SXSWedu 2013: Thoughts, themes and takeaways


This week saw the third-annual SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas; it’s an event that has grown rapidly since its inception, driven by the explosion of interest in the intersection between technology and education, and by the rising chorus of voices calling for educational improvement and reform. While smaller than its SXSW cousins (interactive, film, music), SXSWedu drew intelligent and passionate voices in education from around the world, across an array of topics. As someone relatively new to the edtech space, I found it to be an exciting and inspiring event, filled with thought-provoking content and interesting people.

In no particular order, here are some thoughts on the four days I spent in Austin with a great group of innovators and educators.

Distrust runs deep between educators and for-profit businesses

As I entered the conference, I knew there was a divide between educators and for-profit businesses, and I hoped that people would work to bridge this gap. While many did come to the conference with open minds, many did not, and their minds stayed closed. A post on the Chronicle of Higher Education highlights the entrepreneur-educator divide perfectly. With that said, I did see glimmers of hope: when people across this divide actually talked with each other, some tensions were soothed. Which leads me to my next point.

Communication builds bridges; stereotypes and tribalism destroy them

On my second night in Austin, I went out to dinner with Doug Belshaw, who works on the Mozilla Open Badges Intitiative and Web literacy projects. We had a fantastic evening, filled with conversation and debate about a number of topics related to education. On many topics, we didn’t agree (particularly on the ability of for-profit business to do good in the world of education). On other topics, we were in violent agreement (e.g., the need for standards and sound pedagogy). At the root of our discussion was a willingness to listen, to be open to differing points of view, and a desire to integrate those with our own views towards a better end. This kind of open communication is what will help bridge the divide I discussed above. If people cling to their stereotypes and tribes, on either side of the divide, then we are doomed to evolve in silos, losing the possible benefits of collaboration between those with complementary perspectives.

Technology can’t solve social problems

Technology is not a panacea. It’s a tool, and one among many, that can be used to help evolve our educational processes and institutions. It must serve higher masters, however, and entrepreneurs need to keep their new services and tools in this broader perspective. Ultimately, technology should be used to make the lives of educators and students better, but it’s only a part of the story. Technology and the products and services it can create are part of a larger system, and entrepreneurs need to look at their efforts through this larger lens. A lot of the problems in education tie back to deeper social and economic issues, and technology isn’t going to solve those problems. People will ultimately solve those problems, through policy reform and other means.

Technology must support sound pedagogy

Entrepreneurs think about minimum viable products, market demand and adoption, business models and revenue streams. Educators think about how best to teach students (or at least, we hope they do). These two perspectives can be in conflict; the languages are in conflict, clearly. At the end of the day, though, technology efforts related for educators need to support and integrate sound approaches to pedagogy, based on research and historical evidence. Just because you can build a cloud-based Web 2.0 application for online learning doesn’t mean it’s good for teaching students. Entrepreneurs in this space need to collaborate with teachers to make sure their approaches to pedagogy are sound.

Hacking and unbundling education will lead to unintended consequences

The law of unintended consequences obtains in spades when it comes to the world of educational technology. Many people talk about the need to hack and unbundle education, to jailbreak the degree, to disrupt. While many of those things may be laudable goals to break institutions and paradigms that were meant for another age, they have consequences. A session by Gigi Johnson of the Maremel Institute brought this into stark relief for me; she clearly outlined the many challenges Universities and professors face in trying to meet this paradigm shift. It’s an upheaval that will ripple through the higher education system (and probably K-12), and we simply can’t predict the consequences from the armchairs where we sit today.

Accreditation is broken, but there is hope

The current accreditation system for higher education in the US is out of step with the changes that are afoot when it comes to unbundling education, MOOCs, and lifelong learning. The college credit should not be the only form of trade-able currency in the employment marketplace, and everyone seems to recognize the need for change. Deep questions, remain, however, about how this change will take place and who will drive it. Will it be top-down policy reform driven by accrediting bodies, or will it be bottom-up, driven by entrepreneurs and others who try to do an end-around on this ossified system? Or will it be employers who become the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes reasonable qualifications for employment? Lots of questions, very few answers.

Data is only useful if actionable

Big data was a big theme at the conference, although many seemed to feel the term itself was a meaningless buzzword. We live in an age of data; we are drowning in it, in many cases. How do we make this data meaningful and actionable, transforming it into useful information? This question looms large in the world of education, as people ask whether educators are ready to become data analysts, whether they are compensated for it, and whether it’s something they should even be asked to do. This ties back into the question of unintended consequences, as we think about how the flood of student and educational data needs to be managed.

Mindsets around education must encompass consumption and production

The world of education changed radically when we shifted from active learning processes (i.e., the apprentice model) to a model of consumption (i.e., the sage on the stage delivering lectures to passive students). The whole (digital) Maker movement seeks to upend this outdated model of how people learn, and many at SXSWedu were focused on shifting the mindset to encompass both consumption of knowledge and production as a means to learn. It’s an important shift in thinking, and has tremendous potential in terms of impact and changes at the grassroots level.

Policy reform and real-time innovation must be reconciled

The gears that grind the loudest in the world of education evolution, in my opinion, are those between policy reform in government and innovation in the world of business. They happen at two different time scales; the former slow, the latter driven by market forces and the need for rapid progress and profitable outcomes. Change in these two arenas needs to be reconciled in some way, each informing the other; it can’t come solely from one direction or the other. At SXSWedu, policy makers clearly have many of the issues I’ve discussed in their sights, but they can only change so quickly. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, often ignore the realities of policy and regulatory reform. There needs to be more active collaboration between these groups to resolve this time-scale conflict.

The future of education is bright

Despite the divide, despite the challenges, despite the barriers to evolution, the education world is on the precipice of great and positive change. I am a firm believer that we are all working towards a common good, and that the future of education will be better than the past several decades. It will take collaboration and open minds and hard work by everyone involved, but I believe we’ll get there eventually. We just have to learn how to overcome our stereotypes and biases, communicate openly, and work together to achieve a better world for students, learners, and for the society that benefits from an educated populace.