Another year, another SXSWedu, which means sessions, badges with QR codes, and long lines at overpriced Starbucks, stretching around the Austin convention center floors. But this year’s SXSWedu wasn’t just all panels and networking. In fact, a slight sense of skepticism and reflection hovered in the air, with keynoters and student panelists alike calling upon attendees to separate substance from fluff.
Approximately 13,000 SXSWedu attendees scurry back and forth from the Austin Convention Center to massive hotels in the center of the city, noses glued to their phones as they search for the next event. From personalized learning to ethical analytics, what stood out amongst the conversations? EdSurgents captured these tidbits in our reporter notebooks—take a look below.
Big Themes, Surprising Absences
EQUITY hasn’t typically been SXSWedu’s signature issue. For instance, at last year’s conference, only 3 percent of the 350 panels explicitly addressed the role that technology plays in widening or closing the opportunity gap. However, that percentage appears to have jumped up to nearly 8 percent of the sessions this year, including the opening keynote by Dr. Christopher Emdin who dropped a serious message for SXSWedu attendees: “When a student is brilliant on the street corner but falling asleep in class, something is wrong with the schooling system.”
LEAVING THE AMAZON: At last year’s SXSWedu, Amazon’s Education team and the company’s General Manager of K-12 Education, Rohit Agarwal, launched the "Inspire" platform, with promises to support the open education resources space. But this year, the company is less visible on the SXSWedu floor, and the Amazon Education Twitter handle has been quiet since February 7 of this year. And Agarwal, a former co-founder of TenMarks, recently departed from the Amazon team, announcing his decision on LinkedIn. Agarwal isn't the only TenMarks founder to have left the Seattle-based tech giant. Andrew Joseph, Agarwal's cofounder, went on to join the Amazon Education team as VP of Strategic Relations after TenMarks got acquired in 2013. However, his LinkedIn profile shows that he left Amazon in October of 2016.
However, an Amazon spokesperson tells EdSurge, "Amazon remains committed to K-12 education and innovating on behalf of students and teachers.”
ETHICAL ANALYTICS: Advocates of predictive analytics say the approach holds a lot of promise in higher ed, from better enrollment management to early alert systems. But making assumptions about a student’s potential based on data alone comes with its own set of risks, explains Manuela Ekowo, a policy analyst with New America. To help colleges navigate these challenges, New America walked through its latest report, “Predictive Analytics in Higher Education: Five Guiding Practices for Ethical Use,” over some barbecue at the Civitas Learning headquarters in downtown Austin on Tuesday. The five-point framework outlines steps institutions should consider when making assumptions about potential benefits and risks for students, including ways to ensure proper use of data and tips to build algorithms that avoid bias.
While useful to flag students who might face challenges in college, Ekowo says predictive analytics run the risk of “pigeonholing” students into stereotypes and holding them back from their full potential. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t just profiling students who were traditionally marked as going to struggle at the institution.”
KIDS SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS about the news, reports Common Sense Media. Specifically, 63 percent say the news makes them feel afraid, angry, or depressed, according to “News and America's Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News,” a fresh report from the San Francisco-based nonprofit. The stats are based on interviews with 853 children ages 10–18 years old and highlights those weird kid contradictions: For instance, kids trust their families (66 percent) and their teachers (48 percent) for news—more than any other source. But 76 percent of kids prefer to get their news from social media (especially from Facebook).
CHATBOT CHAMPIONS: AdmitHub, a Boston-based edtech startup that creates conversational AI to help students through college, has some numbers to back up its college-expert chatbots. A recent study conducted at Georgia State University (one of the company's early school partners), chronicled a 21.4 percent decrease in the amount of students who don’t return after summer and a 3.9 percent increase in overall enrollment after students used “Pounce,” a virtual assistant named after the school’s blue panther mascot.
Georgia State launched the chatbot in April 2016. After four months, Pounce had exchanged nearly 200,000 messages with 3,100 students on questions around tuition, student housing, financial aid and more. The study was conducted using a randomized control trial where a treatment group received reminders and could ask the chatbot questions, while a control group continued to receive the university’s standard email messaging and communication.
Tools and Courses
WHO’S USING WHAT? New edtech accountability tool CatchOn launched on Tuesday. CatchOn provides a way for schools and districts to see what and how apps are being used around their campuses and classrooms. The tool is currently available on Chromebooks, but the company promises an iOS version soon.
FOR THE ELL'S: McGraw-Hill today launched ELLevate English, a customizable online course for English Language Learners in grades 7-12. The company’s President and CEO, David Levin, says that the tool is currently available outside of the U.S. but will eventually be brought to the U.S. at a later date.
A (VR) TRIP TO PAKISTAN: PenPal Schools, an Austin-based online learning organization, announced Monday the release of its latest course: VR Field Trip to Pakistan. Through the course, students can work with online PenPals in Pakistan on assignments and can take a virtual-reality tour through the city of Lahore, located in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
GAPS IN PRIVACY LAWS: According to moderator, Amelia Vance, a lawyer at the Future of Privacy Forum, 91 privacy laws were passed 38 states since 2013, but only about 19 specifically covered higher-education data. Privacy experts at the SXSWedu “Postsecondary Privacy-Student Data and Analytics” panel, agreed that protection for student information still has significant gaps. That’s particularly true in the higher-education space.
According to panelist, these gaps leave student data vulnerable to third-party technology vendors who provide supplemental learning materials outside of the classroom. “In terms of security, we tend to see weak access controls and poor database security, even though defending against database injection attacks have been well understood and well know for quite a while,” Steven Roosa, a fellow emeritus at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University.
However, in sharp contrast to other student data, student financial aid information has strict regulatory protections, according to the panel—protections that will soon be audited by the federal government. “Under the Higher Education Act and under the Student Aid Internet Gateway agreements educational institutions are considered financial institutions, and so there are specific security rules that institutions have to follow in regards to their financial aid data systems,” says Michael Hawes, director of student data privacy at the US Department of Education.
Who Said What?
‘CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE THE WOMEN OF K-12’: During a panel on “K-12 Ed Reform in the Post-Obama World,” one quote elicited murmurs from onlookers when Noodle Education CEO John Katzman said, "Charter schools are the ‘women of K-12,’ in that they get 70 percent of the funding as traditional schools."
‘EXPAND THE NATIONAL LUNCH PROGRAM FOR HIGHER EDUCATION’—One recommendation for better serving college students of all socioeconomic levels from Professor of Higher Education Policy & Sociology at Temple University and Tuesday’s SXSWedu keynote, Sara Goldrick-Rab.