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In Search of OER’s Future and Edtech’s Missing Evidence at SXSW EDU

By Jeffrey R. Young, Jenny Abamu, Michael Sano, Sydney Johnson, Tina Nazerian, and Tony Wan     Mar 5, 2018

Teacher Crystal Duckert speaks at SXSW EDU.

Speakers at this week’s SXSW EDU conference in Austin wasted no time before diving into taboo topics. “Looking at those two girls making out in the doorway again, I thought, why can’t I be as confident as they clearly are,” Tim Manley, a former New York City high school teacher, said in an opening keynote session, to lots of laughs, as he recounted his humbling, trying first-year teaching experience.

Overall, the opening day of the 8,000-person education event struck a more modest tone, starting with a trio of educators recounting their stories of interacting with students in schools—and spurring a host of emotions from the crowd including laughter and tears.

Austin, Texas outside of the SXSW EDU conference

And that was just the start. Here’s more of what we heard and saw on Monday at SXSW EDU:

A Sustainable Future for OER

Monday marked day one of Open Education Week, and speakers at a panel used the opportunity to discuss the potential for open educational resources as an alternative to increasingly unaffordable textbooks—as well as the challenges and misconceptions that the open movement still faces.

Panelists started by drawing attention to Austin Community College, where students are advised to budget at least $1,200—about a third of tuition costs—for textbooks. While OER was presented as one way to ease course material costs, other challenges remain, starting with understanding and awareness of what the term means. “‘Open’ is not the same thing as digital,” said Nicole Allen, director of open education at SPARC, an academic coalition that advocates for open sharing and resources. “And open doesn’t only mean ‘free.’”

Audience members later asked where money will come from to pay the content creators behind free, open educational resources. Daniel Williamson, managing director of OpenStax at Rice University, said his group relies on venture philanthropy, while other panelists pointed to grants and government-funded initiatives to help boost OER creation. Still, sustainable ways to fund OER into the future remains an open question. “Those models need to develop,” said Allen.

Big Data alone won’t help you find a job—or your ideal candidate.

At a session about how Big Data can help evolve the career and jobs search process, panelists spent quite a bit of time talking about how other types of data could do the trick instead. Michael Simpson, the CEO of equitable hiring company Pairin, called it “microdata” while others referenced data that was more personal, but the point was the same. There is still room for the industry to provide job seekers with more individualized data about career opportunities, and to provide recruiters with more specific data about unique candidates.

As local governments and industry professions share more information around what they want, there’s also a role for aggregators to provide that data to optimize the recruiting and hiring process. Relying on Big Data to make judgments is neither equitable nor ethical since many systems are trained on patterns that may be biased or simply not representative of what people want, said Matt Gee, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago.

At the session, “(Un)Affordability in Higher Education,” the mantra seemed to be that college is worth the cost—over the course of a lifetime. But what about students and families who don’t trust the data behind that narrative? Preston Silverman, CEO and co-founder of RaiseMe, talked about how to better guide students to potential scholarships and grants. Tonio DeSorrento, CEO of Vemo Education, modeled ISA agreements at different institutions that students could opt into. They both echoed calls from Kim Clark, assistant director of the Education Writers Association, for more government funding to help defray the cost of college for students.

Can evidence even keep up with edtech?

That was the premise behind another Monday session, and the debate still rages as to how edtech companies and researchers provide evidence to education professionals on whether these tools work.

Panelists pondered how companies and researchers can get facts to education professionals on how these tools work. Denis Newman, CEO of Empirical Education, a third-party researcher of edtech tools, thinks it’s important for school districts to share their data about the use of these products with researchers and companies. But a generic “thumbs up or thumbs down” rating system won’t suffice. Rather, people need to figure out if a product works for students and teachers in their unique local contexts.

Panelists Malvika Bhagwat, Mitchell Weisburgh, Jason Palmer and Denis Newman.

Jason Palmer, a general partner at New Markets Venture Partners, referenced an article he wrote for EdSurge last year, telling the audience that education is not the “free market of Adam Smith.” Rather, it’s the “invisible hand of government” that exerts the biggest influence on the edtech market. He cited the Every Student Succeeds Act as an example of a policy that now requires districts to “understand the evidence of the efficacy of the products that they use.”

Ninjas and rockstars.

Those may be metaphors that describe the ideal workers at fast-growing tech companies. But in job descriptions, those labels can feel exclusionary and dissuade potential candidates from joining your organization. At a session about improving recruiting, hiring and cultural practices to support building diverse edtech organizations, TeLisa Daughtry, founder of FlyTechnista, said that sort of word choice can be uncomfortable for women and people of color who don’t associate with those terms.

“If you’re talking about beer pong and darts,” she adds, “you’re creating a bro culture that doesn’t foster, but excludes.”

Alex Rappaport, co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary, appealed to his fellow white male executives at education technology companies: “Most diversity leaders are black and Latino women...The most vulnerable people in tech are leading this charge, and they’re taking the biggest risks. It’s important for the white men to join this conversation.”

Joining the conversation were New York On Tech’s co-founder Jessica Santana and NewSchools’ Venture Fund Tonika Cheek Clayton. More here about their tips about how edtech organizations can meaningfully tackle diversity (and what not to do).

Reinventing history starts with self-reflection.

Antionette Carroll, president and CEO of the Creative Reaction Lab

Since 2014, the Creative Reaction Lab, a St. Louis-based nonprofit, has been working with students and teachers to bring awareness to structures in society that perpetuate inequality. The organization brought its work to SXSW EDU this year in the form of a workshop session where they challenged educators to reexamine their understanding of history.

“How do you integrate healing and history practices into your work,” asks Antionette Carroll, president and CEO of the Creative Reaction Lab, in an interview with EdSurge.

Thomas Jefferson quote shared during the session

After asking attendees to read a quote by Thomas Jefferson where he proposed a two-track education system and called the laboring class “rubbish,” educators sought to unpack their understandings of historical figures. This process involved asking tough questions about iconic historical figures, such as Jefferson, and unpacking why schools praised certain aspects of their work while ignoring glaring character flaws.

“It’s time for us to see history as contested and not simply accepted,” said one of the 50 workshop attendees.

Student-Loan Debt Relief As Employment Benefit?

A U.S. Congressman pitched his bipartisan bill to help relieve student-loan debt during a session at SXSW EDU on Monday.

The representative, Scott Peters, a Democrat representing San Diego, is the co-sponsor of a bill called the Employer Participation in Student Loan Assistance Act, led by Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois. The idea is to encourage employers to pay off part of their workers’ student loans as a benefit, by exempting the payment from taxes.

“Our country can’t compete in a brain-powerd economy unless we’re training those brains,” argued Peters during the session. “We don’t want to discourage people who qualify for college because of cost. That puts our country at a disadvantage.”

Critics of the bill point out that the approach does nothing to help college graduates with debt who haven’t landed a job, or who are in sectors of employment that don’t offer such perks to workers.

In an interview with EdSurge after the session, Peters said that it was part of pragmatic approach to begin to address an issue that resonates with many voters in his district. “The way it works is you have to take it off in bites,” he said of the larger issue. “So this is a really important contribution to it. It's also one that in my district seems to have a lot of appeal.”

When asked whether he has any evidence that employers would offer the student-debt-payment benefit if the bill became law, Peters said that the measure had the endorsement of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce as well as those in other jurisdictions. “There's a real benefit to your recruiting if you're able to do it,” he said.

Despite many other issues dominating the headlines in Washington, he said the bill has more of a chance at moving forward than others he is involved with--but he acknowledge the challenges ahead at a time when President Trump seems to change direction on issues regularly. “Right now it’s particularly difficult because of the chaos,” he said.

Does he worry that the issue of student debt could become partisan? “If you look at statistics how much better off you are if you go to college,” he said. “There's just a lot of real-world incentives that trump the politics of these things as a family. So as the family sits down and decides Junior's post-high-school plans they're going to think about facts and not think about the latest Fox News poll.”

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