The Latin word communitas refers to a collection of individuals who, motivated by a common goal, come together and act as one. Community is powerful.

Common approaches to college and university rankings can sometimes have the unfortunate effect of pitting institutions against each other in a battle for students and prestige. As the U.S. turns its attention to meeting the needs of 21st century students and 21st century labor demands, the power of traditional university ranking schemes is starting to erode.

Student success is not a zero-sum game. Rather than fostering competition, a commitment to student success encourages cooperation.

The higher education community is coming together

Through a willingness to share the details of high impact practices, and to be honest about failures, institutions are coming together to form strong communities committed to the shared goal of seeing students succeed at scale.

Understanding the importance of community, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is actively involved in encouraging the formation of strong institutional networks. Perhaps the most successful of these to date, the University Innovation Alliance, is already well on its way to meeting its goal of a 5% increase in baccalaureate degree production by 2023.

Proximity is an important feature of community, which is why regional associations are so powerful. To paraphrase Aristotle: “friendship is living together.” In the absence of close proximity, it is essential that communities meet regularly, face-to-face.  The practice of bringing institutions together for regular meetings has been a key part of the UIAs success.

A need for common language in communities of practice

Something that is often overlooked among communities of practice is the importance of language. In spite of common goals and values, a major barrier to scaling innovation between institutions is the amount of translation required to implement similar initiatives in dissimilar situations. Differences in organization, process, and culture are barriers enough without also introducing differences in tools and technology. It is for this reason that user communities are so important.

A user community is not about products. It’s about language. By bringing institutions together that share a common vision, common goals, and common tools, high impact practices can be communicated and scaled with far less friction. It also allows for significantly more collaboration, as institutions can pool resources that build upon common technologies in such a way as to benefit everyone. Communities facilitate the exchange of ideas. User communities facilitate the exchange of practices.

Catalyzing a new community of innovation

It is here, out of the desire to scale innovative practices across institutions, that the idea for the Blackboard Analytics Symposium was born. In February 2017, Blackboard is hosting an exclusive event for Blackboard Analytics customers. Over the course of one and a half days, our customers will share what is working and what isn’t. They will talk about their successes, and garner specific feedback on exciting works in progress. Our innovative format is meant to catalyze and serve community.

Innovation is not the same as newness. Innovation is more akin to ingenuity, or the ability to rally a variety of existing resources to solve problems here and now. It is the educational community that identifies and understands the critical issues that need to be addressed. It is the educational community that must come up with solutions, and it is the educational community that must act. The role of technology vendors is to work with educators to come up with new and better ways of making it easier for them to be effective in their noble vocation.

It may seem like user conferences bring people together because of an interest they have in a product or set of tools. But these tools function more as heuristics for the priorities, interests, and strategies that educators employ as they work to see students succeed.

By bringing users together, we at Blackboard have the opportunity to understand the broader issues that are facing higher education today. We can understand where there are disconnects between what educators want to do and the limits of our technology, so that we can narrow the gap (the gap will never close, since the needs of students are constantly changing).

But the biggest educational problems are not technological ones. Technology is never a ‘solution.’ Rather, solutions come at the intersection of technology and human wisdom. By bringing practitioners together to share their solutions, in an environment that encourages open sharing, the Blackboard Analytics Symposium is an occasion for innovation to be scaled, and innovators inspired.

For more information about the Blackboard Analytics Symposium, visit http://symposium.blackboardanalytics.com

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