SXSWedu Spreads Its Wings

Time to hit the books on broader education topics

SXSWedu Spreads Its Wings

Music, film, digital media ... and standardized testing? SXSWedu may still seem like the odd kid out in the South by Southwest portfolio but, as it enters its second year, Executive Director Ron Reed argues that it all works toward the same end. The main Festival celebrates the creative instincts of musicians, filmmakers, and digital innovators; he said, "If we can do that for education, that's something we'll be really proud of."

While it shares the SXSW brand with the upcoming multimedia event, the education conference is closest to the envirocentric SXSWeco: Both concentrate on one topic, rather than handling an entire medium. Last year, there was a narrow focus on early childhood development and pre-high school education, with a heavy emphasis on Texas speakers and Texas issues. Coming into 2012, "it was always our intent to broaden that conversation," Reed said. "We're building a convergence event that welcomes a variety of stakeholders to talk about critical topics."

This year, the keynote speaker list is decidedly national, featuring major figures like Marjorie Scardino, the CEO of education publishing giant Pearson, and actor/education activist LeVar Burton, and international registration is up. Reed admitted being a little surprised by how quickly this newest component of SXSW expanded, but he called it "a reminder of the power of brand. ... When you've got Bruce Springsteen keynoting the Music event, it's on folks' radar screen." But Reed said his aim is not to wipe the local component away, but to add it to the larger discussion. He said, "Austin has its own set of issues, but they're not irrelevant to the conversations about how Detroit or Miami or London or Madrid address those issues as well."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

There will also be a determined effort to include educators and education advocates already booked elsewhere. The opening session will include a joint teleconference with two other major education conferences – the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education Conference, also in Austin, and the Consortium for School Net­working Technology Leadership Confer­ence in Washington, D.C. Reed called them "good examples of conferences with a very specific focus. With SITE, they're largely international educators who are building out free service programs for teachers. At CoSN, they're largely school technologists. They certainly should have a voice and participate in this conversation we're trying to cultivate at Edu."

Ken Kay, CEO of Arizona-based think tank EdLeader21, will be handling the SXSWedu end of the discussion. He described his goal as reminding "the tech crowd that, ultimately, this has to be bigger than the technology, or we won't get where we want to go." This is not just about the digital divide, but about how computers are being integrated into the classroom. Kay's fear is that IT-driven education innovations like computer-based direct instruction are replacing critical thinking with repetition and memorization. "If we're just using technology to reinforce drill and kill," he said, "then we've just taken the Fifties' academic model and put it on steroids."

Some SXSWedu attendees, like distinguished speaker and Creative Commons CEO Catherine Casserly, would be equally at home on SXSW Interactive's talent roster. Reed praised the education component at the tech strand – in fact, his conference sprang out of some Interactive sessions he helped plan in 2009 and 2010 – but called it "modest in comparison to the program we're doing." He ascribed some of that to a difference in emphasis, noting that "education is centrally focused on innovations in learning, distinct from interactive technologies used in the field." However, the hope is for some real crossover. "Education is sorely in need of the new media talents who go to Interactive," he said. "They know about capturing an audience and holding their attention, and if there's one most fundamental challenge in education, it's how you engage learners."

Yet even if some of the guests would overlap with Interactive, the inevitable political component of SXSWedu makes it a very different environment. Reed referred to some of the speakers, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, KIPP Academy founder Mike Feinberg, and Teach for America Chief Knowledge Officer Steven Farr, as "rock stars." Yet many of those same figures are deeply controversial with some public school advocates. Reed said he hoped the conference can provide a neutral ground to inspire collaboration. "Despite all the difference in perspective one might have, there is a common shared interest in helping people to learn."

SXSWedu runs Tuesday-Thursday, March 6-8, at the Hilton Austin Downtown.

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SXSWedu, SXSW, Ron Reed, Arne Duncan, LeVar Burton, Pearson

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