Missed Opportunities?


Missed Opportunities?

How can we create meaningful dialogue across the edtech ecosystem?

By Katrina Stevens     Mar 11, 2014

Missed Opportunities?

SXSWedu continues to grow--among the more than 6,500 participants were edtech companies, teachers, administrators, investors, media, parents, and a few students. It’s impressive to see a conference attract so many diverse members of the edtech ecosystem and offer sessions designed to meet some of each group’s needs. Throwing a large conference such as this is a formidable task and the conference is still in its early growing stages--it’s solidifying its identity while growing at a rapid pace every year.

One of the conference’s identity struggles is perhaps that SXSWedu was inspired by SXSW Film, Interactive and the original Music, all conferences where it’s appropriate for participants to simply consume and enjoy the culture. You can love music without expecting to be part of the process of creating music. The same for enjoying films.

Education is a different animal. We want educators, parents, and students not only to consume edtech, but to have a real voice in the design and development of school tools.

One distinct holdover from the original SXSW’s scenes is a sense of celebration--and SXSWedu celebrates well, with parallel parties starting after 5:30 pm.

More Educators This Year

A strong critique last year was the limited number of true educator attendees, so kudos to the SXSWedu group for working to recruit more teachers and to add more teacher and administrator strands. An educator was even added to the judging panel for Launch EDU (Congrats RobotsLAB!), the now annual pitchfest.

During one panel, however, several teachers asked why there weren’t more teachers represented at the conference. Over lunch with a group of entrepreneurs afterwards, the entrepreneurs asked why there were so many sessions about teachers. These comments highlight how even though entrepreneurs and educators are at the same hotel crossing paths, they’re not in dialogue.

Maybe it’s because conference attendees are cliquey and most comfortable hanging out in familiar circles. Maybe it’s because we haven’t created natural forums for cross-pollination or that most of the sessions appeared targeted to a single audience. Other thoughts?

Lights, Cameras, Transactions

SXSWedu has provided a consistent venue for businesses to do business. Behind the scenes, investors, startup entrepreneurs, and titans from old-guard companies schedule meetings around the clock. Each year, new big-time companies from other industries make an appearance. LinkedIn’s participation this year suggested that the company could play a big role in the push to re-invent digital certification and accreditation. Apple had a stealth presence, starting conversations with various companies in a suite at the nearby Four Seasons.

Most company representatives don’t attend sessions unless they’re speaking onstage. In fact, that’s the only time they’re likely to engage in the broader audience of educators and researchers who also attend.

Local Community: Parents, Teachers, Students

On a similar note of adding voices to the conversation, the free new Expo event was a great addition for bringing in the local Central Texas community. On my ride from the airport, my cab driver shared that he was excited to attend the Expo on Tuesday because he wanted to see what was available for his grandchildren. Parents, students and teachers spent hours exploring college-ready, STEM Fair, and Maker stations and tools.

Still, this event was fairly siloed from the main conference. Are there ways to integrate the Expo into the larger conversations?

And What About Next Year?

While there are multiple sessions for each stakeholder group, what is still missing are sessions and events that successfully bring these groups together for candid dialogue that might lead to real opportunities to improve education. Making activities meaningful for many different stakeholders isn’t easy. Finding ways to bridge the gaps and learn to listen to each other isn’t easy, but amassing so many different stakeholders into one place is too much of an opportunity not to try.

Moving away from a panel format would move us in the right direction. What would happen if different sectors shared their expertise with other sectors? What if there were more working group sessions? One of my most productive “sessions” was a breakfast with folks working on similar problems around the world.


The playground is one opportunity for increased conversation and hands-on exploration. If the playground were moved to a central location (at least on the way to somewhere), then more participants would likely stop by spontaneously to create and explore. The workshops appeared to be well attended so there’s a distinct interest in hands-on learning. The BrainPop sessions, for example, were packed during the sessions but then participants dispersed fairly quickly back into the main hall. Tynker spontaneously held a hands-on workshop in the playground space that was so popular that the conference had to bring in more chairs. Conference participants want to interact with the tools, so let’s provide more space and time for them to do this.

What About an Unconference?

One way to place the educator voice front and center is to provide a forum for an unconference of some kind. Elana Leoni, director of social media and marketing at Edutopia and Edcamp organizer extraordinaire, spontaneously organized a Thursday #sxswcamp mini-unconference in the playground area for about a dozen educators. Basil Kolani, director of information services at The Dwight School, tweeted the suggestion to hold #edcampSXSWEdu next year. Seems like there’s interest!

What other creative ideas could transform SXSW Edu into a place for meaningful, cross-stakeholder conversations and true innovation in education?

Tony Wan contributed to this report

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