Educause 2023 Conference Notes

It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses.

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I spent the week in Chicago (the city of big shoulders and encased meats – see below) at the annual Educause conference. The last time I was at Educause was in Philadelphia in 2021, the first real in-person conference they had after the pandemic. That one was a little anemic to say the least. This year felt like it was back to normal. There were a lot of people, it was difficult to find a seat in the hallways and the exhibit hall was packed.

The Chicago dog is a truly wonderful thing

Years ago, I worked with a wonderful faculty member from the University of Wisconsin who used to judge conferences as being a success if she managed to meet someone new and interesting, eat a great meal, and learn one new thing. By her standards I hit it out of the park as I headed home with some new connections, several great ideas for stories, and weighing a tad more than I did when I arrived. But despite this, I am also heading home feeling a little underwhelmed, and I will try to tease out why. It stems from some of the ways that content and format didn’t quite work.

Conference content and format

Right off the top I felt that there was a big mismatch between the topics covered in the program and the kinds of issues people told me that they were spending their time on, or that they were struggling with on a day-to-day basis. There were a lot, and I mean a lot, of sessions on generative AI. There were so many sessions on AI that when my spouse (who is not in EdTech) picked me up at the airport, she opened the conversation by saying that she had heard that Educause was “all AI.” Apparently, librarians talk.

There was no escaping AI, even at the airport on the way home

There were also more than a few sessions on XR. On the plus side, I can keep making my joke about how there are more sessions on XR at EdTech conferences than there are actual XR projects on campuses. But at a certain point the disjuncture is jarring, and it becomes difficult to find value in all the emphasis on shiny things. Educause, like many conferences these days, is expensive to attend, and I believe that it wants to and must bring practical value to attendees - emphasizing trends too much dilutes that value.

While at the conference, I also spent some time thinking about the format that content takes, including the usage of poster sessions. There were a lot of these sessions at Educause, and I desperately want to like them. The format provides more opportunities for people to participate, and as an attendee you get the chance to speak with the authors one-on-one. This should be a win.

But too often it is not. I think Educause is trying hard to get this format right, and I have noticed the tweaks over the years, but the conference hasn’t nailed it yet. Without seeming like a stalker, it’s hard to get the information you need from the poster, and you end up having a stilted conversation with the author, promising to follow up, which of course you never do. Plus, I actually like presentations, and look forward to them at conferences. Which brings me to my second point about format, specifically the opening keynote.

What’s the deal with fireside chats? They have neither fire (real nor metaphorical), nor chat. They are too often stiff and more scripted than they should be. You don’t get a flow, you don’t get meaningful content, and you ironically don’t get a sense of who the speaker is. Organizations like Educause spend a lot of money on keynote speakers. Have the person give a talk, take a position, show us their craft. So long as your opening keynotes stay as trendy fireside chats, I will be in the back on email with many of my higher ed colleagues.

The exhibit hall

The exhibit hall is where I end up spending a lot of my time. This year was really busy, which seems a positive sign for the EdTech vendor community. Not only were there a lot of vendors, but there were a lot of attendees speaking to them, and most vendors I asked were happy with the traffic they were seeing. The mix of vendors was more reflective of the kind of concerns most attendees have than the conference program itself. The range of vendors was so diverse I had difficulty coming up with overarching themes, which I think is a good thing.

Two areas of improvement I would like to see, one in the program and one in both the program and the exhibit hall floor, were having more of a focus on 1) new regulations affecting higher ed IT and on 2) online learning and alternative or non-credit credentials. These two are somewhat related but not entirely. Issues such as proposed US regulations about Gainful Employment & Third Party Services, changes to state authorization for online learning (SARA), and proposed Cyber Resilience Act legislation in the EU are some of the regulatory issues I think have implications for higher education IT professionals and which I would have liked to see addressed in at least a couple of sessions, but there are others.

There were a couple of sessions on the regulatory & legal landscape and some coverage of online learning, but mostly from a HyFlex angle. You could argue that regulatory / online / non-credit are areas of interest to me that are covered in more depth at more specialized gatherings, but I would argue back (am I really debating myself?) that these are areas that Educause needs to be involved in, especially as online and non-credit moves closer to the center of the organization and is something that IT is being asked to support. Not having more of a focus on these issues is a risk.

Because I found the exhibit hall this year active and engaging, it did seem like the hours were too short. I and several hundred of my closest friends were tossed out of the hall at the (relatively early) closing on both days and only managed to get to a fraction of the vendors I had intended to visit. Having the poster sessions within the exhibit hall is great for traffic but also means extra time pressure, especially given the number of posters.

I mixed up my hot dog game with a Korean dog. That’s mozzarella hiding the sausage inside and sugar on the outside. Surprisingly delicious

Parting thoughts

The Educause conference appears to be getting back to its normal size and level of activity, and that’s a relief. I can see and appreciate where the Educause team is trying to change aspects of the conference to make it more engaging and valuable for attendees. Some of these worked and some didn’t. Budgets in higher education are getting tight and travel is increasingly looked at with a skeptical eye. I think Educause needs to do further content and format improvements to make the conference more of a dynamic and valuable experience.

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