Questions and Impressions: SXSWedu 2015

Before the opening Keynote at SXSWedu 2015, Ron Reed, the executive producer of the conference, spoke to the audience. He asked attendees to do three things during the conference: Learn a lot, meet new people, and have a good time. Four days later, at the closing session, he checked in with the audience to see if they followed through. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that most of the people in Ballroom D at the Austin Convention Center could nod and acknowledge that they had indeed heeded his advice.

One of the best parts of any conference is the dialogue that opens up around interesting and sometimes controversial topics. There were as many opinions about how to improve on the current educational systems, as there were attendees. Throughout the week, when I left sessions and panels, I was impressed with the expertise and professionalism of the speakers.



Lasting Impressions

Though topics of debate in education don’t change quickly, the arguments for or against can be framed in new and innovative ways. Here are a few things topics that resonated with me because of the innovative ways in which they were presented:

  1. Big Data: This topic keeps coming up, and rightfully so. Student data is a hot issue for many reasons. Not the least of which is that, in the past, data was used in less than honorable ways. But the ideas at the Data and Privacy summit made me think differently about the topic. Data in education can provide important, and nearly immediate feedback that improves students’ lives. Maybe vilifying data collection isn’t the answer.
  2. SEL: Our students are increasingly more connected via technology. As a result, their interpersonal skills are sometimes lacking. Justin Graves spoke about everyday philanthropy. He encourages students (and everyone) to meet one new person each day. Simple? Yes. Effective? Definitely.
  3. School Choice: When the neighborhood school just isn’t working out, what recourse do parents have? Some try to transfer their children to a new school. Others may seek out a charter school. And what happens to the schools that are underperforming? How are they incentivized to improve? Betsy DeVos says let the money follow the children, rather than tying funds to physical school buildings.
  4. Open: Open source materials are taking the place of traditional textbooks, and rightfully so. Textbooks are expensive and have not been shown in any peer reviewed researched to effect and sustain student learning any more than just lecture alone. Open Content is leading the way to get colleges and universities to implement a zero-textbook degree.
  5. Arts Education: It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of “the next big thing” when you’re at a technology conference. I remember standing in front of a 3D printer a few years ago at SXSWedu with my jaw slightly agape thinking that might be the pinnacle of technology. But Bob Santelli’s discussion of the Grammy Museum’s dedication to arts education at the Closing Program reminded me that the simplest movements in education are usually the ones that stick—because they’re focused on what’s really important for long-term engagement and learning. The Grammy Museum hosts 35,000 student visitors each year and offers educational programs centered in the importance of music as part of America’s cultural history. The museum, in conjunction with the Grammy Awards, also supports arts education through award programs for teachers, like the Jane Ortner Education Award.
  6. Khan Academy: You already know all about this great resource, so I won’t repeat what others already say about it, or what you’ve experienced firsthand. What I will say is that the Khan Academy and College Board partnership to provide free SAT test prep for the new SAT coming in 2016 is important. Access to quality test prep could help level the playing field for so many students.

Lingering Questions

Any good dialogue should make you question what you hear, what you think, and what you know. After letting my SXSWedu experience gel for a few days, I found I had just as many questions as answers, which is not a bad thing for a writer! The conference left me with many things to consider and research (and hopefully present to you in future articles here at Edudemic).

How do developers include parent and teacher input into app design? Or do they?

This question comes from a few brief chats with developers, as well as a fascinating conversation we had with other members of the press. Parental reporting features were missing in many educational apps.

In that same vein…

Why aren’t there more teachers at SXSWedu?

The conference takes place right before spring break (in Texas, anyway). Teachers can’t usually leave the classroom for four days before a scheduled vacation. This article from the Hechinger Report addresses the same issue. In fact, 409 people in the directory at SXSWedu Social were listed as K-12 teachers and 926 people were representing Education Business.

Why don’t all speakers have specific calls to action?

I was in a fascinating session and a young, eager developer in the audience was so enthusiastic about the speaker’s ideas that he asked what he could do to help. The speaker suggested the developer check out the website for more information. That seemed like a missed opportunity.

Why aren’t there more marginalized groups represented as speakers at tech conferences?

SXSWedu does have a fair share of women presenters, thanks in part to the high percentage of women in education. But I’d like to see more presentations by people of color, people with disabilities, and people who openly identify as LGBTQ.

Why is there such an overwhelming emphasis on policies that may or may not change?

Changing laws and policies in the educational realm is slow. The pendulum swings back and forth about every ten years.  The Playground featured a lot of great apps and ideas, but overall sessions did not provide a lot of “ready to implement tomorrow” type of ideas.

In Short

Trying to summarize my 4-day SXSWedu experience in this thousand-word article was tough. It was difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. There really is so much information to learn when you inundate yourself in the ideas of passionate, invested, and innovative teachers, administrators, policy-makers, students, and developers. So, be on the lookout for many more SXSWedu-inspired posts, because the world of education technology is full of profoundly inspiring stories, products, and ideas.

Looking for more SXSWedu coverage? Check out our previous articles, as well as an  excellent recap from! SXSWedu 2015: Key Themes and Takeaways

Leah Levy: SXSWedu 2015: Big Changes and Big Themes

Amanda Ronan: Can I Make a 3D Print of Myself? Musings on SXSWedu


1 Comment

  1. Dr M

    March 24, 2015 at 6:41 am

    This is the only write-up of the SXSWEdu conference I’ve read, so I don’t know how others feel about it, but I take away a couple of things from this. First, this is less about education and more about technology than education. As a college prof, I’m not surprised to see that there were 2x more businesses there than teachers, because the focus wasn’t on teaching/learning, it was on using technology with students, which is not the same thing (this is what I’m getting from you, not what the event might have been). Second, as an educator, I saw nothing in terms of marketing that invited me or other faculty to attend. Those of us in Texas would be easy to attract, but for all the social media I’m on, I saw nothing about this. They didn’t contact us through our university emails, either. I think that to have any effect dialogue on education, higher ed faculty need to be involved because when we get our students as freshmen, often we find that there is a lot we need to teach them beyond the content of our courses. If this conference is only about technology in education, teachers aren’t the ones who will be there. I see this as more for administrators, who are responsible for purchasing the technology. Technology can be a great tool, but many of us are seeing a decline in critical thinking and analysis skills because students are using technology to do their thinking for them.