Live From SXSWedu: Arne Duncan Delivers Closing Keynote

There were some rumblings around the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas, a brand synonymous with everything hip and cutting-edge, that the conference’s keynote speakers were a bit too establishment. Marjorie Scardino, Pearson’s CEO gave Wednesday’s keynote as Occupy Austin protestors gathered outside. Today, the top U.S. education official, Arne Duncan, spoke to the crowd and took questions. (Earlier in the day, Occupy Austin interrupted his speech at Austin Community College.)

The teacher-heavy audience gave Duncan a standing ovation after impassioned promises to fight Washington politicians for more affordable higher education, better teacher compensation, and an education framework that drives global competitiveness (hint: get rid of No Child Left Behind, don’t be afraid of other countries).

I won’t rehash much of the speech but wanted to point to an interesting thread that stood out, around technology (a focus of his speech and of the conference), the public nature of education and the SXSWedu program.

Duncan started by praising the size ($650 billion) of K-12 the education industry as well as its decentralized nature. Localities that have been past Education Week subjects, like Mooresville, N.C.; Joplin, Missouri; Idaho; and Utah were praised for positive results with one-to-one iPad programs, open education and laptops.

He then cautioned districts to not let bureaucracy get in the way of those aforementioned technology programs, while moments later calling on the crowd to “deprivatize public education.”

This could be viewed as a mixed message: don’t let government bureaucracy get in the way of quality education, but don’t let the private sector take over either. But it’s more an indication that the ever-changing technology landscape in education, with its myriad players, enterprises and products, is complicated. It’s not clear whether the public or private sector has too much control or what the right amount of control actually is.

Because of its focus on technology, SXSWedu fully addressed the amount of control that teachers or technology should have in the classroom. Attendees agreed that technology belongs in the classroom alongside teachers. As did Duncan.

“There’s this silly debate over whether we need computers or teachers. We need both,” he said. “We have too many either/or debates in education.”

But there were far fewer answers, and far fewer questions, at SXSWedu about the balance of private and public interests in education. Zero panels addressed virtual schools or for-profit education and few addressed charters, all subjects that relate to technology, innovation and the role of the teacher. Given the vibrancy of most discussions here, it is a complicated subject I hoped would be tackled.

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