SXSWedu 2015: Big Changes and Big Themes

I’m writing this on day two of SXSWedu 2015 here in Austin, and all I can say is:

“Wow, this city has some great tacos!”


Hot sauce aside, I’m happy to report the conference has been stuffed chockfull of fascinating discussions. Themes so far have been wide ranging, which is no surprise given that education gets to the roots of our very humanity – and when disruption to “our very humanity” registers at 9.0 on the Richter scale, there are countless crucial discussions in which to engage.

As an ed nerd, these discussions are stimulating to say the least, even if it does mean ping ponging from the far side of one issue to the even further away side of another. In fact, those full-bodied, complex, challenging debates are precisely the kind we need amplified in the education sector today. As such, the programmers seem not only to have included current trends, but also to have fostered panels in response to criticism and debate around previous trends – and so it seems that the main trend this year has become “actually listening to what teachers and students have to say,” rather than implementing solely from the top down.

Again, no surprise here, as many of the panels were chosen through crowdsourcing, so it’s safe to say that the shifts in mentality are directly reflective of what many in the education world today consider to be the most pressing issues facing them.

So, what are a few of those themes?

1. Smarter Data Use

If you’re currently working in education, you’ll definitely recognize – and possibly roll your eyes at – the “data” buzzword. This is my first SXSWedu event, but word on ye olde education street is that in previous years many presenters were, indeed, a little data-obsessed, as was the education world at large.

I can’t speak for past years, but I can say I’ve heard a lot of important discussions about data use in panels and in one-on-one conversations. Issues have included:

  • Privacy concerns: I had great discussions regarding the use of both student and teacher data in the classroom, including where security gaps lie, what we can do about them, and why securing student data is essential. We discussed state and federal legislation currently in the works, as well as the difficulties of creating such legislation in a way that it can adapt to rapid pace, unpredictable, and even unknowable technological innovations. In panels, there were many discussions about developing clearer student privacy rights, and on increasing transparency so that students and parents can see exactly what student data is used for.
  • Better use: In the whole “we want all the data” push of yore, it felt (and still feels) to many educators like ed tech companies were powerful, almost unknowable data-magnets, sucking any and all student data to them without a clearly articulated plan for what they’d actually be doing with that data. Well, this year we’re looking closer at all of that experimentation, as well as at how ed tech leaders are beginning to self-reflect and adjust. For example, instead of immediately noting students of a missed question or overloading them with dashboard data about their performance, more thought is being put into what data is presented when, and how it’s presented. In coming months, I’ll be reporting on how companies are using the findings of behavioral science to increase motivation and make a student’s interaction with data a richer, more useful experience that moves beyond binary “good/bad” feedback.

2. Equity and Access

There have been many fascinating and important conversations about educational equity at the conference so far. As seems to be (slowly) happening in our wider culture, there’s less dancing around the issues, and more of a willingness to dig in deep and self-examine. Why does equity matter to the ed tech realm?

  • The device: The classroom is becoming increasingly digitized, and there’s no doubt that it will become entirely so within the near future. Some have looked to the BYOD movement as a remedy for access issues, pointing to the fact that most students, no matter what their socioeconomic status, at the least have smartphones. But a brand new iPhone isn’t the same thing as a pay-as-you-go phone, and there are many moments when students would do better off switching to a larger device. As one educator put it, reading an interactive book on a poorly designed smartphone isn’t the same thing as reading that book on a MacBook Pro. As ed tech continues to develop powerful learning solutions, many feel we’re at risk of developing an even more pronounced class split in the classroom, with students sitting next to one another embarking on radically different learning experiences.
  • Culture: Just because students have devices, doesn’t mean they are supported in use of those devices at home. For parents who may not speak English or who are not tech savvy themselves, technology can be an intimidating and even scary thing for their students to engage in. What’s more, many of the best educational apps don’t provide any way to print out progress reports for students. The options, then, become either removing their children from an ed tech environment, or parents not getting involved with the level of support they would otherwise provide. If ed tech is meant to globalize access, hurdles like these only increase marginalization.
  • Expanding definitions: In one panel on diversity in ed tech, it was argued that tech in particular demands expanding our definitions of marginalized populations beyond race and class to include gender, sexuality and disabilities. The latter point was made clear when a commenter raised the example of screen reader programs, which are currently far from robust, thereby shutting the visually impaired completely out of the digital classroom experience.

3. Platform Unification

I’ll discuss this in much greater depth over months to come, but I’ve noticed a heavy presence of unified platforms at SXSWedu. While there were certainly numerous apps on display, platform providers – thankfully – seemed focused on providing all-in-one solutions that covered every aspect of a student and a teacher’s daily experience, from classroom discussions to homework, performance-tracking and note taking. Even better, many of these platforms offered integration with other platforms and apps, so that teachers and students can still rely on their preferred content and study providers, all in one place. Which, you know, is a lot better than the frazzled mass of applications as they currently exist on so many student devices.

In Short

This is really just a surface look at what’s been happening at SXSWedu so far. Check back tomorrow for a report from Amanda Ronan, and follow us both at @leahannelevy and @amanda_ronan. And rest assured, we’ll be diving deep into all of these issues and taking a closer look at every platform we’ve encountered over the months to come. You know, once we’re done eating tacos.