SXSWedu and Ed Tech’s Coming of Age

Austin Graffiti

I’m back in San Francisco after three days at the annual Ed tech Mecca SXSWedu in Austin, Texas. Edsurge, Edudemic, and my Bellwether colleague Carolyn Chuong have good recaps on the scene and a few specific panels, so I’m going to hit on a few points unlikely to surface anywhere else.

[Update 3/16/2015: You can now watch an assortment of keynotes and sessions here.)

The Scene
When you’re at SXSWedu, it feels like the entire $550B US education sector is looking to disrupt itself, in actuality, it’s a tribe of like-minded professionals affecting a small fraction of students scattered across the country. Soon, however, many of the innovative ideas that emerge from Austin will become commonplace as prices drop, minds open, and policies are retooled. The value of SXSWedu is that this tribe of forward thinkers can come together to speak its native language, tackle critical issues like student data privacy, and exchange ideas in an environment free from the gravity of the traditional school models.

I expected a lot more technologists peddling their new apps, but the people I met represented the entire technology ecosystem – investors, entrepreneurs, content providers, district and charter leaders, principals, etc. I didn’t meet any teachers, a population SXSWedu has made serious efforts to include.

Lastly, I was surprised that the conference was organized just like every other conference I’ve been to – rooms upon rooms of panel discussions with lots of networking in the hallways. I thought that an event for people focused on flipped, blended, and adaptive models of instruction would be the first to boycott stale, didactic panels.

Pumping the Breaks
The mentality that I’ve witnessed in the ed tech community since the bubble started growing in the late 2000s has been an unbridled enthusiasm for anything new and the assumption that it’s better than whatever currently exists. But I didn’t experience a lot of that at SXSWedu.  In fact, I was party to a lot of conversations where there was a high degree of skepticism around anything new. My hunch is that this is a function of ed tech maturing. After a couple of years putting ideas through the thresher of the complex reality of the education sector, folks no longer settle for hype and insist on proof points.

(Other angles on this: The #StopDisruption Twitter hashtag that came out of a panel called Disrupting the Disruption in Higher Education and this blog series where Andy Smarick calls for education reformers to preserve the best parts of US education while they seek new solutions.)

The Policy Guy
I was called “the policy guy” twice this week, so I feel obligated to share my policy observations. In tech terms, education policies related to technology and personalized learning are still in BETA. When new school models bump up against restrictive policies like class size requirements, they’re usually given waivers. Waivers are a fine temporary solution but there’s some serious work coming down the pike to modernize education policies and we may be wise to get out in front of it.

iNACOL and my Bellwether colleagues Sara Mead and Carolyn Chuong have written about how personalized learning implemented at scale will require some significant overhauls to seat time and class size requirements among other considerations. Another area I’m keeping my eye on is how competency-based learning clashes with annual testing and whatever does or does not come out of congress this year. Accountability and competency-based methods don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I have a feeling that they’ll be presented that way.

The conference had a policy forum with some impressive leaders, but let’s be honest, people don’t come to SXSWedu to talk about policy. At least not yet.

Innovation Means Everything and Nothing
I must have heard (and said) the word “innovation” a thousand times this week. (Some variation of the word was in 22 session titles.) The term has become so ubiquitous that it’s lost its meaning. It can refer to a new bauble, a new way of thinking, or a simple incremental improvement. Some people, like Steven Hodas, want to kill the term altogether. But I argue that we should correct the record rather than move on to the next buzzword because I fear that the positive momentum that the field has built will be disregarded as the latest trend. Instead, let’s get more sophisticated and use the term accurately. Let’s imbue the concept with the same kind of rigor it enjoys in the other sectors where decades of R&D and research have turned innovation into a serious field critical to local and global competition.

Jefferson’s Ghost in Austin
Some of the best interactions happen simply because smart, passionate people are all in the same place at the same time. But a little nudge can take them to the next level. Wednesday night after dinner, Brian Greenberg, CEO of Silicon Schools Fund, organized a Jeffersonian discussion with about a dozen folks at a local beer garden. Our group doubled in size over the many hours (and drinks) and we managed to we sustain a single deep conversation that also covered a lot of ground. After a tech-drenched day, it was refreshing to focus on one voice, make eye contact, challenge, question, and disagree with mutual respect.

Good heavens, the BBQ!

I’d go again, but for the people and the BBQ, not the programming. I think SXSWedu should have fewer, higher visibility sessions and concentrate the networking opportunities.

1 thought on “SXSWedu and Ed Tech’s Coming of Age

  1. Chris Fancher

    Your observations are spot on. I come from the K-12 teaching world and am on the SXSWEdu Advisory Board (with about 100 of my closest friends). I have attended, in some capacity, every year. And I joke that I was asked to be on the advisory board because I kept complaining that there weren’t any teachers at the conference. Until they change the time of year (which I doubt they will) we will never have a significant number of teachers in attendance.
    The networking is the best part of the 3+ days. In between sessions and from about 4 to 9 PM at the local get-togethers is where the real conversations start and where you have the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue. I enjoyed talking with Edtech Startups and VC folks at many of the parties and even though I didn’t hear anything really “new,” there were people who were glad to be able to talk with someone at the teacher level.
    I hope we can discuss this more next year during SXSWEdu 2016. I’ll get the first drink.

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