Five questions for Educause President Diana Oblinger

Don't assume solutions start with technology, she says


A conversation with Educause President Diana Oblinger on the latest issues involving education and IT.

The common link between cytogenetic research, teaching, PCs and the top job at Educause is the person who in January 2008 took over that job to become the group's second president and CEO, Diana Oblinger.

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Educause is a non-profit group formed to advance education through the "intelligent use of technology." It was formed in 1998 by the merger of two other groups. Oblinger has a PhD in cytogenetics, has been a faculty member, an academic dean, then fell in love, she says, with PCs, eventually joining IBM for a dozen years, before returning to education. She was the first CIO appointed for the University of North Carolina system.

She has been with Educause since 2004, heading the Educause Learning Initiative. She succeeds Brian Hawkins, who led Educause for nearly a decade. She took on her new job in part to help the education community to "know what they know" and be able to act collectively on that knowledge.

I spoke with her on the exhibit floor where she was talking to Educause members during the group's annual conference, this year drawing more than 7,000 attendees, up 12% compared with last year. She's a slight woman, with a firm, clear, but soft-spoken voice, a direct look and a ready smile.

It's cliché to say education and technology is teeming with change. Are there any changes there you dislike?

The thing I don't like is the assumption that solutions [to problems] start with technology. It's not just information or [information] technology, but what you do with it. If you don't know what the problem is, you can't solve it, with or without the technology.

What we're dealing with is less a technical situation than a social-technical situation. The Internet is more than just passing bits back and forth. It's about how we think about things like commerce, and people. When that happens, then principles and values get involved. If you start with technology, it's way too easy to end up with an answer that's not right.

The other thing I don't like is the assumption that everyone young is adept with technology and everyone older isn't.

What do you want to see Educause do differently?

Focus. Our strategic directions call for focusing in four areas, and not trying to be all things to all people. The four areas are: teaching and learning, managing the enterprise, E-research and E-scholarship, and evolving the role of IT and leadership.

Second, the way we want to work is going to be different: we're going to be more agile, more innovative, more experimental. For example, at the conference this year, we tried lots of new things like point-counterpoint sessions [informal debates between two opposing viewpoints], informal learning areas [set up in lobby areas enabling users to meet informally for brief presentations], and 'powerstations' [lots of tables with power strips for members laptops]. If something flops, we'll try something else next year.

Third, a greater emphasis on engagement. We're launching our "teaching and learning challenges [2009] initiative", working from the ground up to identify the issues closest to our members, put these to a membership vote, and then address them with case studies that become shared solutions. It's about people coming together to answer their own questions.

Did you read the National Science Foundation task force report on cyberlearning, released this past summer?

I was on the committee that wrote it. The recommendations dovetail beautifully with what we're doing. We have an emphasis on teaching and learning. Educause has been very active in immersive cyberlearning technology and its application, in projects like NanoHub, well before the report was written. [NanoHub is an online collection of Web-based simulation tools to learn about and simulate nanotechnology devices.] We've shown you really can use the technologies to do very significant things.

In Educause, a lot of the challenges [we focus on] are around getting the campus to work together on these things. We deal with the infrastructure, with the organization, with funding, with relationships, with learning and pedagogy, and how you assess [cyberlearning] efforts. The NSF cyberlearning report is closely aligned with what Educause is doing and where we're going. We'll be adding a full-time person to focus on this.

Would you like to be freshman again, today?

In terms of what I could learn, yes. But I wouldn't want to go through that period again. I think it's a terrific time [to be a student]. It would be fun.

Speaking of fun, what have you done for fun while you've been here in Orlando?

I actually find it fun to be among [Educause] members. Passing in the hall, seeing someone I haven't seen before, a little screech, a little hug: you draw energy from your community.

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