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Heard and Overheard at SXSWedu 2014

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Now in its fourth year, the smorgasboard that is SXSWedu keeps on growing...and growing. This year, one of the hottest stops on the edtech conference circuit was greeted with unusually chilly weather. But that didn’t dampen the festive atmosphere.

This year’s gathering, spread over two hotel floors and part of a convention center, drew over 6,500 entrepreneurs, educators, investors, researchers, policymakers, and just about anyone interested in the booming education industry. The 300-plus panels, workshops and presentations were chosen out of 700 proposals that were evaluated by the SXSWedu advisory panel, event staff and the public.

It was impossible to see it all! Here are some of the highlights we caught.

A CHALLENGE TO RAVITCH: On Monday, Diane Ravitch delivered her critiques (some might say invectives) against Teach For America and companies that she believes are fueling the privatization movement. Their efforts are focusing on the wrong things, she says. “The ultimate product of education should be a love for learning,” she proclaimed. And this love can’t be measured by test scores, which she says “predict economic status and privilege, not future achievement.”

Zak Ringelstein, CEO of UClass, challenged her to work more constructively with those who agree with her views of the ills in education--but who are also the target of her critique. “I am an alumnus of Teach for America and the CEO of an edtech company...I think we share a lot of the same values. Given this, do you think it is possible for you to work with Teach for America and companies?” Ravitch didn’t offer a definitive answer, but did tell Ringelstein: “Good luck with your company.”

SPEAKING OF TFA: Questions during TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s keynote focused on technology and (surprise!) Ravitch. One educator asked Kopp about her thoughts on the role of edtech in public education, to which she responded: “I deeply believe that technology is part of the solution. There are tremendous, tremendous possibilities. But I'm under no illusion that that will solve the problem.”

Kopp added that she and Diane “actually met at the Aspen Institute Summit,” and at the end of their hourlong conversation, Ravitch expressed that she and Kopp “agreed on a lot.” This quote got Tweeted during Kopp’s answer, to which Ravitch responded: “We agree that all kids should get a great education. I believe that all kids should have experienced and well-prepared teachers.”

ONE YEAR LATER: Data warehousing company inBloom created quite a splash at SXSWedu 2013, but after the company's year of ups and downs, inBloom reps at SXSwedu 2014 were quick to reference lessons learned. "The most important thing thing to us now is transparency. Transparency is the real issue, and how data gets released," said inBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger (to which new Chief Privacy Officer recruit Virginia Bartlett followed up with "Shouldn't it be the districts that decide how it's released?"). Streichenberger also expressed that the company, "has absolutely nothing to hide" and is content with taking the data privacy spotlight in order to "make it a call to action" for vendors and districts.

COMMUNITY: Lindsey Own, a science teacher in Seattle, debunks myths about teachers, entrepreneurs and the edtech community on a panel with two startup representatives. Our Leonard Medlock checked out a panel about “Why We’ve Learned So Little From Big Data.” And Betsy Corcoran recaps all the ridiculous questions that she and fellow female entrepreneurs get when they try to pitch their ideas to investors. And here’s a run-down of the marquee pitchfest, LAUNCHedu--and the winner, RobotsLAB.

SIR KNEWTON: Jose Ferreira, Knewton’s outspoken CEO, on Big Data: “Everyone thinks they have useful data, but a lot of data is not useful. The most useful ones are measured proficiencies and learning outcomes.” He also adds: “I don’t think we know today that students learn best when they drive it. The reality is that I don’t know if students know how to learn best. But we’ve got the data to try to find out.”

Gisele Huff, executive director of the Hume Foundation, asked Ferreira and his panelists whether data-driven adaptive learning means we’re moving towards a scenario portrayed in the movie Her. “The idea is a seductive one,” says Rob Lippincott of I2 Capital Group. (Hmm...maybe if these learning programs all sounded like Scarlett Johansson.)

PUBLIC EXPO: New this year was a six-hour SXSW Education Expo free to the public. Part college and career fair, part STEM fair, the event also included hands-on activities for students, parents and teachers from the Central Texas community. Over 4,000 swung by to check out Maker booths and hear from speakers that included superintendents, chancellors, college admission officers, STEM-related industry leaders, and Jack Andraka, a Maryland high school student who created a paper sensor that detects several types of cancers.

FOLLOW THE MONEY: Startups sometimes get criticized for building features, not businesses. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Jennifer Carolan, Managing Partner of the NewSchools Seed Fund. “I hear that comment a lot; but many companies started out as features. LinkedIn sucked until it was awesome. ClassDojo, Remind101 and Socrative were small when they launched...but they grew quickly by addressing a single key problem and building out from there.”

There's also a “bifurcation” in the funding space: Traditional VCs go after growth story and adoption rates found in consumer technology, while new funds are focused more on startups that try to sell to schools at an enterprise scale. “Figure out what problem you are trying to solve, what kind of company you are and there is a diversity of capital out there,” she advises.

HOWDY “PARTNER”: “If you’re going to come sell us a product, don’t call yourself a partner. You’re not, you’re a vendor,” says Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy. “If you want to partner with us, that means you have to listen to us and we have something that’s going to change you, and you have something that’s going to change us.”

DEVICE DELIVERANCE: The big device makers showed off the latest fleet of devices. Dell announced that Oakland Unified School District will buy 8,000 of its Chromebooks to give to all of its 3rd through 12th grade classes. Samsung, another Chromebook manufacturer, debuted an updated model that will come in two sizes, both with at least 8 hour battery life and a device management console that lets educators easily set up other Chromebooks.

Amplify gave a more in-depth peek at the curriculum and games available on its tablet at a chic after-party filled with orange lights and bumping music. (We just wish we could try it hands on without someone looking over our shoulders!) We also had a chance to ask Joel Klein about the supposed “indestructability” of the tablets.

LEARNING IS NON-LINEAR: 2U Noodle Education CEO John Katzman challenged those who advocate for a seamless transition between high school, college and careers. “People think K-12 is seamlessly tied to higher ed which is seamlessly tied to the workforce. It’s never been true. It’s silly to pursue it,” he stated. “The real key in a world in which people are changing jobs all the time is short-term, just-in-time learning that is very connected to the next job you are going to get.”

“If you start with a good liberal arts education, but understand there are Dev Bootcamps, Skillshares, and other programs that you will be doing for the rest of your life as the careers market change, I think you can have your cake and eat it.”

THINK ABOUT THE KIDS ADULTS: Matt Muench of the Joyce Foundation, says adult learning is currently a giant missed opportunity, based on these numbers: 36 million adults lack basic literacy and numeracy, and another 50 million lack deeper cognitive and 21st century skills. “We’re talking about 100 million people who don’t have basic skills--and we’re not even talking about technical skills,” he says. And the adult learning market may be an easier market for edtech companies to tap than the highly regulated K-12 systems. But aside from some trials done in the military space, he doesn’t see any great solutions yet. His fellow panelist, Kaplan’s Chief Learning Scientist Bror Saxberg, brought up this analogy: “Adult learners are told time and time again that they fail. But think about medicine: the patient doesn’t fail, the treatment fails!”

Katrina Stevens, Christina Quattrocchi, Mary Jo Madda and Tyler McNally contributed to this report.

Article image courtesy of Josh Murdock (@professorjosh)

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