Scenes, Insights From SXSWedu: Day One

Associate Editor

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Austin, Texas

On any given day of the SXSWedu conference, dozens of sessions, activiites, and conversations compete for attendees’ attention.

Here were a few notable moments from sessions held at the event on Monday, the opening day of the conference. 

Strategies for Professional Development in Ed-Tech

Adam Seldow, executive director of technology for the Chesterfield (Va.) county school district, said in one session that his district held a Camp Chromebook, as a professional development “unconference” where teachers could find out how to use a learning app in an unstructured, fun setting.
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While about 2,000 teachers needed to learn how to teach with Chromebooks, there was only room for 300 of them the first time this was offered. Like an in-demand concert, the available openings filled up within an hour.

Seldow said the outcome of this popular unconference approach was impressive. “The teachers went back to their schools empowered, engaged, and ready to lead,” he said.

Are Ed Tech Products Adequately Appealing?

Andrew Smith Lewis, executive chairman and founder of Cerego LLC, a Millbrae, Calif.-based adaptive learning technology platform, told attendees at one session that ed-tech companies often miss the importance of visual appeal in how they deliver their data to students and teachers.

Companies “don’t spend enough time making it look good,” an argument he said was supported by Gates Foundation research that showed students’ number one complaint about educational software is that it is not enjoyable.

“Our students spend time on Halo, then we give them Pong and expect them to be excited about it,” agreed Danny Meyer, executive director of Academica Virtual Education. 

Middle Schoolers Mine Minecraft for Educators

“Minecraft is a game of multiple things,” said Noah Wood, a 7th grader at Decker Middle School in the Manor Independent School District, in Austin, SXSWedu’s host city. He came to the show Monday to demonstrate what he knows about the game Minecraft as a tool for education. And he knows a lot.

“It’s a game of math, of science, of fun, of comprehension,” said Wood, as he sat at a large table and highlighted his favorite part of the game, which is using it for construction.

Wood and his classmate Aiden Blankenship sat ready to help any teachers who needed a little instruction in how to use the game in their classrooms.

Ed Tech As Empowerment 

Robert Dillon, director of technology and information for the Affton (Mo.) school district, said technology is a way to engage children. “We know 95 percent of kindergarteners are unbelievably engaged… and we know as 9th graders, it’s 37 percent,” he said.

As part of the digital transformation in his district, “we made sure kids went home with hotspots” for their Chromebooks, because the administration wanted to ensure that all students have access 100 percent of the time.

“That transforms what kids can do,” he said. “The beauty of [that] for me is that kids can choose what they will learn, how they will learn, and showcase their learning.”

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It’s Not All About Ed Tech

One of the exhibitors at the event’s “playground” was UpcyclingTextbooks.org, which encourages taking old college textbooks and turning them into something else—like origami, or “paper-crete,” a concrete-like substance, or a sculpture.

On its website, the UpcyclingTextbooks team calls itself “a movement determined to advance higher education beyond textbooks, with more affordable, more environmentally friendly and more personalized learning tools.”

Craig Joiner, the organization’s creative director, said taking old textbooks and turning them into other objects, expresses his passion for freeing the world of the expense and weight of these traditional college teaching tools, and open the way for more innovation.

Photos, from top:

  • Noah Wood, left, 12, and Aiden Blankenship, right, 13, tour the SXSWedu Playground at the Austin Convention Center Monday. Noah and Aiden, along with other classmates from Decker Middle School in Manor, Texas, came to the conference to do a demonstration on how Minecraft can be used for learning. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)
  • Dylan Drake works on upcycling textbooks at the SXSWedu conference in Austin on Monday. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

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