ASU+GSV 2024 Conference Notes

We're gonna need a bigger boat

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This year’s ASU+GSV Summit is in the books. I am heading home tired but with a bunch of new ideas and new ways of thinking.

Phil eventually managed to find conference coffee of which he approved

All AI all time

Like so many conferences recently, this year's ASU+GSV had a heavy emphasis on AI. This was true even in the main conference, despite the separate but linked AIR Show starting before and overlapping with the main event.

Like many people, I came in early to catch some of AIR and was excited by the prospect of seeing some new and early-stage companies and to hear how some institutions are using and approaching AI.

I was frustrated in that goal, however, as there was a surprisingly heavy focus on K12 in both the AIR sessions and vendor hall, likely reflecting the market, or at least vendor and investor beliefs about the market. What higher ed sessions I did attend were interesting, but some of them weren't even about AI (e.g., the session about the collaboration between Mr. Beast and Eastern Carolina University – innovative, but not really AI).

Among the vendors targeting higher education, there was some sameness in terms of the problems they are trying to solve. I saw a lot of products using AI for tutoring or providing TA-type services but not a lot of variety.

What was encouraging for me is that we seem to be getting over that annoying moral panic phase of AI where everything seemed driven and dominated by a fear of cheating and the attempts to detect it. I believe we are in a new phase now where colleges and universities and vendors and investors are exploring what AI can do and how it might fit into education, but crucially we haven’t figured it out yet. There are attempts at innovation and new products and services, but a lot of it feels half-hearted, like the providers themselves (whether institutions or vendors) haven’t convinced themselves they know what to do. Over the next year or two, we will likely head into a third phase where we see real use cases designed to solve problems. Then we can determine whether the new attempts are going to work or not. Right now, it’s fairly open (although heavy on the chatbot) exploration.

I believe there is a palpable sense of the ubiquity of AI and the need to explore and experiment with applications and uses. I attended an excellent session moderated by Matthew Rascoff from Stanford on the uses of AI in student success. Michael Chasen (Class), Shiren Vijiasingam (Instructure), Jenny Maxwell (Grammarly), and Tim Renick (Georgia State University) emphasized two key messages, neither of which are new ideas but both of which bear remembering.

First, that current discussions on policy (at least as conventionally understood in higher education) provide too blunt an instrument to manage and innovate with AI. We need a lighter and more flexible touch, in part because we don’t yet know what works or what avenues might open up. This implies some trust and faith on the part of administrators and faculty unions - a tall order, I admit.

Second, we shouldn’t get too hung up on trying to find the most cutting-edge applications of AI in higher education, yet (I too am guilty of this, see above). In response to Matthew Rascoff’s provocation that AI-driven chatbots were yesterday’s news and boring, Tim Renick argued forcefully that they were cutting edge for his students and faculty, especially in the way that they were being used. More importantly, these chatbots were doing the job and producing good results.

On some level, both insights are common sense, but we tend not to remember them and keep chasing shiny new things while at the same time trying to be too prescriptive in policy.

Increasing higher education focus

At the main conference there was more of a focus on higher education this year and especially on online learning. This was probably due in part to the strong presence from both WGU and ASU (one of the ASU attendees mentioned to me that there were over 250 of them at the conference this year).

The strength of the program in higher ed and online learning is useful for me, and the program felt more balanced than last year’s higher emphasis on workforce development. Based in part on the panels but also the side conversations, I am leaving enriched by the perspectives of a lot of smart people with some new ideas and approaches to some things that have been preoccupying me for a while.

So many of the headwinds we are facing in the regulatory space in online learning in the US are because some people are fighting the battles of fifteen years ago, when online learning was smaller, less widespread and dominated by the for-profits. We need debates that are future-focused, or at least based on challenges we are seeing now.

We also need to think more about the new models of online learning. I do not agree that there are only two core business models - bundling and unbundling OPMs. That seems to preclude a range of different options, including new audiences and recruitment strategies. There are other variables less about the business model and more about new approaches to pedagogy and course construction. I have a lot of questions and some nascent ideas about what these might be. I don’t have any fully thought-out answers yet, but I look forward to exploring the issue more in this newsletter in the next year.

The conference itself

ASU+GSV was a win for me: I learned a lot, and I went to a sizable number of good presentations and panels, which I find increasingly unusual, but it speaks volumes about the care that went into the construction of the program. The combination of people at the event – K12 / higher education / workforce and universities / schools/ investors / vendors / nonprofits - is a generative mix. There is an acknowledgement and comfort in the fact that what happens outside of sessions is as valuable as what happens within them. Increasingly, ASU+GSV has become if not the EdTech conference then at least near the top of that list.

Parting thoughts

The conference really does need to be moved to a bigger venue. Like many people, I missed some sessions because they were full or had long lines for entrance. Like a Le Carré Soviet character, I started joining queues whenever I saw them, assuming that they were a line to get into wherever I was headed next. There are certainly trade-offs to be made between size and access on the one hand and manageability and the intimacy of the experience on the other, but it is a decision that needs to be made.

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