SXSWedu – The Leader Continues to Lead: My Impressions

I look forward to SXSWedu all year – unfortunately this year, I had to cut my time in Austin short and could spend only two days there. Regardless of how much time one spends at SXSWedu, or what one does there, it’s impossible to come away without strong observations and key learnings. Here are my impressions:


The World came to SXSWedu; it’s a global platform. There were presenters, exhibitors, sponsors, and attendees from around the world. From Israel’s MindCET to Ireland’s ALISON, to Parthenon-EY in India, global EdTech was well represented. While the US education world pays scant attention to its global education counterpart, those walls are slowly coming down and the domestic dialogue is being joined by global voices.


Speaking of “global,” did you notice that WISE sponsored SXSWedu? More Americans should know about WISE – an amazing program that draws a truly global audience and is, in my view, the leading education effort worldwide. (Full disclosure: WISE is my favorite Ed event; SXSWedu is #2.) The speakers from WISE delivered a valuable perspective on education from outside the insular US market. Follow @WISE_Tweets; you’ll learn something. Better yet, come to Doha for the 2016 Wise Summit later this year.


Real teachers were there. At every turn, real live teachers could be found exploring the Playground, learning from panels, networking with the industry and each other, and challenging some of what many of us think we know about education and learning. I hope more teachers continue to come – we need them.


Real students were there, but not many of them. Last year, the lack of students was conspicuous. This year, thanks to Cengage Learning and others, we were given a glimpse of the views of some higher ed students (Facebook – no; Instagram – yes). StudentVoice continues to represent the under-heard voices of the most important stakeholder in all this. We should engage student journalists like Elana Golub, who reach students directly and still, at many schools, publish broadsheet printed newspapers. Ironically, the campus might be the last bastion of print journalism.


At SXSWedu politics are local this year: politicians and policy makers were not the national players that past year’s have seen. Austin’s Mayor Steve Adler was there; NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio was “represented.” Former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty gave a spirited presentation on failing schools. Let’s hope those with the greatest impact on education policy don’t forget about the peerless audience and platform that SXSWedu delivers.


The elephant in the room – where’s the money? At a standing-room only session Monday, speakers from four K-12 districts shed light on the reality of edtech funding. They also stressed the importance of partnering with a district to show results and timing pilots appropriately. One Supe explained that his district’s education budget can only increase by 2%. With inflation, healthcare costs, and other financial pressures increasing by more than 2%, however, the dollars available for classroom edtech innovations are decreasing. (You read that right.) One key take-away for EdTech companies: don’t just focus on selling to the largest districts. As Scott Kavanaugh reported, 70% of the nation’s districts have fewer than 2,500 students.


Focus on Funding. The dollars spent on education are huge, but the pressures are many and the hurdles high. SXSWedu can take the lead on bridging the culture clash between education and technology by educating start-ups on the financial realities our districts face, as well as helping schools/districts better understand the VC-driven financial demands that compel some companies to push district partners too hard or at the wrong time. Let’s admit it: the education funding model is broken. Sadly, a 30 minute funding realities panel barely scratches the surface of the issue. In 2017, I hope the Big Story on funding takes prominence. We’re all in this together; we should walk in each other’s shoes and work together to innovate new models.


McGraw-Hill Education has successfully leveraged SXSWedu to reinvent the industry’s perception of the company. It was impossible to miss the red-box logo that peppered signs, badge lanyards, etc. The MHE lounge is known as a reliably calm respite (complete with snacks). The newly-issued report on the benefits of digital learning in higher ed is but one example of MHE’s commitment to innovation and smart messaging. With digital sales surpassing print, it’s clear that MHE embraced its “education is changing. So are we” mantra. As CEO David Levin said: the science of learning helps the art of teaching. Brilliant messaging. Showcasing its newness at every turn, this is one legacy publishers that has successfully pivoted to digital innovator.


Critical Thinking continues to be a key area of focus. While Gallup Education’s Brandon Busteed, and others, question the uniformity of defining “critical thinking,” I think Boston-based education organization Facing History and Ourselves’ Roger Brooks has the best working definition that the industry should embrace: Very concretely, the process of critical thinking is this: One faces a problem, a complex set of information and related facts; one studies it at length, reads everything about it, and finally, one begins to abstract principles that can be used to understand this first set of data. That analysis is important, but not sufficient. True critical thinking emerges when one is confronted with an altogether new problem and set of data, and one has the ability to apply those abstract principles to understand the new setting.


SXSWedu continues to be true to its authentic self. Yes, the corporate sponsors are plentiful and help set the agenda. Yes, the crowds are larger. Yes, it has become “education’s big event” (at least in the US) – but SXSWedu continues to disrupt and energize the industry with provocative speakers/panels, topics that are ahead-of-the-curve, a strong community role through crowdsourcing selected panels, etc. It has steadfastly resisted the temptation to morph into the vanilla world of sameness that too often is education’s default. and refused to become part of the education echo chamber that focuses on problems, rather than solutions.


These past two days were engaging and exciting, and reminded me why we do what we do. I’m already looking forward to SXSWedu 2017 – see you there!


Josef Blumenfeld (@JosefBlumenfeld) is the founder of EdTech180, a PR agency delivering a new direction in communication for the EdTech industry.


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