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SXSWedu 2017: The Fall of the House of Digital?

Company Updates, Education

Jaded by “digital textbooks” and tech for tech’s sake, educators at this year’s SXSWEdu turned their focus to the learner experience. Strategist Kate Machtiger got the scoop on how education leaders are adapting to an increasingly disjointed education system.

Here are the five undercurrents she heard during our week at SXSWEdu.

  • Educators take ownership of innovation. In a climate of cuts, educators are digging in as the chief changemakers in their schools. Rather than waiting on the results of the next longitudinal study, teachers are looking for real tactics to implement today. They’re introducing virtual and augmented reality into classrooms, starting hackathons and coding clubs, using open educational resources (OER), and building makerspaces. Our panel, “So You Want to Create a Makerspace?”, drew a heavily educator audience looking for tactical advice on everything from equipment and supplies to community outreach.
  • Digitization is not a cure-all. The fact that something is now “digital” doesn’t make it better. Sessions like “App Overkill” and “EdTech is the Question, Not the Answer” highlighted drawbacks of focusing on tech for tech’s sake. Rather than offering technology as the solution, educators and developers are being asked to focus on real learner needs. A tablet is a tool; so is a chalkboard. It’s all in how you use it.
  • Learning environments are more than just window dressing. At the Learn by Design competition, presenter Gloria Lee of Swift Lee Architects said “the environment is our third teacher.” And informal conversations we heard at meetups were as much about the arrangement of the desks as the newest app. This explains why online experiences like massive open online courses (MOOCs) do not always live up to the hype— learning isn’t just about the content, it’s also interpersonal and physical.
  • Design small, scale iteratively. Many startups and educators noted that running a large research study to prove that a solution works for the masses can take too long. The fix? Start with small experiments and scale adaptively to broader groups. Take Vidcode, featured at the Playground and on the panel “Coding as Activism for Teens.” They tested how teen girls best learned to code, then took their product to classrooms of both genders and wider age groups, while constantly updating their product with their expanding audience.
  • Adult education gets its groove (back?). Post-secondary vocational education is back, but this time it’s not playing second fiddle. Instead of an “alternative pathway”, speakers emphasized how retraining and reskilling will be a constant cycle for our foreseeable future. Since learner journeys will be evolving and disjointed, systems may have to change dramatically to be more adaptable. From alternative credentialing to the 21st century “fluid” campus, presenters offered ways to build more flexible pathways.

Educators and administrators are continually looking to grassroots experiments to find solutions they can repurpose and scale. How large organizations will step up to support these new ways of learning is still unfolding.

For more SXSW recaps from year to year, check out our Slideshares.