by Terry Morawski
Two things were on the minds of the K-12 educators in attendance at the second annual SXSWedu Conference in Austin, March 6-8: digital textbooks and Online Education Resource (OER) Management. Much of the conference programming was the result of the U.S. Department of Education’s recent challenge for schools to transition to digital learning materials. Unless they have been living under a Texas-size rock, most public school administrators are aware that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan placed the challenge in February for schools to transition to digital textbooks by 2017.
Duncan, a featured speaker at SXSWedu, praised teachers and education innovators for their investment in classroom technology, but he also expressed his frustration with Congress’ inability to support major revisions to No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
“What we don’t do in education is scale what works,” said Duncan. “That’s the excitement of this kind of gathering ― the excitement of getting together the entrepreneurs and those doing the hard work every day.” (The full text of Duncan’s speech can be read here: http://1.usa.gov/xeTSqo.)
SXSWedu, which seeks to converge stakeholders who share an interest in 21st century learning and best practices, experienced impressive growth in its second year. Initial registrations doubled to more than 1,600 attendees. SXSWedu also expanded its focus beyond K-12 education to include higher education, and corporate entities that produce education-related products and services. Organizer Greg Rosenbaum says he hopes to continue an “elevated discussion” of education with future SXSWedu conferences. Rosenbaum and fellow planner Ron Reed also want to attract more international speakers and attendees to future conferences to bring global perspectives to the conversation.
Paid content versus open content was a hot topic at SXSWedu. As more and more free learning materials become available through web-based networks and resources, paid content providers are facing new challenges in the marketplace. Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson, the publishing group behind the Financial Times newspaper and Penguin books, was a guest speaker at SXSWedu, and her comments weighed heavily in the “paid versus open” discussion. When asked about Pearson’s future in the education publishing, Scardino said: “The bulk of our business is no longer selling content, but selling services and content curation. Some content is a commodity, and some is unique.”
Inspired by Duncan’s 2017 challenge, SXSWedu guest speakers Karen Cator and Richard Culatta of the U.S. Department of Education emphasized that they wanted to provide valuable services to educators — not just another teacher portal on the Internet that lists too many resources to process. They acknowledged that already the influx of teaching apps and resources available online to educators has the potential to cause a so-called “technology brain freeze” among educators and administrators. Cator and Culatta said that the mission of our nation’s public schools hasn’t changed significantly; it’s the means by which we communicate, share and disseminate information that is changing at lightning speed.
“Now is the time for an ‘all hands on deck’ strategy to integrate technology,” said Cator. “Digital textbook is code for a much more robust learning environment.”
Cator went on to say that the digital textbook transition isn’t as simple as digitizing the same-old classroom materials. It’s a movement toward a richer experience for students. She looks forward to textbooks of the near future, which will include video content to complement written lessons. New digital textbooks also will provide opportunities for web-based interaction among students in different classrooms and across the globe.
Also speaking at the conference was Russell Quaglia, president and founder of Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, a nonprofit organization that promotes and puts into practice the conditions that foster student aspirations in schools and learning communities around the world. Quaglia spoke on the final day of SXSWedu, sharing his observations after having studied education trends across the globe for more than 20 years.
“It doesn’t matter if you survey students in Chicago, St. Petersburg or Budapest, kids have the same issues,” said Quaglia. “Kids tend to stop learning when challenges are far above or below their skills. We need to avoid flat-lining students and teachers. We need more challenges.”
Quaglia said there is an urgency when it comes to school reform because it happens in “real time.” Oftentimes, students who on the verge of going “off track” get lost while committees are still forming and policies are being written. He shared an example of a school he visited where he was told that administrators were taking a year to work on their school reform plan.
“One year!” he said, throwing his arms up in frustration. “We are going to lose a ton of kids in a year.”
As an example of a better solution, Quaglia cited an academy system of schools in the United Kingdom that eliminated much of the middle management that exists in school districts. “If you didn’t pick it up, I’m not the organizational structure type,” he said.
Reading Rainbow star and education cheerleader LeVar Burton gave a SXSWedu keynote address. His passionate speech — which often referenced his mother, an English teacher — elicited applause from the crowd. Burton reminded the audience what the point of their efforts was all about.
“In pursuit of something larger than ourselves, we should come hard to the table,” he said.
New to SXSWedu this year was LaunchEdu, a contest for education technology startup companies. The contest involved entrepreneurs pitching their ideas to a panel in front of a live audience. The contestants were divided according to whether their ideas were geared toward K-12 or higher education. Final winners were Bloomboard (bloomboard.com) in the K-12 category and LearningJar (learningjar.com) in the higher education category. Winners won a paid trip to San Francisco to meet with venture firms, as well as a business development and press relations consultation. Conference organizers say they hope to expand and grow LaunchEdu in future years.
Julianne Coyne, a grant program specialist from Austin ISD, said she enjoyed SXSWedu’s diversity of speakers. She said Craig Watkins’ presentation, in particular, helped her see the positive impact that social media can have in a classroom. Watkins is a professor at The University of Texas who studies youth digital media culture. (Read about Watkins’ presentation here.) Coyne said she attended Watkins’ session to learn ways to expand her after-school grant program. In addition, she was excited about seeing SXSW rock star Jane McGonigal’s speech about video games for social good. Coyne was not alone, as McGonigal spoke to a packed room. (Read about McGonigal’s presentation here.)
Attendee Paul Hicks of New Media Consortium said he loved the sharing of ideas at SXSWedu, but he heard too much complaining related to policy, budgets and corporate involvement in education.
“This year was about people agreeing there is a problem with education,” he said. “I’m looking forward to next year. We need more discussions about how to make change.”
For anyone thinking about attending the 2013 SXSWedu Conference,on March 4-7 in Austin, be sure to bring an open mind. And go ahead and spring for the venti coffee before entering a session; you won’t want to miss the next big thing in education.
TERRY MORAWSKI writes a monthly technology column for Texas School Business. He also blogs about education at levelupedu.org and works as the assistant superintendent of communications and marketing at Mansfield ISD. Follow him on Twitter, @terrymorawski , or send an email to email@example.com.