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A Journey South By Southwest

An HGSE researcher’s reflections on attending Austin’s most notable annual conference

March 16, 2015
Sculptures at south by southwest education conference

South by Southwest Education (SXSWedu) is the Burning Man of education conferences. Every March, 6,000 tech titans, free-spirited “makers,” educators, and entrepreneurs convene in Austin to “blow up” schooling and reimagine the future of teaching and learning.

As a research practitioner and lifelong curmudgeon, I was skeptical.

On my first day, I bah-humbugged my way to sessions about blended learning (a frappe of virtual and in-person instruction) and competency-based “badges" (students are all apparently scouts now). I observed few conversations about ESEA reauthorization and found little technology for English language earners, our fastest growing student population. How can I take visions of the future seriously if they don’t address the pressing issues of the present?

Despite many sessions about Big Data, there was very little real data to be found. Shouldn’t evidence have a place in determining the future of education? Instead, adults were throwing colorful beanbags at the “playground.” They were using 3-D pens to engineer sculptures and creating elaborate geometric domes, blindfolded. 

Among the motley crew of edu-preneurs, I met a principal playing skee-ball and a young boy with dyslexia eager to tell me about his film. Mostly, I watched technology vendors tweeting and giving away tote bags (which I was not above collecting). Why did I feel like a fish out of water? Researchers can be a reactive clan, measuring past phenomena and confronting wild futurism with the burden of proof. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was room for research amidst the technology boosterism of SXSWedu.

The next morning, I was on my way to present findings from our study of digital video use in classroom observations when the elevator jammed. Wide-eyed, I turned to two Google Glass-clad women discussing the future of classroom wearables and asked the ultimate evaluator’s question: “Is this thing working?” They told me not to worry. “This is just a glitch,” one said, “We are still going up.” Sure enough, the elevator lurched and opened onto our floor.

It dawned on me that SXSWedu provides a uniquely optimistic space in our sector, which is often focused on problems and deficits. It amplifies big playful ideas. Attendees believe that it’s okay to launch glitchy, unproven visions because education progress is iterative. Austin suddenly seemed very sunny.

My remaining time at the conference was a whirlwind of startup competitions, debates, and film screenings. To my delight, there were researchers and practitioners grounding the conversation. I learned how coding curricula enhances critical thinking on Karen Brennan’s panel. Hunter Gehlbach shared the impact of social and emotional learning on schoolwork and interpersonal relationships. The Strategic Data Project’s Selena Tan led a panel of districts showcasing data dashboards used to increase equity and transparency in their communities.                                                                                                                   

Researchers and skeptics alike belong in this diverse carnival of forward-thinkers. They help us distinguish the fads from the fruitful and understand whether ideas are worthy of investment. But we need to get on the elevator first. (It’s okay to be a little bit uncertain on the way up.)

See you next year in Austin.


About the Author

Photo of Miriam Greenberg
Miriam Greenberg
Miriam Greenberg is a director at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. She writes about the ways in which education data reaches beyond the numbers and into our lives. Follow her on Twitter at @mirigreenberg and @HarvardCEPR.
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