Recap from SXSWedu 2013: Bigger, Bolder, and Better (Depending on Who You Ask)

Recap from SXSWedu 2013: Bigger, Bolder, and Better (Depending on Who You Ask)

Kris Hattori

We went pretty much all-out at SXSWedu this year--emceeing pitch competitions, throwing curveballs on panels, running a 4,000+ sq ft. Makerspace room where over twenty organizations strutted/printed/blasted their stuff (don't miss our recap), and bumping into familiar and new faces from around the world. It was exhilarating--and a little bit exhausting!

Here's our wrap-up of some of the memorable moments from our four days there. (You can read our first half report here.) It's not our final word, though, as there were plenty of announcements and developments that we'll be following up on!

ON THE BIG STAGE: SXSWedu has established its place in the major leagues of edtech conferences. Last year it welcomed roughly 2,000 attendees. This year, the conference more than doubled in attendees (estimated at 5,000), LAUNCHedu finalists (from 12 companies to 24), and square footage (now spanning into Austin Convention Center).

It’s an impressive feat for a conference in only its third year. But being popular can have its costs. With as many as 15 concurrent sessions, some attendees found it difficult to catch everyone they wanted to see. And the 30 minute window between scheduled sessions had some scrambling back and forth between the Hilton to the convention center, especially as folks inevitably got sidetracked in the spontaneous conversations and run-ins that are the pure joy of any conference.

These are, of course, the kinds of issues that any conference organizers are happy to tackle: how to ride that wave of popularity and keep expanding while retaining an intimate feel.

STARTUP SPOTLIGHT: 24 companies (12 each in the K-12 and higher-ed categories) jostled for the crown in this year’s LAUNCHedu competition. Clever, whose API facilitates software integration between vendors and schools, edged out ThinkCERCA, a platform for Common Core-aligned literacy and critical thinking skills, for the top spot in the K-12 category. Israel-based SpeakingPal, which focuses on teaching English speaking skills, took first place for the higher-ed category; runner-up went to Matchbox Education, which helps universities with the recruitment and admissions process.

TOWNHALL IN SESSION: Several attendees pointed to the “Investing in Education Innovation” session led by Alex Hernandez (Charter School Growth Fund) and Tom Vander Ark (GettingSmart, Learn Capital) as the conference highlight. Salon B was packed and alive with chatter when we squeezed in. The duo had the benefit of a smart audience that was unafraid to ask direct questions (via anonymous on index cards) and some people who also chimed in. What resulted was a candid conversation about what VCs, foundations, angels, and schools and districts can do to help identify and scale innovation. Overall, a pleasant diversion from the typical “sage-on-the-stage” panels and presentations.

P.S. Nothing, though, was more creative than the “cage match” between Charles Severance (University of Michigan) and Curtis Bonk (Indiana University) as they debated the direction of MOOCs.

TEACHER VOICE: Los Angeles-based teacher Rebecca Mieliwocki shared her experiences working with emotionally and socioeconomically-disadvantaged children, reminding us that the task of education will always involve a human touch that neither scores nor assessments can replace. “We don’t want to pair kids with a life of test, but prepare them for the rest of life,” she urged. Her delivery and storytelling craft were definitely fitting for one chosen as the 2012 National Teacher of the Year. It was by far the best way to for the teacher’s voice to be heard. We only wish that more entrepreneurs attended her talk; the room was barely half-filled. “It was just you and my mom in that audience,” she tweeted to an acquaintance. Hey--we were there too!

A MISSED OPPORTUNITY: The highly anticipated closing keynote from Bill Gates ended the conference on a somewhat polarized note. The SXSWedu website set expectations that he would “address the foundation’s U.S. education work.” What we heard instead was a too familar 101 primer on tablets, data, digital textbooks and other potentials of educational technology. The only juicy detail was a brief mention of a project, currently code-named Graphite, “that’s going to be out there and have various reviews of products.” Hmm...

Entrepreneurs and investors heard in Gates’ address a rallying cry to greater investments in education technology and big data to build better, personalized tools. Educators, unfortunately, felt neglected. Some walked out--especially during Gates’ panel discussion with the CEOs of DreamBox, Summit Public Schools and inBloom. “When did this become about product placement and not creative work and innovation in the service of teachers and students?” asked Virginia Rangel on Twitter.

AND IN 2014....Although the dust literally hasn't yet settled in Austin, it's not too early to start plotting next year. (And to some extent, many of the ideas and booths may wind up at ISTE 2013, oh so conveniently located in San Antonio this year.

What would be featured at your "ideal" conference? More panels or fewer? More "unconference" approaches? More vendors--or far fewer? Please take a moment and weigh in. We'll make sure the SXSWedu organizers hear you, loud and clear.

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