Reflections on the first OLC Collaborate – Kansas City


Devon Cancilla, Vice Provost for Online and Distance Learning, University of Missouri 

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Some may not realize that the first OLC Collaborate in Kansas City actually started with a potential disaster. Marshall Hill, the Executive Director of NC-SARA and the first keynote speaker of the day was stuck in Denver! As it turned out, this situation provided a great example of the power of online learning and the use of technologies. Marshall was able to give his presentation and to participate in each of the breakout sessions virtually through the use of Skype. He even had the opportunity to participate as a panelist in the final session of the day. Fortunately, the Kauffman Conference Center was technologically up to the task and the audience both experienced in the use of technology and forgiving of its limitations. It all worked like a charm with the participants and Marshall fully engaged in great discussions related to the implementation of SARA and its impact on institutions.  

One of the interesting questions from the SARA breakout sessions was whether complying with regulations could actually be used to catalyze change at a traditional university? Watching this virtual breakout session provided a really great example of how technology can and should promote these types of discussions. Technology brought together an expert in the field with the faculty, administrators, and others dealing with regulatory issues on a daily basis. Imagine the university of 2025 where these types of interactions occur on a global scale and are as second nature as talking on the phone.

The other two keynote speakers, not hampered by weather, also rose to the occasion and challenged the audience to think about the university of 2025. John Whitmer showed amazing examples of how analytics can be used to change all aspects of teaching and learning. He clearly showed how data driven interventions helped with student retention and success and hinted at how analytics are starting to open the door to adaptive learning.  He asked the group to, quoting a faculty member associated with MIT; see how analytics could be used to reach our “preferred future.” 

The concurrent breakout sessions on analytics once again let participants actively explore these topics. One of my favorite discussions was from the group asking who actually owns the data being generated through the use of technologies within a university. That is, what are the moral and ethical issues that a university should consider when collecting and using data?  The misuse of data or the “dark side” of its use captured the imagination of many of the participants and raised the question as to the institutions responsibilities to both students and faculty. Fascinating!   

I thought that the WGU Chancellor, Angie Besendorfer, pulled many of the day’s discussions together by providing an example of institution thinking differently about higher education. A couple of thoughts struck me from her presentation. The first was that WGU has only been around for about twenty years and already has a student population of over fifty-thousand with an average student age of thirty-seven. Clearly this shows that institutions should be thinking about “non-traditional” students and the types of courses and programs that this population requires. The second was the team approach to building and delivering courses. That is, breaking the traditional role of the faculty into compartmentalized units such as assessment, mentoring, and course design. I think what impressed me the most was the goal of “finding the best educational materials possible for their students.”  To me, this is an acknowledgment that there are a lot of excellent educational resources out there in the world. Rather than having the content experts, that is faculty, spend so much time developing things from scratch, and let them focus on teaching by helping them bring together these resources.  

The breakout sessions were once again the place to be. As a person who had the privilege of moving from room to room, it was astounding to hear the breadth and richness of the discussions in each of the rooms. Is competency-based education really the way to go?  What does the WGU model mean for my institution? How is the role of faculty going to change in the future? Each and every discussion bringing out new ideas and perspectives.

My measure of a good conference has always been the number of new people I meet, the number of new ideas I’m exposed to, and how more broadly I am made to think about issues. I think the OLC Collaborate-KC, at least for me, met all of these expectations. Perhaps the greatest take away came from a text poll asking what the OLC participants liked about the conference.  As the word cloud slowly formed from all of the inputs, networking with colleagues clearly came to the front. I guess the real mark of a good conference is the quality of the people attending and their willingness to share and discuss ideas in an open environment. Based on those criteria alone, I think the OLC Collaborate was a great conference! 

There is no question in my mind that the KC region has educators who are passionate about teaching and learning. I think the “preferred” future that all of the KC participants spoke about will allow 2025 to become a remarkable future. It will be interesting to see if the discussions that occur in OLC Collaborate sessions in other regions lead to these conclusions as well. 

Devon Cancilla
Vice Provost for Online and Distance Learning 
University of Missouri – Kansas City

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