kirby argue that educators need to emphasize how students can “augment their strengths with machines,” how they can become better decision-makers, and how they can continue to learn and adapt as the world changes and computers take on new roles. That’s a real challenge for colleges and universities, whose teaching generally emphasizes delivery of content and whose instructors and administrators often look for reasons to resist change.

Higher education still has time to adapt, but that time keeps growing shorter.

Briefly …

Universities in the United States aren’t the only ones struggling with how to handle weapons on campus. A security guard writes in The Guardian that in the UK, “some students go around with enough firepower to blow a hole in the walls of Alcatraz.” … The Next Web explores ways that companies are using artificial intelligence in products for education, including AI tutoring, machine learning tied to social networks, and customized content. … Universities in the UK report a growing number of cases of cheating, The Guardian reports, with many of those cases involving electronic devices.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

 

Technology is only as good as the pedagogy behind it. I recommend that instructors start with a goal and then find technology that might help meet that goal, not the other way around. Pedagogy must come first, though it also helps to know what types of tools are available to help.

This is a brief list of tools I update yearly and recommend to faculty for helping solve problems related to teaching and learning. It is broken down into these areas:

  • Organization and planning
  • Multimedia
  • Communication and collaboration
  • In-class polling
  • Visualization
  • Maps
  • Screen recording and screen capture

This is just a taste of the many digital tools available to instructors. As I say in the handout, you will find many others at such sites as SourceForge, Free Technology for Teachers and the Top 100 Tools for Learning list. —Doug Ward

 

Wayne Regan won the Hat Day contest with a paper hat that says “I ♥ ACCT 200.” His instructor, Rachel Green, held her hands up over each finalist when it was time for students to signal their favorite hat.

By Doug Ward

A young woman with a flower headdress caught my attention as I walked through Budig Hall earlier this week. I stopped and asked her what the occasion was.

“It’s Hat Day in Accounting 200,” she said.

I wanted to know more, and Paul Mason, who teaches the 8 a.m. section of the class, and Rachel Green, who teaches the 9:30 section, graciously invited me in.

Hat Day, they said, is a tradition that goes back 20 years. It takes place one day toward the beginning of each semester and works like this: Students get a bonus point if they wear a hat to class. Teaching assistants choose what they consider the best hats from their sections of the class. Those students (who get another extra point) come to the front of the room, and a winner is chosen based on student applause. The winner gets one more extra point, for a total of three.

Hat Day serves two purposes, Mason said. Accounting 200 is the introductory course for the business school, and Hat Day helps instructors make the point that accountants wear many hats on the job and that students can do many things with an accounting degree.

Just as important, he said, it allows students to see the lighter side of business.

“It’s our way of letting them know that accounting isn’t just numbers,” Mason said.

It serves one more purpose: creating a sense of camaraderie among the students. Each section of the class has upward of 500 students, and the clapping and cheering on Hat Day loosens things up a bit.

“When they’re in a big class and they start laughing, it makes the class smaller,” Mason said.

A new way to provide online instruction

John Rinnert of Information Technology explains the lightboard to a group of faculty members.

A new device created by staff members from Information Technology and the Center for Online and Distance Learning will allow faculty members to record instructional videos through an illuminated pane of glass they write on like a whiteboard.

Development of the device, known as a lightboard, was led by John Rinnert of IT. A faculty member created the first video on the lightboard last week, and after a demonstration of the board this week, Rinnert expects more people to sign up to use it.

The board is a large pane made from the same type of glass as shower doors, Rinnert said. The glass rests in a metal frame, and LED track lighting gives markings on the board a neon glow as users write and draw. Another track of LEDs faces out, illuminating speakers as they write.

Instructors will soon have the ability to superimpose graphics on an area of the glass, much like a television weathercast. Instructors who do that will have to watch a monitor as they write so they can see where the graphics are placed.

Rinnert, Julie Loats from CODL, Anne Madden Johnson from IT, and I started talking about obtaining a lightboard a few years ago as a way to draw more faculty members from math and sciences into creating flipped and hybrid courses. Any faculty member is welcome to use the board, but those in STEM fields who do a a lot of on-board problem-solving should find it a familiar environment in which to work.

I wrote about a similar device that students in Engineering Physics 601 created last year. That lightboard is still awaiting a permanent home in Malott Hall.

At a session we did this week, Loats pointed out how important it is for students to hear instructors explain their thought processes as they work through problems. Many instructors do that effectively in the classroom and in videos they create without being on camera. The lightboard offers another tool for them in preparing material for online and hybrid courses.

Those interested in using the board can contact either CODL or IT.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Three students in an upper-level physics class designed and built a tabletop lightboard for their final project this semester.

Lightboards are used in creating online videos for classes. They allow instructors to write on a glass pane as they would a whiteboard. A camera is positioned facing the instructor, capturing the writing on the glass as the instructor speaks. The image must then be flipped so that the writing can be read in the video. The approach is especially popular among STEM instructors.

conner brown and john rinnert inspect the new lighboard
John Rinnert of KU IT inspects the lightboard created by Conner Brown and other students in an engineering physics course.

The students – Conner Brown, Pranjali Pare and Kyri Barton – adapted a template from Duke University as they created the lightboard for Engineering Physics 601. KU IT and the Center for Online and Distance Learning financed the project, which cost between $600 and $700, Brown said.

Rows of cool white LEDs line the internal frame of the lighboard. Sheets of low-iron glass – the same kind used in aquariums – aid the illumination. Red, blue and green markers work best on the glass surface, creating a fluorescent image that is easy to see, Brown said. Black markers don’t reflect well.

The students, who worked with Professors Chris Fischer and Michael Murray during the semester, demonstrated the board on Tuesday in Malott Hall. They aren’t sure where it will be set up permanently, but the goal is to make it available to physics faculty for recording class videos.

KU IT is installing a similar but larger lightboard in Budig Hall. It should be ready for use this summer.

Pranjali Pare, Kyri Barton and Conner Brown with the lightboard
Pranjali Pare, Kyri Barton and Conner Brown created the lightboard in Engineering Physics 601 this semester.

Briefly …

Tennessee is the latest state to foolishly allow guns on college campuses. (Kansas will jump into that quagmire next year.) The exclusions in Tennessee’s new law caught my eye. Guns will be prohibited at sporting events and other large gatherings, and at tenure meetings. Yes, tenure meetings. … In a column in the Hechinger Report, Stephen Burd says that public research universities and land-grant colleges give a third of their financial aid to non-needy students. Unfortunately, Burd never explains what he means by “non-needy.” … Sixty-eight percent of 13- to 24-year-olds say they listen to audio on their smartphones every day, Amplifi Media reports. That’s not surprising, but it is worth thinking about as we create online course material for students. …. Far more than their predecessors, today’s college students see higher education as a consumer transaction and a means to high-paying jobs, EAB reports.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The ASU GSV Summit bills itself as a gathering of entrepreneurs, policymakers, business leaders and educators who want “to create partnerships, explore solutions, and shape the future of learning.”

That sort of described the event, which was held last week in San Diego. Yes, it was possible to find a few real discussions about education, but only a few. Doug Lederman of Inside HigherEd estimated that 10 percent of the 3,500 attendees came from colleges and universities, though many of those came from Arizona State, which is the “ASU” in the summit name. (GSV is a Silicon Valley investment firm.)

Many of the sessions that addressed higher education took a critical, if not condescending, tone toward colleges and universities. Many speakers criticized educators for being slow to adopt technology (I agree) and failing to prepare students for high-paying jobs in technology (as if that is the only path). One session on the future of higher education had no educators. (If you figure that one out, let me know.)

A robot roamed the floor during the ASU GSV Summit

That shouldn’t have surprised me. Far too many technology vendors emphasize the magic of technology without having any real understanding of the educational process. They make their pitch to school and university technology departments, which too often buy the technology and present it gleefully to educators, only to find that the educators have no use for it.

Thankfully, many educational technology entrepreneurs do have an understanding of education, and many of their products evolve from experiences with family members or friends. And educators and IT departments are learning to speak with one another. At KU, we have created collaborations among IT, instructors and administrators. The process isn’t perfect, but we all feel that we are making much better decisions about technology through a shared vetting process.

I saw some of that sort of thinking at the conference, with entrepreneurs explaining partnerships with school districts and universities to test products, gather feedback, and revise the technology. One speaker even urged educators to demand evidence that products work as promised, something he said few schools and colleges did.

Bill Gates, in his keynote, made an excellent observation: Much of educational technology lacks any connection to the educational system. We need to figure out ways of working together to create a process of continuous improvement, he said.

I agree. Higher education needs desperately to change, as I’ve written about many times. But simply throwing technology at the problems won’t do anything but raise costs. Too often, vendors want to sell their products but don’t want to listen – really listen – to how those products are or are not used, and how feedback from educators could help improve those products. They also fail to do their homework about existing technologies that colleges and universities use, and explain how their products work with or improve upon existing platforms.

I love to explore new digital tools, but when it comes to technology for my students or for the university, I approach purchases with these questions in mind:

  • How will this help student engagement and student learning?
  • How steep is the learning curve?
  • Is it truly better than something we already have?
  • Will it integrate into the technology we have?
  • Is the cost justified?
  • Could we do this cheaper and better ourselves?

Until educators and tech entrepreneurs can talk frankly about those sorts of questions, we will be stuck in a cycle of finger-pointing and distrust.

Themes from the summit

Several themes emerged from the sessions I sat in on and the products I saw at the summit. Goldie Blumenstyk of The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out two: mentorship tools and programs that help students connect to jobs. I agree, but as I wrote earlier this week in highlighting some promising digital tools, I’m looking at this through my lens as a professor.

Personalized and adaptive learning. These are in some ways the holy grail of education and certainly of educational technology. Entrepreneurs and educators have tried for a century to create technology that adapts to students’ learning needs, as Bill Ferster writes in his book Teaching Machines. Digital technology has reinvigorated that push, even as truly reliable adaptive, individualized learning remains elusive.

Data, data, data. We’ve been hearing about data in education (and everything else) for years, and tech vendors have taken note. Nearly every new product contains some element of data gathering and display.

Virtual reality. An exhibit room called Tomorrowland contained several tools for engaging students with virtual environments. Some used technology-enabled headsets; others used smartphones inside cardboard goggles. Again, this is no surprise, though it seems more of a stepping stone than a long-term direction for education.

Tools to help students write. This reflects a general decline in reading and writing skills that many of us in higher education have seen. Whether these tools, which provide structure and advice, can truly improve writing remains to be seen. I see potential in some, though I don’t want students to become overly reliant on technology for writing and thinking.

Tools to help students learn coding. Again, no surprise here, especially amid a widespread call for students to tap into the potential of digital technology and move into technology-related jobs.

Tools for developing online course material. Understandable given the spread of online and hybrid courses.

Social connection and peer evaluation. These run the gamut from platforms for reaching out to students through text messaging to apps for peer tutoring and goal tracking.

None of these themes is revolutionary, and many have been evolving for years. They do represent a cross-section of where entrepreneurs see opportunity in education.

A final thought

Tim Renick of Georgia State said higher education did a poor job of gathering evidence about what works and what doesn’t work in our own institutions. We have almost no research on academic advising, he said. Nor do faculty members base their own curriculums on evidence. Rather, he said, “we go to faculty meetings and make stuff up.” In a note of hope, though, he added: “We are becoming more data literate, and as that data falls into the hands of faculty, it is leading to change.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.