What We Learned at SXSWedu 2015

There are many education conferences throughout the year, but very few feature the wide range of topics, experts and innovations as presented at this year’s SXSWedu (March 7-12, 2015). From hip hop as a teaching tool to the science of learning and social media literacy, the programming of SXSWedu was diverse and meaningful.

We met more entrepreneurs and marketers than we did teachers, but everyone’s background was in education: classroom teaching, research, or technology. While the conference covered hundreds of sessions and dozens of speakers, we decided to compile a reflective list of what we took away from our week in Texas. By bringing attention to the following areas, we hope to continue the discussion from SXSwedu to improve educational outcomes for all students.

1. Utilize technology to inform personal learning

An emerging trend we noticed at this year’s conference was the focus on individualized and interactive learning, and how technology can help foster that personal connection. We interviewed EdcampATX, CoderDojo, 3Doodler, and other organizations to hear their insight on how technology can inform personalized learning. See our video coverage and interviews:


2. Online education is misunderstood

As Dr. Helena Seli wrote in her blog post “Disruption: For Better or Worse,” online education is more than just asynchronous content shared via an Internet connection. While the conference featured many sessions about innovative teaching methods and technology for K–12, we noticed there was a lack of attention drawn to innovations in higher education.

There were few speakers who spoke about online education in higher ed; those who did discuss the topic seemed largely unaware that institutions were incorporating synchronous and asynchronous content into program curricula. Two exceptions to this observation were Future15 talks by SocialWork@Simmon Professor Dana Grossman Leeman and 2U’s CEO Chip Paucek. Both presentations demonstrated the strong online connections students can make via live, online classes. 

3. Edtech entrepreneurs need feedback from educators

We met a wide variety of edtech entrepreneurs who, with a growing audience, are working closely with educators to build products that meet the needs to today – and tomorrows – education. Many of these entrepreneurs are former teachers who believe that listening to the education community – teachers, students, parents – is a critical element in making meaningful change.

One example is Blink Blink, an organization that makes creative circuit units for girls to engage them in STEM. They gather audience opinion to develop every aspect of their product — from branding to product development to website design. Similarly, Classcraft, an educational role-playing game, was created by an 11th grade physics teacher. The creators of Classcraft are constantly refining the game based on feedback from teachers and students.

4. Connections can happen anywhere

On day four of SXSWedu that we learned connections can occur anywhere, at any time.Humberto Perez, in his session “Creating Collaborative Environments for Students,” got attendants on their feet and interacting with others. He orchestrated various exercises that encouraged audience members to talk and share their thoughts.

Grossman’s talk demonstrated that the same connections can be made online in virtual classrooms. She showed the audience an interactive class session that takes place every week; the video illustrated how small and intimate the class size is, which allows students to connect with and learn from one another in a more personal way.

Whether it’s in-person or online, we learned that it is possible to create connections through any means; we just have to think differently about how to approach old tools and new technologies.

5. Educators should explore more

While this year’s conference offered hundreds of workshops and panel discussions that covered a wide range of topics, but we noticed that each session lacked a diverse range of attendants. While conferences are a great way to bring together communities of like-minded people with similar interests, it is also important to delve into new subjects, reach out to someone new or attend a unique session.

In NPR Education’s session “Insights of Great Teachers,” reporter Cory Turner led a discussion about Ms. Hagan’s student-centric approach to teaching. Ms. Hagan is a new teacher that approached her classroom with fresh eyes, developing handmade textbooks and creative lessons with her students. She took a risk to innovate in her classroom despite being misunderstood by her colleagues. Even when she was sought out as a leader in creating better outcomes for her students, her colleagues still haven’t branched out of their own by-the-book teaching methods. We think Ms. Hagan’s approach should be the norm, not the exception.

Reflecting and Moving Forward

SXSWedu offered us a fresh perspective on the current state of education, where it’s going, and how it can potentially transform. In order to improve education, we it helps for a diverse group of people from different industries — technology, research, youth development, social work — to collaborate and commit to make education not just good, but excellent. The conference itself is the product and brainchild of a diverse group of educators, so imagine how this thinking can critically impact education in the future.

See below for more reflections on this year’s SXSWedu and the state of tomorrow’s education community: