Edu's Ron Reed: 'Moving the Needle'

SXSWedu Executive Producer Ron Reed (r), with Levar Burton at the 2012 conference
SXSWedu Executive Producer Ron Reed (r), with Levar Burton at the 2012 conference (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

"I'm pretty fond of calling myself a community organizer, rather than an event planner," said SXSWedu conference Executive Producer Ron Reed. But who is the SXSWedu community? In January, Reed's staff performed a pre-conference survey of registrants. Of the respondents, around 60% were female; 66% were under the age of 44; and 70% have graduate degrees. As for employment, a third work in K-12 education, another third come from higher education, a quarter from the business community, and the rest from nonprofits and the government sector. (For what it's worth, they're generally also bigger fans of The Hunger Games than of Harry Potter.) Most encouragingly, 80% said they're optimistic about the future of education. Put that all together, and Reed described the "EDU community" as "young, educated, forward-leaning professionals."

Reed's big challenge is breaking down the silos between those various groups. For example, SXSWedu has always shown its roots as a spin-off from SXSW Interactive, with a heavy emphasis on educational technology. However, sometimes people get caught up in the cool factor of the tech, ignoring the needs and rigors of classroom end users. "We're really trying to integrate educators into that more," Reed says. For example, this year sees the return of the LAUNCHedu Startup Showcase for education entrepreneurs, but the judges will include a tech developer, a venture capitalist, and an educator. Similarly, Reed is rolling out the Problem Solver sessions: five-minute presentations on a particular issue facing classrooms, such as social media in the classroom or ESL students in higher ed, followed by an hour of brainstorming from the whole audience. "By having members of the community work as a mini think tank," he said, "we're moving the needle forward."

It's not all lectures and keynotes: Reed's overall goal involves "borrowing the festival element from the SXSW family." The popular Makerspace, inspired by the hands-on "learn by doing" Maker movement, has expanded and is rebranded as the "SXSWedu Playground." Reed said, "I don't think a year ago, two years ago, it was a very well understood movement in the education space. Now I think that people understand that this is how people learn, through personal engagement." This year also sees a dramatically expanded eduFILM strand, with 16 documentaries and a collection of high school shorts screening at the Alamo Ritz. Reed said, "It's an opportunity for people to excuse themselves from panels, have a sandwich at the Alamo, catch a movie, and see some of Austin."

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