by Terri Givens, Founder & CEO of The Center for Higher Education Leadership

It was early April when I found myself walking into the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego with a bit of trepidation. It was my first ASU/GSV conference, and as the founder of a new company I was hoping to make connections, learn something about the world of ed tech, and with any luck, get inspired by the focus on innovation.

I had heard about the conference more than a year ago, and was curious about the attendees and the kinds of approaches that ed tech companies were taking to address issues related to student success, in particular.

First, what is ASU/GSV? ASU, of course, is Arizona State University, while GSV is Global Silicon Valley — part startup incubator, part venture capital fund. Their Twitter description captures the main focus of the event: to “support education and talent tech innovation and catalyze the #entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

ASU/GSV conference

The conference is in its 10th year, bringing together leaders from startups, large tech companies, innovators, and education leaders. It has grown from 300 participants to nearly 5,000 over the past decade. Speakers have included Hollywood icons like Common, world leaders like Tony Blair, and educators, with ASU’s President Michael Crow playing the most prominent role.

For me, the conference began with a leadership forum for higher ed leaders, hosted by ASU and The Chronicle of Higher Education.  The forum was designed to showcase innovative approaches to learning and student success. Higher ed leaders are often accused of being slow to try innovations that could improve enrollment, retention rates, and graduation rates. However, there has been a clear trend toward important innovations at institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin, Georgia State University, and Wayne State University, among others.

ASU, with President Crow, has gone through a well-documented (albeit sometimes controversial) transformation since his arrival in 2002, leading the university to be called the “most innovative” university in the United States by U.S. News and World Report for the last four years.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow speaking at ASU/GSV

Arizona State University President Michael Crow speaking at ASU/GSV

Representatives from large public universities to small private colleges, like Kenyon College, explained the innovations that have taken place on their campuses that have been instrumental in changing outcomes for students, many from low-income and/or under-represented communities. I have been reading about many of these cases over the last few years so most of the stories were familiar to me, particularly since I knew the folks involved in the innovations at UT Austin. However, it was inspiring to hear some of the stories, and to see how the projects were playing out in terms of improved outcomes for students.

It seemed that one of the goals of the forum was to get more higher ed leaders involved in the broader summit. The summit has been critiqued in the past as being more focused on capital than student success. For example, after last year’s event Gordon Freedman, one of our contributors, wrote in EdSurge that ASU/GSV is hard to describe to education professionals “because the conference is mostly about the competition and success of private equity venture capital, about established and rising vendors, angel funders and start-ups — and not directly about success for learners or annual improvements in school performance or bachelor’s degrees production. Rather, the critical measurement for the conference is deal flow, investment and financial ROI.”

Apparently, somebody listened. Most of the panels and keynote addresses that I attended this year focused on student learning and innovation. At the Tuesday morning breakfast keynote, President Crow discussed ASU’s new approach to lifetime education called “Universal Learning.” The basic idea is that colleges and universities will have to be prepared to connect in different ways with the world of work, in order to provide their students ongoing support to develop new skills over their lifetimes.

During this presentation I happened to sit next to a university president who bemoaned the fact that his state was not investing in education. His experience highlights the challenges faced by many public college and university leaders who struggle to find the resources to implement changes that can address the students they are working with today, versus who the typical students were only ten years ago. Changing demographics are leading many universities to try new approaches to attract and retain students, including adult learners.

One of the questions many institutions face is how to market to adult learners when most colleges and universities are designed to target high school students. Apparently ASU is planning to address this challenge through a newly announced partnership with Rise Fund that is called InStride. As reported in Education Dive: “InStride described itself as a ‘learning services enterprise’ that intends to ‘achieve significant social impact’ by partnering with companies that want to help their employees get a college education.” This initiative will build on existing partnerships that ASU has with Starbucks and Uber.

"Life is not a popularity contest. Take the hill, but first answer the question: What is my hill?" ~Matthew McConaughey, past ASU/GSV speaker

“Life is not a popularity contest. Take the hill, but first answer the question: What is my hill?”
~Matthew McConaughey, past ASU/GSV speaker

Although this new ASU initiative isn’t particularly focused on ed tech, it is clear that ed tech will play a role in enabling these new initiatives, which will mainly utilize online learning platforms. As I wandered the exhibit halls, I discovered many new companies that were focused on areas such as using AI to support student learning, predictive analytics, and new types of learning management systems along with more traditional companies such as Microsoft and Salesforce. I spoke with several company representatives and collected many business cards.

When I talk to many of my colleagues in higher ed, they aren’t even aware of the existence of ASU/GSV, and I certainly wasn’t aware of it until the last year or two. I’m glad I attended this year, and will likely attend next year, and it is my hope that subscribers to Higher Ed Connects will benefit from the insights that we will be sharing here in our community on innovative practices in higher ed. Administrators have many competing demands for their time, and they need to be convinced that a conference is worth the time and expense.

I encourage our readers to stay tuned as we continue to examine new trends in higher education that will impact the way institutions approach topics ranging from student information and the systems used to track things such as student success, to alumni engagement. Even if you can’t attend conferences like ASU/GSV it is important to learn from them, and here at CHEL we will do our best to provide the coverage you need to stay informed.

This article is from our May 1, 2019 issue. Read the full newsletter here!

About the author:

Terri E. Givens is the former Provost at Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay Area; Professor of Government and European studies at The University of Texas at Austin; Vice Provost overseeing undergraduate curriculum and spearheading global initiatives as its chief international officer. She formed The Center for Higher Education Leadership (CHEL) to provide academic leaders with information and a supportive community for improving management and leadership skills in an environment of changing demographics, financial challenges, and advances in educational technology. CHEL was born of Terri’s experiences navigating these fields and learning along her journey through academe, from professor to vice-provost and provost at universities in Texas and California.

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