Faculty Focus: Virtual Conference = Less FOMO

Faculty Focus: Virtual Conference = Less FOMO

Author: Troy Hicks, Ph.D.Professor of English and Education; Director, Chippewa River Writing Project; Director, MA in Educational Technology


Perhaps even more so than a real time, in-person conference experience, the opportunity to attend a virtual conference gives us the feeling that we can overcome our FOMO—“fear of missing out”—and take everything in. We could, of course, have one Zoom session open on our computer and one on our phone, and we can always go back into the conference catalog to click on the available recordings of those sessions we had tagged.


So, searching through the program, I made some judicious choices about how best to participate in real-time sessions, knowing that I could return to some recordings later. Having previewed the conference app a few days ahead of time and marking several possible sessions on the embedded planner, I sat down at my computer on Thursday morning with my coffee, ready to learn from dozens of other incredible educators and researchers from around the world.


Relevant to my colleagues in higher education and especially here at CMU, the first session to catch my attention was one on a topic that will come as no surprise to any of us who have been tuned in this year: ChatGPT. In a conversation entitled “What Is the Impact of Generative Artificial Intelligence (Such as ChatGPT) on Educational Assessment?” three panelists brought their perspectives on this quickly-evolving tool and the implications that surround it. General trends in the conversation were, of course, related to concerns about cheating and plagiarism, yet many interesting tangents led to more productive ideas about the role of AI in our instructional practices, as well as possibilities for formative, summative, and large-scale assessments. With ideas that included interactive chatbots that could assess students’ language proficiency in foreign language instruction and adaptive models where branching logic and scenarios could lead to more engaging assessments, the discussion sparked many pedagogical possibilities.


With ideas offered by Alina Von Davier of Duolingo and Kara McWilliams of ETS, the panelist with the most compelling ideas (at least from my perspective as a scholar interested in writing and digital literacy) was Amy J. Ko, a professor at the University of Washington Information School (@amyjko). In addition to asking critical questions about the large language models that have been developed within a complicated history of computer science (a history that has been funded initially by defense departments for purposes of war and Silicon Valley companies motivated by profit), Ko reminded the audience that many of the AI tools available are reproducing language from the internet that reinforce perspectives about linguistic deficits and that—no matter how we might approach them—AI tools need to be considered critically and carefully in our instruction and assessment practices, though they certainly cannot be ignored. Though she did not cite these resources directly, her work reminded me of the “technoskeptical” questions about ChatGPT offered by colleagues at the Civics of Technology, which provide a good place to begin these conversations, and she shared her own open e-book, Critically Conscious Computing.


On Friday, hundreds of more sessions presented themselves upon opening the app, and another that I found relevant to conversations in higher education was “Digital Literacy in Adult Education.” The panelists in this session were all affiliated with The Collaborative Research for Educating Adults with Technology Enhancements Adult Skills Network, or CREATE. While we as higher education faculty may all assume that our students are fluent with digital skills and are disposed to enjoy the uses of technology, the panelists echoed common themes: digital literacy is rarely taught explicitly, and adult learners (including our own college students) are not as prepared as we might think. For instance, the CREATE team has shared on their own blog a report on  “The Myth of the Digital Native”  from Adobe and the Chronicle of Higher Education (which CMU colleagues can access through our institutional subscription).


One item of note came from Leah Hauge, University of Minnesota Duluth, who shared insights from their IES-funded project on Content-Integrated Language Instruction for Adults with Technology Support. They also shared their online, self-guided assessments of digital literacy skills through the Northstar Digital Literacy project. While a paid account is required to save one’s progress through all the modules, there are publicly accessible and free versions of 15 assessments available to view and interact with related to topics of essential computer and software skills, as well as everyday technology uses. Some of these modules, especially the ones about using advanced features in everyday software, could be helpful to ask our students to complete in preparation for projects in our courses.


While numerous other sessions were offered, there was only so much more that my Zoom-strained eyes could pay attention to by Friday afternoon. As noted above, my FOMO-fix is still available to me through the AERA Virtual Conference website, and I hope to explore many of the other sessions I have tagged over the next few weeks and months. These recorded sessions may replace my normal podcast rotations and give me fresh insights from educational researchers and practitioners from around the world. As I continue to think about the intersection of digital literacy skills, AI writing tools and preparing for my fall classes, the lessons from AERA 2023 will keep me learning all summer long.


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