A Peek at SXSW EDU’s Panelpicker—and Some ‘Weird’ Trendy Things in...


A Peek at SXSW EDU’s Panelpicker—and Some ‘Weird’ Trendy Things in Education

By Tony Wan     Feb 16, 2018

A Peek at SXSW EDU’s Panelpicker—and Some ‘Weird’ Trendy Things in Education

What can we learn about the future of education from hip-hop, yoga and fidget spinners?

That’s not a joke or a trick question. They’re among the sessions at this year’s South by Southwest education (SXSW EDU) conference in Austin, from March 5-8. And according to their program descriptions, those are among the tools and tactics used by educators to help students manage stress and anxiety, and get into their “flow” state.

Strange? Perhaps. Remember, this is a city that prides itself on being “weird.”

Yet what may seem peculiar today may well become popular and mainstream tomorrow. And to get a sense of what’s trendy in the education scene, data from SXSW EDU’s Panelpicker, a process where anyone can submit topics for the conference program, offers a bird’s-eye glimpse of the issues and practices that administrators, teachers, researchers and industry leaders want to talk about.

For this year’s conference, 1,445 session proposals were submitted from organizers across the U.S. (47 states including the District of Columbia). Roughly 400 sessions, covering pre-school to professional learning, make it onto the final schedule, as determined by a multi-step process involving conference organizers, an advisory board and public votes.

SXSW EDU has a growing global footprint as well, with 105 proposals coming from non-U.S. organizers in 34 different countries.

When speakers propose a session for the Panelpicker, they must also select a corresponding track, or overarching topic that it slots into. The five most popular session proposal tracks at this year’s conference, in order of frequency, are: instruction, implementation, leadership, equity and employability. Altogether these five tracks make up more than half of all the proposals submitted this year. There are 17 tracks in total.

See breakdown of session tracks here.

These tracks are not consistent from year to year, and conference organizers add, combine or remove them based on “evolutions in the conversations that people in this space are having,” says Greg Rosenbaum, the general manager of SXSW EDU.

That the instruction and implementation tracks top the chart is hardly surprising, as the sessions focus on the application of tools (like Google), ideas (design learning) and frameworks (competency-based education) into the classroom—topics that have dominated the general edtech conversation for a while .

What was more surprising, says Rosenbaum, was the emergence of employability as a topic of interest. Across all the session proposals, the phrase “skills gap” appeared 246 times. Another 225 had the words “hiring practices.” Their popularity reflects a growing desire for higher-ed institutions to better prepare their students for the workforce—and, also, for companies to provide continuing education opportunities for their employees.

As a track, equity saw the biggest year-over-year increase in terms of the sessions submitted, from 97 proposals in 2017 to 150 this year. Many of the these talks focus on supporting diverse and underrepresented populations—from preparing men of color for the teaching profession, to engaging with immigrant families and creating inclusive spaces for youth with disabilities and emotional needs.

In addition, submissions for the business, language learning, and VR/AR tracks all saw at least a 40 percent boost from last year.

Also on the upswing: social-emotional learning (SEL), which covers topics including mindfulness, emotion and empathy. Since SEL was first introduced as a distinct track for the 2015 conference, there’s been nearly a three-fold increase in the number of sessions proposed on this topic.

Those looking for the unconventional and under-covered topics may want to take a peek at the less popular tracks. The aforementioned fidget spinner talk is part of the “cognitive process” track that explores the science behind how people learn. The hip-hop and yoga session can be found on the “informal learning” track that house other sessions, including an environmental learning project based in a trash dumpsterand a workshop on whether the Dungeons and Dragons can “save the world.” (Pub trivia fact: EdSurge, much like the TV show Stranger Things, traces its origins to that game.)

First held in 2011 with 800 attendees gathered in one hotel, SXSW EDU has since grown to become one of the most popular stops on the U.S. education technology conference circuit. Since then the conference has spread across town, taking over the downtown convention center and even the local movie theater for film screenings of education-themed movies. Last year’s gathering drew more than 7,800 registered attendees.

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