Tech-Supported Learning is Focus of SXSWedu Conference

Associate Editor


Is the term “ed tech” a dinosaur?

While it defines a delivery system for education, it also has become fraught with nuances of meaning—advancing learning, making money, requiring devices, stretching budgets, and challenging the traditional teaching model.

Click to see more SXSWedu coverage.At the South by Southwest education conference, where educators, developers, entrepreneurs, researchers, and students met this week, technology took center stage. Yet some panelists argued it should not receive the spotlight in schools— that position should be reserved for teachers—although clearly they would like to see more of it in these institutions of learning.

In a session called “When Does ‘EdTech’ Just Become ‘Education,'” Google’s “education evangelist” Jaime Casap recalled hearing superintendents at a conference several years ago showing an interest in virtual learning.

“I said, ‘What the hell is virtual learning? You’re either learning or you’re not learning,'” he said.

The important thing is to “take technology and innovate, looking at education in a completely different way,” Casap said. “My fear is if we don’t … all we’re doing is taking bad education and making it faster and more efficient.”

From an industry standpoint, the change in focus has already happened. “We work with what we used to call ‘ed-tech companies,'” said Karen Billings, vice president of the education division of The Software & Information Industry Association. “Over a year ago, we made the decision to rename our conferences and a lot of events.” The SIIA Ed Tech Business Forum became the SIIA Education Forum, and an industry summit also was renamed.

“Most of these companies are focused on providing technology tools,” she said, “but it’s not about the technology. It’s about the process of learning.”

Districts buying into the conversation

A few years ago, district leaders wanted to know the educational and economic benefits of making a digital transition, according to Bill Goodwyn, president and CEO of Discovery Education, in another panel on public-private partnerships. “Today they’re not asking why. They’re asking, ‘How do I get there?'” he said.  “A lot of districts want to frame this as a technology issue. It’s not a technology issue. It’s a learning issue.”

Gregory Firn, deputy superintendent of academics at the 26,000-student Grand Prairie ISD in Grand Prairie, Texas, said the key to innovation moving forward begins with instruction. “You start with ‘Yes.’ You don’t start with, ‘How do we pay for this?’ or ‘What device do we use?’ The landscape is replete with the carnage of failed deployments,” he said.

Firn learned some of these lessons as he led a successful digital conversion in rural Anson County, N.C., when he was superintendent there. It’s critical to start with professional development for teachers, he said. In Grand Prairie, the district has provided more than 60 hours in customized instruction with teachers, for teachers, throughout the year.

David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corp., said private companies like his—which this week announced it would extend its “Internet Essentials” program to offer broadband to needy families—help increase adoption by educating teachers, administrators, and school board members “about what the pace of technology is all about. A focus on the content is almost indisputably more important than a focus on the device,” he said.

The business of infusing technology in education

Goodwyn said the only benefit of the budget crisis schools found themselves in over recent years is that it “gave districts the power” to stop spending money on things that don’t work. He referred to the example of Superintendent Mark Edwards in Mooresville, N.C., where there are now no textbooks, in a digital conversion that has delivered impressive academic outcomes with students scoring among the top in the state, despite per-pupil spending among the lowest.

Reflecting on companies entering education with technology solutions, Goodwyn predicted that those whose main purpose is to make money will ultimately fail. Those who are in education to improve student outcomes stand a chance of succeeding, he indicated.

Actor gets last word

The last word on how technology should play in education came from Jeffrey Tambor, the actor who played George Bluth in “Arrested Development,” and an acting teacher himself. Tambor gave the closing keynote, which incorporated lessons for teachers, performance, reminiscences and, of course, comedy.

In response to a teacher’s question about whether technology should be embraced in the classroom, Tambor read an email he had just received from his son’s teacher, who had discovered a challenge Tambor’s son had with writing. They would use an app on an iPad to improve his son’s fluency.

“The revolution is here,” Tambor said. “Take advantage. It’s for us. Not against us. We just need to be intuitive. Use the technology that is available to us.”

Check out our Digital Education blog, and this blog, for more stories from SXSWedu.


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