Category: Portfolio

kristen eshleman

Exploring Meaningful Measures of Accountability

This first appeared on the Educause Transforming Higher Education blog, co-written with my friend and Davidson colleague, Shireen Campbell.

Assessing the quality of and accounting for the value of a college degree are hot topics in US higher education policy. Both the introduction of the EQUIP program and the recent proposed rule for federal loan forgiveness demonstrate that the government wants more assurance from higher education that we are doing what we say we are doing.
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Reflections on Indie Ed-Tech


I’m an unapologetic fan of professional gatherings. I like them less for the formal presentations than I do for the informal conversations that follow. Case in point: it was one of those conversations at the dLRN conference in October that led to last weekend’s Indie Ed-Tech Data Jam at Davidson College. You can read more about that in Adam Croom’s first reflection on a weekend that turned out to be one of the most intense, rewarding, and promising gatherings I’ve been part of in a long time.
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#dLRN15: Why Should You Trust Us?


Well, that’s a wrap. The first (and hopefully not last) dLRN conference is officially in the books. The reflections are rolling in on Twitter and blogs, and they are largely positive from the participant perspective. That makes me happy and perhaps a bit relieved. But as a co-organizer, I am conflicted when I think about what might have been.

As a community, we share a social justice vision of higher ed. I am concerned about the future of higher education and believe research can be a lever for positive change. I have high hopes for dLRN generally. But by the middle of day one, we weren’t talking deeply about research. We were expressing opinions and bonding around serious concerns that are worthy of attention, like the problem of casual labor, or the needs of non-traditional students, or the lack of learning science behind edtech. We weren’t building toward solutions.
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Making Space for the Important


I’ve been a director of academic technology at Davidson College for 10 years now. Like many of my colleagues, I’m also a practitioner.  It has always been my position that maintaining some level of practice is a good idea in this field. Understanding when technology is simply a tool in support of the method and when that tool begins to shape the method is an important distinction. Shifts in edtech can be small until they’re seismic.
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Reflections from SXSWEdu


This year was my second visit to SXSWEdu. As much as I love Austin, I am not sure I want to return. The event should be a great opportunity for higher education and Silicon Valley to come together and design interesting partnerships from opposing worldviews about the role of education. With the exception of one unofficial gathering, the conversations I saw unfortunately never quite got there. The gathering that did was the brainchild of Dale Stephens (UnCollege) and Allison Salisbury, appropriately titled ‘UnCollege + College = ?

Here is the description of that event:

“Over the last five years, the face of education has changed dramatically. MOOCs, coding bootcamps, and independent learning programs like UnCollege and the Thiel Fellowship are here to stay, yet they now face many of the same challenges that confront traditional higher education institutions. At the same time, traditional higher education is grappling with the kind of external pressures that gave birth to edu startups, developing a need to innovate in order to meet the evolving needs of modern learners. In order to succeed, Edu startups need to advocate for the social contract in higher education and incorporate good learning science in their efforts.

Advocates for startups are skeptical about higher ed’s ability to change and meet the critical needs of a 21st-century society, while Higher Ed is skeptical about the motives, learning science, and public policy impact behind educational startups. We believe these sectors can learn a great deal from each other and potentially develop partnerships that leverage the strengths of each.

UnCollege and Davidson College are reaching out to thought leaders like you, to shape the conversation and bridge an important ideological gap in the service of modern learners.”

I like the description of this event, and not just because I helped write it (smile). I also believe this lack of collaboration is potentially harmful to the social contract of higher education. Allison and Dale are leading what SXSWEdu should be fostering – broadening the impact of educational innovation through empathic design.

In my opinion, SXSWEdu fails at being productive for the education sector as a whole for two reasons: First, they privilege a pervasive entrepreneurial narrative about education that is deeply polarizing. Even those with the best of intentions to collaborate use phrases like “whipped into submission” to describe the student experience in the current education system. They are given a platform to ridicule the echo chambers of higher ed, blissfully unreflective about their own. Second, higher ed is mostly avoiding the event altogether. There are some amazing ideas here for new educational models, but it’s hard to find common ground and drive educational innovation forward in a responsible way when you can’t even be bothered to come to the table.

SXSWEdu is about startups and innovation. It’s not about the status quo. From San Francisco, most of higher ed looks like the status quo. From higher ed, most of Silicon Valley looks like an attempted hostile takeover that needs to be resisted. I think we may be more alike than we are different.

Both draw from and develop strong, smart personalities that one colleague over breakfast described as two “alpha’s”. They are thought leaders, intellectuals, and idealists. They hold sway. Entrepreneurs call themselves “thunder lizards”. Educators don “regalia” and march to pomp and circumstance. #DIGTBK!

Both are innovative. In Silicon Valley, this goes without saying, but Barbara Fister reminded me in a Twitter conversation that there are lots of innovative things happening on smaller scales in higher education. And we should not forget that some of those blossom into large-scale transformations. Remember the internet? And MOOCs? And wasn’t Facebook born on a college campus?

A dear friend accurately classifies the hard stance on both sides more as “truths” than worldviews, making it very difficult to bridge the ideological gap. I’m not convinced the gap is ideological. I suspect the gap is less about change itself and more about the pace of that change. This is a shame in my opinion. These are some of the smartest people in any industry, and the potential for a collaborative and faster re-imagining of educational models toward transformational student experiences is great. We’re competing, when we should be cooperating.

UnCollege + College = ? How can we start solving this equation together?

Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

Bringing Students Into Our Liminal Space


My Twitter tagline reads: “lover of liminal spaces”. I can claim that as part of my anthropology background, but it’s as much a reflection of my professional life as it is my intellectual interests. Academic technologists have existed in liminal spaces from the beginning. We’re not purely IT, or library, or Center for Teaching and Learning. We move between these spaces in a constant state of formative transition. Liminal spaces by definition reveal intersections and foster knowledge acquisition through collaboration, but in our case, that collaboration is typically limited to instructional support.

Education is more than instruction, however. It is a two-way street. Ultimately, learning happens because students want to learn. Dave Cormier sums up this sentiment nicely in his post on the first principle of learning:

“All kinds of pedagogy happens after this… but it doesn’t happen until this happens.”

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