March 10, 2013


I visited Austin for the first time last week. The SXSWedu festival is in its second year and in my new role as an edTech business analyst I appreciated having an opportunity to attend. Austin is an interesting town. There's an emerging metropolitan feel, balanced against the remnant aesthetic of a wild west college town. I like it. The bars along 6th Street reminded me of the midwestern bars of Rock Island, IL, where I lived for a few years. Indeed there is an almost spiritual connection between Rock Island and Austin, made tangible in my experience at Daytrotter. In the early days of creating that site, we sent a crew to record Daytrotter Sessions in Austin during the bigger and older SXSW Interactive festival. I digress.

I was intending to write a summary of the sessions I attended, but when I started thinking back about the experience, I really want to shape what I learned around the people I met. The sessions themselves were a reminder of how difficult it is to convey ideas in a presentational format, and for me the big takeaway from the conference is that the best educational environment we can create for children in this country will not built on top of a better method for presenting information. Instead, we are going to get better at creating an environment where children will begin to take charge of their own learning, nurtured by expert teachers. 

The best sessions at the conference were those that were interactive and shaped by the conversation between presenter and audience. One person I met was Shawn Rubin of the Rhode Island Highlander Institute. We were chatting in a group during a session in which he was a presenter. One of the best things I heard all week was something Shawn said: "You don't teach creativity, you create environments where creativity erupts." This applies to education generally. The best way to educate students is to create an environment where there is an opportunity to explore, engage their curiousity, and discover. Learning happens. Great teachers light the fire. 

Yancy Unger, a teacher, shared the folktale of John Henry and reflected on how teachers may feel that they're at risk of being replaced by a faster machine. He talked about John Dewey, reminding us that Dewey said: "Learning is social." Learning is a function of engaged interaction. It was Yancy who also made the connection between Martin Luther and our current system of compulsory education that I had been mulling over recently. His talk was passionate. He noted (as have many others) that the digital age is as disruptive to society as Gutenburg's press was at the time of the Reformation. But he also points out that we haven't yet begun to respond to that disruption in ways that take meaningful advantage of the new informational paradigm. Teachers need to be on the leading edge in this reform, but many have been bridled by outdated policies that don't acknowledge this tec(h)tonic shift.

Richard Culatta, our friend in the US Department of Education, talked about the fact that our interest in data driven education has forced teachers to add "data analyst" to their skill set, although little has been done to help teachers acquire the skill. He observed that our interest in data is putting pressure on all parties involved in education to struggle to both understand the meaning of the data (big data analysis) but also to deal with the ethical issues surrounding the ownership of that data. (Does data belong to the school, the data collector, the student, the family?) And as we struggle to find meaning in the data we are collecting, we are also struggling to determine what data is relevant for collection. How, for instance, do we collect data about non-cognitive skills like resilience, persistence, curiousity, and grit? In conversations after his panel discussion we got into the realm of educational resource sharing, and the challenges of organizing, cataloging, and curating that content into searchable and useful collections. He shared a new proof-of-concept tool they've created at the DOE and offered to share their codebase with us so that we can iterate the design and functionality of the tool to apply it to other collections (like our own resource exchange). 

Stephen Coller from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sat on the panel with Richard and provided additional perspective on the question of data collection. He noted that there might be some value in creating a nationally normed online student report card. He also raised questions about issues around data privacy. As did several other speakers at the conference, Stephen noted the similar challenges that faced the health care industry in relation to their data management issues, and suggested we look there for inspiration for innovative solutions around EDU data strategies. Stephen also provided us with an interesting and entertaining parlor game during the week. Each day he wore a brightly colored outfit, featuring a floral print shirt, bright colored slacks and matching shoes. We took bets on the color scheme for the last day of the conference, and I am pleased to report that my guess (purple) was the winning guess. Lewis Leiboh contacted Stephen after the conference to find out the rationale for the colors, and I believe Stephen's response was essentially, "That's the way I always dress."

Speaking of Lewis, he and I decided that a trip to Austin required a 40 minute drive into the desert south of Austin for barbecue at the Salt Lick. (Thanks, Faizan, for the recommendation.) It was a long ride, but the restaurant was satisfyingly quaint and tasty. The huge indoor barbecue pit was sizzling and smoking as we entered and the aroma was intoxicating. A tall glass of unsweetened iced tea went well with the brisket sandwich, pickles and onions, and a generous serving of beans and coleslaw. 

I met several other interesting folks at the conference. Sebu Bjorklund from Finland remarked on the fact that many schools are not keeping up with their digitally fluent students when it comes to the adoption of technology. Many students are better prepared and capable of using network technology to do research and discovery, and schools have yet to adapt their curriculum to acknowledge this skill. 

Jessie Wooley Wilson of Dreambox talked about adaptive and personalized technology tools that allow for real-time analysis assessment and engagement. She noted that typical "adaptive" strategy only varies pace, but that we're now capable of deploying Intelligent adaptive strategies that reorganize what is taught to each student. These intelligent strategies "learn the learner,"  collecting 50,000 data points per student per hour and learning about how students solve problems. Using these techologies, a sequencing engine directs students to their proximal zone of development. Students persist through challenges because they feel it's like a game. Fascinating stuff. 

My overall favorite presentation of the week was a session titled "The Problem Finders: Design Thinking Across Schools." The two presenters were Ewan McIntosh and Tom Barrett of NoTosh Ltd., a creative consultancy and design thinking team. Their talk was funny, interactive (Twitter driven) and compelling. They shared some interesting video of students engaged in the design thinking process in their classroom. As they articulated it, design thinking follows this trajectory: immersion, synthesis, ideation, prototyping, and feedback. This helps teachers and students create authentic and compelling learning, and doesn't rely on fake problems. Start with students asking lots of questions. Students determine which questions are worth answering and determine whether the questions are googleable (not as valuable) or non-googleable (very valuable). As the learning process unfolds, the students determine the direction of what to do next, what learning pathways to follow. While data is collected and evidence observed, the value of this process is that the skills students are mastering are as much non-cognitive as cognitive. They become persistent, curious, and engaged in the process of discovery. Many of the basic cognitive skills they'll need later in life are mastered as a byproduct of this kind of learning. One of the features of their program is the idea of "tagging" learning -- intentionally applying meta knowledge to the learning process. Even as they acknowledge their unconventional approach, they are able to quantify the significant academic gains children experience in these types of classrooms (think Maria Montessori or Reggio Emelia, but for older students). Very compelling.

There were a couple of keynote addresses. The best of the three was Asenath Andrew's talk about her experiences at the Catherine Fergeson Academy in Detriot was both illuminating and entertaining. Some of the most tweetable lines of the conference were pronounced in her speech. 

"Everything kids love and everything they do is marketed to them. Except education." Asenath Andrews  #SXSWEdu [twitter]


"We were trying to fit the kids to the school instead of fitting the school to the kids." Asenath Andrews  #SXSWEdu [twitter]


"You don't need shoes, you need wings." Asenath Andrews  #SXSWEdu [twitter]

The final keynote of the conference was presented by Bill Gates. He proved what Edward Tufte said. "Power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely." 

Finally, I want to name a few key edTech entrepreneurs who we spent time with over the week. It was great to see alums Jen Medbery (Kickboard) and Robbie Earle (Common Curriculum) and spend time with them learning about plans for developing their applications. I also enjoyed meeting Robbie's partner, Scott Messinger, who was enthusiastic about their new application design. I also spent some time chatting with Daniel Yoo of Goalbook, an app that's designed to help Special Education teachers track their students's IEP goals and achievement. The time spent talking, philosophizing, and mingling in a crowd that was focused on the challenges of education (and how best to bring technology to bear on designing solutions for those challenges) was as valuable as the time spent in sessions at the confererence. 

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