Porter Novelli

While the term March Madness often conjures up basketball images, in Austin, TX it heralds the arrival of the South by Southwest conferences.

SXSWedu is the first to lead the conference charge and now in its fourth year has emerged as a preeminent destination for learning and a catalyst for change in education. More than just serving as the setting for pedagogical and ideological debates, SXSWedu seeks to move beyond mere discussions to instead drive meaningful change and outcomes.

Like its fellow SXSW conferences (music, film and digital), SXSWedu seeks to uncover all that is creative and innovative in education. It celebrates educators and entrepreneurs as rock stars. As the programming is crowdsourced, the conference ultimately functions as a large community conversation about learning.

Who are the people that make up the SXSWedu community?

  • They are young: 64% of attendees are between the ages of 25 and 44.
  • They are well-educated:  A full 70% of attendees hold a graduate degree.
  • They are technologically advanced: 69% consider themselves early adopters.
  • They are hopeful: 78% feel optimistic about the future of education.

Among the more than 250 sessions that took place at this year’s SXSWedu, here’s a quick snapshot of the themes, the topics and the news that drove the lion’s share of the buzz at this year’s conference.

What is the true impact of edtech on education?


One of SXSWedu’s hallmarks has been its ability to build a community not only of educators, but also business and entrepreneurs, activists, policy makers, parents and students. Proponents and vendors of educational technology have always had a large presence at SXSWedu, and in 2014, app developers were especially prominent. This year in particular, a robust – and sometimes tense – discussion took place about whether educational technology serves its creators and the educational marketplace more than it serves students.  Keynoters Vivienne and Norma Ming challenged their audience to make technology less intrusive and to truly elevate the classroom experience; activist Diane Ravitch gave a provocative speech in which she argued the growth of education “reform” and the education industry in general – including ed tech – hurts kids more than it helps. On the flip side of the discussion, organizations including Amplify and the Pearson Foundation were among many who introduced new digital technologies and tools they say will transform learning and increase collaboration in learning environments. And a multitude of presenters, including gaming pioneer Nolan Bushnell, spoke on how game play and gaming technologies engage learners in new and exciting ways. The challenge going forward will be how to strike the right balance with technology so that it becomes transparent, serves to facilitate active learning, and furthers education.

Big data in education evolves.


In the recent past, much of the discussion around the use of big data in education has centered on privacy concerns. And while that conversation continues, it has also expanded. A number of SXSWedu sessions explored the practical applications of big data in education, and how organizers can distill, use and present data to stakeholders. CoSN CEO Keith Krueger talked about never losing sight of the goal to use educational data to personalize learning and impact student achievement, while Howard County (MD) School Superintendent Renee Foose discussed the need to build a data-driven culture.

Call for educational equality.  


Gaps in student achievement – when comparing students of different socio-economic, gender or minority backgrounds – are collectively acknowledged by SXSWedu attendees, who share a common desire to close those gaps and create an environment of educational equality. Many of the 2014 sessions focused on how to create equitable environments for all students. Keynoter Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education, urged policymakers and practitioners to work more collaboratively to ensure that policy is ultimately effective and adds value. In at least three other sessions, community leaders from Baltimore, MD, Denton, TX and Austin, TX  talked about the power of community schools initiatives to help address the needs of at-risk students and to strengthen public schools and communities. Other presenters discussed solutions to create academic success for at-risk populations such as black males and incarcerated juveniles. In related content, more speakers talked about how to bridge the digital divide, increasing students’ access to technology and by doing so, helping to improve educational equity.

Students speak up: Listen to us.


Some of the most persuasive voices at SXSWedu 2014 were those of the students themselves. From 17-year old featured speaker Jack Andraka, who at age 15 invented an inexpensive test for the early and rapid detection of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer, to Dripping Springs, TX high school freshman Katelynne Marsan, who showed off her prize-winning science fair project on the “Effects of Biased Verbal Instructions on Student Performance and Motivation”, the participating students at SXSWedu all clamored for a voice in their own education. They encouraged fellow students to explore their passions, pursue independent study, and not to be deterred by “stifling” classroom environments. And more importantly, they pleaded with teachers and researchers to foster, nurture and enable those students’ passions as well. Meanwhile, the for-students-by-students non-profit organization, Student Voice, led a problem-solving session to strengthen the role of student voices in education, which they say in turn will lead to improved student achievement and workforce readiness.

More programming highlights and insights from SXSWedu 2014 will be released on the coming days and weeks. To learn more about this year’s conference, check back here.

SXSWedu Executive Producer Ron Reed addresses attendees during the 2014 opening session