Notes from #SXSW

Inspired, ignited and discombobulated describe best my mindset. I feel like I’ve travelled here from another planet even though SXSW is approximately 6 miles from my house. Big thanks to the Khabele School for getting a ticket for me. I have just recently discovered the vast bucket-turning-into-an-ocean that is the educational blogging/tweeting community. To call it rich is an understatement. SXSW Edu was also my first educational conference (not relegated to just math), and I wanted to share my thoughts from a novice perspective. All of the talks can be found here. Below are some of my initial assessments (no pun intended) of the event.

On Conference Life

First, I had an incredible time on twitter seeing what everyone was talking about. More often than I would like, I wanted to go to more than one presentation at a time. However, I gathered a lot of good information just by the hashtag of various talks. On the other hand, I was shocked to see how much blatant self-promotion and product hocking went on. Color me naïve. Even the Lego’s Robotics program gave a presentation regarding their latest/great work the EV3 would enrich schools, but very little evidence of what that really looked like.

On Big “Ed Tech”

Here’s a primer:

Keeping in mind what Audrey Watters called “the corporate-driven conference agenda and the lack of educators”, I was floored how few panels actually included real life teachers. I know we are an elusive species and difficult to find in the wild, but damn. With the influx of app developers, venture capitalists, and “non-profit learning companies”, I would have loved to see more actual teachers sharing best practices. I could not find a mission statement on SXSWedu’s site, but in their about page they mention creativity and innovation. Creativity and innovation seemed to be relegated primarily to developers of a platform, app or environment.

The ideas of divergence rarely came up – especially in the “personalized”, “just-in-time”, “adaptive” educational technology secret sauces. But Alfred Solis of the “8 Elements of Project Based Learning” asked a very simple and intriguing divergent question: When does 1 + 1 not equal 2?

Bill Gates keynoted the event. I understand he didn’t get famous for his speeches, but it was pretty hard to watch. He began his talk by comparing education to polio. The basic premise of all of these ed tech talks is that Schools are broken and therefore we must (something really cool with flashing screens). Half of the talks began with showing some graphic or another showing Finland and Singapore’s superiority w/r/t Math scores. I understand: you can’t get funding without painting a bleak picture, but that doesn’t make their case necessarily valid.

I’ve heard of NBA draft drinking games, but I’m worried if anyone starts one during an educational conference. Any of the following words would have caused SXSW to look like Jonestown: personalization, seamlessly, point of instruction, adaptive, or standards based.

One last point: “Content agnostic” should be a bad word when it comes to learning environments. To think studying Mathematics looks anything like studying History is a gross simplification. Yet “content agnostic” seemed to be a real swell idea.

I will post next week my comparisons of many of these ed tech companies to the work of B. F. Skinner.

On Classroom Life

But the conference had some extremely useful speakers. I’ll try to be brief

Jeff Sandefer at the Acton Academy might have changed my life forever. He started with flatly saying that most standards taught were useless – that’s pretty strong counter point to almost every other panel at the conference. He had 7 outstanding principles that guided his school (two of my favorites: Every child is a genius; Never answer a question, ever).

Karen Fasimpaur gave many technology specialists and teachers some great resources on OER’s (Open Education Resources). They might change what education looks like or they might be ignored completely. The biggest challenge for OER’s is the quality control issue: Who is going to manage this beast? This could be solved by giving grants out to young, tall enterprising people from Austin to write one.

Wesley Fryer dropped a reference to Seymour Pappert! I’m guessing constructivism would be viewed by technology specialists like the ancient Wiccans would be viewed by modern agnostics. But I appreciated that students should be given support to construct their own knowledge at some level.

Speaking of obscure references, Tomas Riley of the Children’s Creativity Museum dropped a reference to Paulo Freire and how he wanted his museum to be “of the streets” vs. “on the hill”. If there had been a panel dedicated to critical pedagogy, how many ed tech people would have shown up? The idea of access was dismissed by several panelists.

One of the most powerful lessons I learned was from Elisabeth Soep of Youth Radio at her “Making Apps with Youth” panel. She compared the decision to give students access to open-ended platforms as similar to the canonical Jimmy Wales “steak knife” story. I teach in a very loving, yet traditional environment. I still operate under a very basic pretense: the possible costs of using computers/laptops/phones outweighs the potential benefits of those modern devices. This is an **extremely** difficult transition for many teachers to make. Especially when students who are classically trained without calculators might fare better than those without on certain assessments.

And coming full circle, the tension between power and quality control is still at the heart of most educational conferences. I’m refreshed and ready to join the larger internet community in searching for best practices.