The Future of Education: A Few Takeaways from SXSW EDU 2018

I just spent four days at the seventh annual SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas. The conference precedes the famous interactive and music versions of the SXSW conference and isn’t widely publicized outside of the world of edtech. In fact, even here in Austin, most news stations skip right over the education part of the conference and focus on the other areas, instead. And that’s too bad because the EDU conference could be a place that sparks real change in the education community. 

The conference tends to attract a crowd that’s different from your typical teacher conference. About half the attendees are educators and administrators from both K-12 and higher ed institutes and the other half are edtech businesses and government/non-profit representatives. Interestingly, there’s a large international presence at SXSW EDU. In fact, during one keynote, I was sitting next to a government official from the Netherlands. He said they’d brought a group of 30 people to attend the conference and visit local schools.  

Besides some focus on edtech, there isn’t a unifying topic that brings presenters and attendees together other than to connect and communicate about the future of education. That said, each year the programming changes based on trends and disruptions in education. So every year that you attend the conference, you walk away with a different vision of where education might be headed. In fact, in 2015, I wrote this wrap up after the conference. My takeaways are different this time around.

What They Were Talking About at SXSW EDU 2018 

Soft Skills

A few years ago, social and emotional learning (SEL) was a big trend at SXSW EDU. This year that focus has broadened to encompass “soft skills” or 21st century skills. The most talked about skills were collaboration and creative problem solving. At a talk about preparing kids for jobs of the future, one panelist, a student of Da Vinci Schools in Los Angeles, Jacob Victorica, said, “There’s a lot of talk about collaboration, but it needs to go deeper than being a great leader and everybody pitching in. It’s about being a leader even when you know you’re not the best and also being willing to step down and let others lead, because you’re not always going to be the best.” This seemed like one of the most reasonable explanations for how the next generation may disrupt traditional hierarchies in careers of the future. And speaking of which...

Preparing Kids for Jobs of the Future

This was a focus highlighted in at least 15 different panels and talks at the conference. There was very little consensus about what those jobs will be, except that there will be computer programming involved. Liz Wamai of Facebook agreed, saying that they were always looking for people with computer science, coding, and programming skills. Other presenters suggested the focus stay on soft skills because other skills can be learned on the job. Some audience members in these sessions wondered about trade jobs, how to balance teaching employability skills with the required academic content, and what to do about teaching coding when you’re not skilled it in. Which leads to. . .

Kids as Creators

One exciting trend was to see more emphasis on experiential learning and letting students take control of their own learning. Many educators are frustrated and feeling burnt out by all of the subjects they’re both required to teach and would like to teach to enrich their students. Computer science is just one of those areas. Letting people experiment with what technology can do is the best way to spark an interest that may one day lead to a career of the future. One of the best products I saw that did this was actually for our youngest learners. The KUBO robot is designed for students in K-2 as a screenless coding solution. I’ve seen card games and books that help little ones code, but this robot takes the process to a new level because there is immediate feedback based on the code. The robot either does what you programmed using little tiles or it doesn’t, which gives kids a fun way to learn and fix by trial and error. There are support videos and curriculum for teachers, but you don’t have to be a computer programmer to figure this one out. Products and services like KUBO that give access and awareness to complex ideas that were usually reserved for certain types of students and learners leads me to one final trend. . .   (Image courtesy of Kubo)

Equity and Access

Recognizing that there are great disparities in the educational experience of students across the country is not news. But this year at SXSW EDU, more than ever before, we heard about companies, organizations, and institutions that are specifically looking to educate, train, and recruit traditionally underserved communities. Tuesday’s keynote was given by the President of Paul Quinn College, Michael Sorrell. He talked about the high-needs population of his college, where 80-90% of the students are Pell Grant Eligible. And that charging them college fees that require them go into debt is the exact opposite of helping end the cycle of poverty. Instead, the school became an urban work college, requiring students to work either on campus or with off-campus partners. With a restructured tuition, Pell Grant and other grant eligibility, and the work stipend, Paul Quinn grads can leave school with less than $10,000 in loans total. The Mastery Collaborative in New York City is working to make competency-based education more culturally responsive. The Year Up program recruits young adults between ages 18-24 who are low to medium income and who have earned a high school diploma or equivalent, but not a bachelor’s. For six months, students take classes in tech, finance, and communications, as well as soft skills that earn them college credit. They are then placed in six-month internships with business partners such as J.P. Morgan Chase, eBay, and Boston Children’s Hospital. After the year, 90% of graduates of the program are employed full time or enroll in postsecondary education within four months. This type of work has been going on for a long time, but we’re finally seeing it highlight at SXSW EDU.

This is not a conference that will give you skills to implement in your classroom the next day. Instead, SXSW EDU is a conference about dreams, visions, and what could be in education. Teachers who come to the conference see that schooling and education can be different. It can be more student-focused because there are schools out there that are doing it. There will always be district and state mandates to comply with, but SXSW EDU gives us a peek into the seemingly bright future of education.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12.