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How ‘Reality-Based Education’ Could Transform Learning

By Jenny Abamu, Stephen Noonoo, Tina Nazerian, and Tony Wan     Mar 6, 2018

The call for higher education innovation at SXSW EDU took the spotlight on the second day as entrepreneurs, school leaders and even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made speeches throughout the day demanding changes to the system.

Kicking off day two of the Austin-based education conference, keynote speaker Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, announced that he was starting a national network of urban work colleges where students must work to go to classes.

Using the Twitter hashtag #nationbuilding, Sorrell also noted that he wanted to promote what he described as reality-based education, where students use experiential and project-based learning practices to gain real-world experiences in higher-education.

Sorrell then asked the audience members to imagine students in schools solving problems that were personal to them. “Imagine that you are a student in a limited resource community,” he said. “Instead of going to economics and trying to figure out charts and graphs…that you were taught how the economics of inner-city living add to the fact that there are no grocery stores. What if you are taught how to deal with that? What if your classroom becomes your life?”

The day concluded with yet another urge to rethink education, this time coming straight from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who kicked off her panel with a short speech laced with often-used mantras around the need to “rethink education” by unleashing innovation and supporting choice.

Joining her onstage were three male industry executives: Anant Agarwal (CEO of edX), Ben Wallerstein (CEO of Whiteboard Advisors) and Dave Clayton (senior vice president of consumer insights at Strada Education Network). That this panel didn’t include any educators did not go unnoticed by the teachers in the audience. One of the audience questions asked why DeVos placed entrepreneurs and innovators ahead of teachers and students—to which DeVos cooly responded that she considers teachers to be innovators and entrepreneurs as well. (Check out our complete recap of Devos’ remarks.)

In between Sorrell and DeVos, here’s what else we caught this second day.

Teaching AI in Kindergarten

For Ann Gadzikowski, an author and early childhood coordinator at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development, it is never too early to begin speaking with children about intelligent machines.

“Young children cannot tell the difference between what is alive and what is not,” said Gadzikowski to a modest crowd. Pointing to research done on the interactions young children have with Tamagotchis and real pets, she described how kids display the same sort of care and affection toward inanimate objects and living beings.

“These machines were ‘alive enough’ for children to care about them,” explains Gadzikowski.

Gadzikowski believes the inclination for children to build relationships with inanimate objects will only increase as artificially intelligent machines such as Siri and Alexa enter homes and classrooms. This is why she is pushing for educators to begin having tough conversations about intelligent machines in Kindergarten.

“The biggest leap teachers have to make in the beginning this type of teaching is feeling confident in their own ability to have these conversations with children,” says Gadzikowski. “Teachers, especially those from my generation, feel like they don’t have the knowledge or the skills to talk about AI. We really need to do front-end training so teachers feel empowered.”

Which Country Is Really Leading Edtech?

The answer—as always—is “it depends,” according to a panel of global edtech executives and analysts at a session on Tuesday. A few obvious countries stood out to speakers—among them China, India and the United Kingdom, which lead the world (along with the U.S.) in sheer number of edtech companies and dollars invested. Of those, China is a clear leader with more than $1 billion invested in edtech companies.

“A few areas China is leading is in entrepreneur activities and investment activities,” says Sophie Chen, a partner at the Chinese edtech media group JMDedu. “The other is in the acceptance of online and mobile learning in China. There is more acceptance from parents to learn online, but we also see it in school settings.”

When it comes to edtech leaders, however, it’s not all about gross dollars or yuan. If you look at the number of edtech companies per capita, different names emerge, says Jan Lynn-Matern, the CEO of Emerge Education, a global edtech investment group based in the U.K., which uses a custom-built platform to find and flag new edtech startups.

According to Lynn-Matern, Scandinavian, Baltic and Eastern European countries are standouts, along with a handful in Southeast Asia, like Malaysia.

Germany, too, produces a lot of companies, specifically in the realm of academic publishing, but the conservative nature of its education system makes innovation and tech adoption more difficult, Lynn-Matern says. “By contrast, if you look at Scandinavia, there’s a lot of innovation in curriculum, for example in formative assessment” thanks to the region’s open attitudes toward testing.

Following the Money

In the landscape of education technology industry conferences, SXSW EDU has always occupied a place between conferences like ISTE, which attracts a core educator audience, and ASU + GSV, which unabashedly caters to financiers.

Yet the exuberance and energy of the early-stage edtech entrepreneur community were noticeably dialed down a notch this year. In years past, entrepreneurs have crowded the lobby of the nearby Hilton hotel to meet with funders and partners for business deals. This year’s lobbies were, by comparison, quite sparse and navigable.

Then there’s the conference’s startup competition, LAUNCH—formerly a multi-day affair, condensed to a single afternoon. A “Shark Tank”- style competition where entrepreneurs pitched ideas for educators to judge was absent.

For those in the industry, “this conference is a great, inexpensive way to run into people and see them in a casual, social setting,” says Mark Miller, managing partner at Good Harbor Partners, an edtech financial advisory firm. But he adds that this conference is less about “the business of raising money, or selling companies or raising capital.”

Yet not all the activity has waned (or shifted over to ASU + GSV). Indeed, we learned about an upcoming edtech fund that wants to make seed and Series A deals. Here’s the scoop.

Google’s Immersive Learning Panel—and First SXSW EDU Higher Ed Panel

Among the products audience members got to play with at Google’s immersive learning panel were two digital whiteboards called Jamboards. Afterward, Ope Bukola, a product manager for Google Classroom and G Suite for Education, moderated a discussion in which three educators described using products like Google Expeditions and Google Classroom.

Later in that same room, Google held its first higher education panel at SXSW EDU, where speakers, such as Kevin Park, who co-created New York University’s AR/VR diploma program and UX design professional diploma program, talked about their use of products, including Google Blocks, Tilt Brush, Poly and the Daydream platform.

“Thank you so much for coming; I’m not gonna lie, I was a little nervous because if you haven’t noticed, Google hasn’t had many higher ed sessions at these events before,” Marta McAlister, a program manager on the Google for Education team, told the audience. “It’s one of our first events where we actually have a completely higher ed focused panel.”

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