SXSWEdu 2015: The Boy Who Beeps - Who Can Speak The Language Of EdTech?

Source: SXSWEdu

Now in its fifth year, the 2015 SXSWEdu rally in the Texas midland is more inclusive than ever. The panelpicker judges eschewed trendy topics like flipped learning and Big Data in favor of deeper discussions about Social Emotional Learning and Gamification. Major themes that ran through the first day included programming in schools, authentic PBL, and contemporary professional development.

A major highlight of the day was hearing about the impressive Coded Curriculum implemented by Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The school has embraced a "launch / test / refine" approach to incorporate coding into every academic discipline. The faculty actively seeks to "make excellent mistakes" as they teach children the "New Basics" of open-ended problem solving, non-linear thinking, and collaboration.

Source: Sunni Brown

Another centerpiece of the sessions was Sunni Brown's mesmerizing workshop about "how to stay curious." A guru of visual thinking and a doctor of doodling, Brown reminded the crowd that visual language is a river native to cultures across the world that instills a powerful cognitive awareness.  

The spirit of sharing was genuine today at SXSWEdu. Every attendee was universally open and eager to connect. Yet a question kept trickling through the meandering hallways like the incessant drip of Austin’s rain: How many actual classroom teachers were present at the conference? When Brown asked how many classroom educators were in the room, fewer than ten percent among the hundreds raised their hands.

Source: ASIDE 2015
Throughout the day, we met: an online charter school principal, a start-up edupreneur, an NAACP coordinator, a not-for-profit founder, an NEA staffer, a Museum and Library Services researcher, a corporate communications director, a Learning Sciences professor, a former math instructor in Ethiopia, and a doctoral candidate who moonlights at Khan Academy. We met other interesting people, too, but we did not meet one classroom teacher.

We know they were there. But they seemed few and far between. Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe it signals that SXSWEdu is not for everyday teachers. Maybe the passionate attendees perceive a sea change in education that is more galvanizing than "regular" teachers can see. Or maybe not.

Either way, it speaks to a road diverging in a not-yet-understood wood. If start-ups and online outlets are careening onto their own edtech on-ramp, what happens to the students and teachers driving in the HOV lane? 

For example, after participating in one session about a full-scale coding curriculum pushed across all disciplines, we attended a completely different panel about whether edtech really offers any solution at all. It feels strange that this question is still being asked: Is edtech a panacea or a distraction?

Source: General Electric

The nuanced nature of this tacit tech tug-of-war reminded us of a General Electric ad from September 2014 called "The Boy Who Beeps." The touching ad follows the birth of a baby who can speak the language of technology. The commercial intends to tout GE's omnipresence in electronics, but to us it highlighted the children today who are always plugged in, always wired. 

Kids are born who can seemingly speak to machines, communicate with the digital world, control their own access to e-learning. What happens, though, when their days become disconnected? Can they muster the skills to navigate a tangible, interpersonal world? Or better yet, can they make things, create their own machines? Are they controlled by the very machines they rely on? And what about children who don’t have machines?

Source: General Electric

In the edtech learning space, are there start-ups who talk only to machines – and not to educators? And what about the teachers who cannot (or will not) talk to machines, who can’t negotiate the apps and iPads filling their classes?

By the end of today, we were encouraged. We decided that educators are indeed emerging as a potent force in the digital economy. American Federation Of Teachers President Randi Weingarten noted a change since last year's SXSWEdu. She now hears tech companies asking, “How can we get teachers involved in the process?” She emphasized that with the onslaught of shiny edtech tools, the best advice is to know how to teach first, and to learn to use technology second. Brown echoed the same, saying that digital tools are great, but they're not worth much if we can't use them. The learning is the key.