The Learning Accelerator Blog/Timely Reflections from SXSWedu

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Timely Reflections from SXSWedu

by Daniel Owens on March 16 2017

Having spent last week at SXSWedu 2017, I walked away from the conference exhausted, but also inspired by many of my interactions. Four years ago, SXSWedu was the first education technology conference I attended, and while I thought it was interesting, my main takeaway was “too much tech, not enough ed.” The conference has changed quite a bit in the past four years and, from the perspective of someone working to advance high-quality blended learning, mostly for the better. I wanted to share several takeaways from my experience at SXSWedu.

More Educator Attendees

Having presented at our fair share of conferences at TLA, we know session attendance can be hit or miss, depending on a variety of factors. It was inspiring to see our session focused on instructional practice filled beyond capacity, and a quick survey of the audience showed the large majority to be educators. My sense was the conference attendees included many more educators than previous years. A quick search of SXSWedu’s directory shows the general tag of “Education” being the largest industry group at the conference, as well as large numbers in subgroups (Primary, Secondary, etc.).

Advanced Knowledge of Blended and Personalized Learning

A brief search of the program from four years ago shows 43 presentations under the topic of “Implementation.” The number of Implementation sessions has grown by 30% over the past four years. While the number alone is promising, the more important aspect to me is that many of these presentations have evolved beyond technology to focus on instruction. Four years ago many sessions focused on general learnings from those trying to blend, as well as highlighting tools used. This year’s Implementation sessions seem much more focused on teaching and learning, with terms like: creating, culture, conversation, completion, etc. It’s also exciting to hear educators asking questions that are more focused on solutions to problems of practice (ex. How can I build student agency?) as opposed to general technology solutions (ex. What software program should I buy for middle school math?).

Improving the Focus on Equity

Four years ago, “Equity” was not included as a theme of SXSWedu. The closest proxy that the conference provided was Achievement Gaps and Educational Equality, which offered 21 sessions. This year, Equity was a key track (formerly known as themes) of the conference, with 50 sessions representing a wide diversity of education perspectives, including, among others: policy, curriculum, design, and coding. Equity is a core tenant of our work at TLA, as it is with many organizations working to improve education, and it is a welcome change to see equity so well represented at SXSWedu.

Improved Personalization within the Conference

It was great to see a vast array of topics and different session formats, which should provide something for everyone. I also thought the app helped me organize the conference and my schedule throughout. It’s certainly the best conference app I’ve ever used, though in fairness that bar is set pretty low. I also thought the use of Slido was beneficial, especially it’s voting function, which helped presenters prioritize their answers to best meet audience demand. As organizers work to improve the conference for next year, I’d love to see them incorporate some sort of tool that helps predict audience attendance. I realize this could be challenging but think even a rough idea of audience demographics could help presenters create materials better suited for attendees.

Data Interoperability

Having spent a great deal of time in blended schools, I’ve heard time and again how frustrating it is to not have a single data dashboard where teachers can review progress for all of their students at once. The basic premise behind this is that schools and districts that are using real-time data well, and offering a good deal of personalization, struggle with having to log into a large number of programs to view student progress. At best, teachers and leaders have figured out time-intensive workarounds to be able to organize this data and use it in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, this challenge often serves as a barrier to many schools and districts providing more resources and choice, as well as improving instruction through more meaningful data practices. This challenge is known as a lack of data interoperability.

Fortunately, this issue is gaining support within the blended and personalized community. A group of individuals known for their K-12 data knowledge have been meeting around edtech conferences to discuss the issue and work towards possible solutions. While no solution to this challenge currently exists, I have no doubt this group is helping solve a large barrier for educators who want to work with meaningful data. You can read more about the issue here, and if you ever see someone at your next education conference with a unicorn pin on, be sure to ask them about it.

Fast Hack

While I’ve never shared a “technology tip” in my blog posts before, this one is simply too good to pass up. For those of you that create in Google Docs, a common challenge in sharing resources and templates is granting the additional users access so they can edit the docs for themselves without messing up your original. My workaround for this has been to provide a link to the doc in “view only” format and instruct users to make a copy. A much easier way to do this is to edit the last part of the link of your document and replace the “/edit” with “/copy” (all google docs should end with “/edit”). This will take users immediately to a screen that only allows them to make a copy and reduces any confusion, as well as the potential that accidental edits are made to the original.

About the Author

Daniel Owens is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. Email comments to