SXSWedu Recap: Depth and Breadth

By Scott Sterling

I just returned from SXSWedu in Austin. This was my first time attending and I could definitely see how this conference is different from an ever-increasing slate of other education gatherings.

The most notable aspect of the conference is its purpose. Instead of focusing in on one subtopic, like technology or ELL education, it seeks to present forward-thinking information on almost all aspects of the craft. It also assumes a certain level of knowledge for its attendees that other meetings do not. That being said, there were some definite trends I noticed both on the schedule and from talking to other attendees.

Career and technical education

There was quite a concern revolving around putting students into good, high-paying careers without them having to obtain a college degree. Many people see career and technical education centers, whether on a high school campus or as an individual center, as a way forward for these students.

There are the traditional CTE careers, usually having to do with a trade, but there was also discussion on ways to bring more STEM careers into that area of education. It does make sense; the word “technical” does appear in the title.

Tangentially, there was also discussion on ways to signify learning other than diplomas. Keynoter Jane McGonigal even presented a (fictional) website where students, companies, and colleges trade “edublocks” of educational attainment. In her view, education can become a commodity that has much more meaning than a sheet of paper.

ELL solutions

With the conference being held in Texas, it was natural that some significant sessions and panels would be held around the subject of ELL education. Sessions focused on best practices (and assumed that attendees had more than a layman’s understanding of the topic), presenting some new research and ways to apply it to classroom practice. Panels often talked about a lack of materials, particularly apps and software, designed to address ELL education, even though ELL students are the fastest-growing subgroup of students in the country. Whether that gap can be bridged—or a killer app developed—could be the difference in these students attaining a broad level of success.

Makerspaces and coding

Not surprisingly, a big topic going around was the role makerspaces and coding can play in this STEM world. But because SXSWedu is a little more forward-thinking than other gatherings, the discussion revolved on implementing these ideas for maximum effect, particularly among minorities and girls, rather than simply introducing the concepts. It was as if students working hands-on on projects and learning how to code is a foregone conclusion that is widely accepted to be necessary. That may be the case, but there are plenty of educators and schools out there that still need to catch up.

Varying exceptionalities

The opening keynoter was Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of livestock studies and noted autistic. Her message, other than discussion of cows and designing slaughter apparatuses, was one of inclusion for students with varying exceptionalities—including those on the autism spectrum. That was a theme that appeared quite a bit in the program. In 21st century education, all students should be treated as if they are different, because they are. How that differentiation happens is still being investigated.

A big thanks to the SXSWedu staff for providing me some access that I wouldn’t have normally received and the opportunity to talk to leaders in the field. It is truly a conference that offers something for everyone, no matter your interest in education.