SXSW (writ large): EdSurge's Tony explored SxSWedu in detail. Here's his report:
As roadwarriors say, the most valuable experiences are not usually in the scheduled talks but in the spontaneous conversations and smiles. Plan ahead all you want but also plan to pivot.
WOOT! The overall enthusiasm and caliber of the startup entrepreneurs left me pretty optimistic that SxSWedu has the potential to become a great conference along the lines of its older brothers in the film, music, and interactive verticals. Only in its sophomore year, SxSWedu 2012 welcomed over 2,000 registrants, a 250% increase from its inaugural conference in 2011, according to executive producer Ron Reed.
Certainly impressive were the numbers of teachers in attendance, many of whom seemed excited to learn about Project Share, a PD initiative from the Texas Education Agency for K-12 educators looking to get involved with providing interactive and online learning environments in classrooms. Add to that the charged posse of caffeine addicts and night owl hackers and you had a spicy mix of passionate entrepreneurs and reformers. I overheard plenty of conversations in which startup guys shared ideas and product peeks with teachers, educating them about the startup scene (ironic?), and getting honest feedback. It was definitely a pleasure to see faces behind familiar names: ClassDojo, Late Nite Labs, Root-1, and BrainPOP, along with a host of upstarts from global spots ranging from Vancouver to Australia. (Thanks, too, to so many who are cheering on EdSurge!)
Money is on the move: I heard plenty of whispers of funding and hiring. We'll report these to you when we can nail down the details.
MEH: With as many as eleven simultaneous presentations, the conference schedule felt overscheduled. You can't just simply dip in and out of sessions and expect to learn much. Conference organizers tried to designate different tracks ("Beginner," "Intermediate" and "Advanced"), reminiscent of a difficulty setting in video games. But many talks seemed to hover in high-concept land--not a particularly useful place for plugged-in entrepreneurs to linger. That said, the teachers I spoke with who were just beginning to speak the edtech lingo did find the broad talks pretty informative.
ALREADY FLYING? The LaunchEDU competition featured twelve finalists (six each in K-12 and higher-ed), but the companies seemed to be at notably different levels of development. ScholarCentric, the company behind SucessHighways, has been around since 2006. Learnboost raised close to $1 million in 2010 and is available in 15 languages and 25 countries. On the other end were fresher upstarts, like Matygo, recently out of the incubator phase. Going forward, it would be helpful if the selection committee provides more transparency about its criteria and definition of a "startup."
BAY AREA REPRESENTS: High fives to rechristianed BloomBoard (formerly Formative Learning), an online platform and marketplace targeted at facilitating PD for teachers and educators, for taking home the K-12 trophy. And cheers to Learning Jar, an all-female ensemble with a platform for curating and sharing today's vast collection of informal learning content, for winning the higher-ed category. (Both took root in the Imagine K12 incubator, which has built quite an impressive portfolio in a fairly short timespan.) The companies now get to travel not-too-far to SF, where they will meet with venture capital firms that probably already have them on their radars.
KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD: Increased security appeared on the scene when a few delegates from Occupy Austin paid a visit to protest Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino's Wednesday keynote. Protestors had better luck getting their voices heard Arne Duncan's keynote.
QUOTEWORTHY: Given the strong pro-OER tone of the conference, many were irked over Scardino's statement: "We do not believe content wants to be free." Later, I asked her whether Pearson worries that its products could be cannibalized by up-and-coming startups--including those that the giant is helping incubate, like Alleyoop. "We don't use the word cannibalization," she replied, but added: "If anything's going to be eaten, we'd better be the ones doing the eating." Hey, it makes business sense--although the rest of the Pearson team seems very intent on shedding its bad PR.
DID WE MENTION GAMES ARE FUN? I was pretty amped to hear Jane McGonigal. I appreciate her efforts to bring a modicum of respect to the public discourse on gaming. But she seemed too focused on preaching to the unconverted that the first half of her talk--about why people like games--seemed too tame. Showing contorted gamer faces and discussing the benefits of "eustress" (her term of positive stress) is nothing new to those who have picked up a controller.
It was a little disappointing when she skipped the usual Q+A to make a beeline to sign books. I really wanted grill her on "gamification" and (politely) voice my displeasure over its pervasiveness in edtech. I don't doubt her gaming cred. I just fear that some of her giddyness for gaming is being misconstrued as a cure-all by folks looking for a quick fix to make learning more entertaining.
EDTECH REPORTING 101s: EdSurge's Betsy Corcoran, blogger Audrey Watters, and PR maven Lisa Wolfe had fun at the panel coordinated by self-proclaimed practical nerd, Frank Catalano, on "Why edtech reporting sucks and what to do about it." (Here's an unofficial mp3 recording if you have an hour to kill.) Betsy critiqued "evil bad" practices--when paid content masquerades as news stories--and "stupid bad," when stories are threaded with profound misunderstandings about business or education; Audrey coined the nifty term "churnalism," when writings simply churn press releases rather than apply muscle power. Lisa noted that sometimes clients are unrealistic about the role of even PR; Frank offered up his one sure-fire way to get coverage on the front page: "Kill someone." It wasn't all hatemongering, however: panelists cheered The Hechinger Report as well as writers who try to frame news in educational context and who get to know teachers.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE: I caught a couple entrepreneurs on the side eager to show off their product demos and betas. I imagine that were others that I missed. Given the convergence of startup folks, educators, and investors, it's a shame that there were not more opportunities for hands-on interactions with products. Edtech tools need more of a "play-and-tell" than a "show-and-tell" environment. I'd like to see an demo space or workshop devoted, possibly in an informal, open-space environment. And as more companies get funding, we're looking forward to more schwag, too! But thanks for that super splendid cardboard top hat.