SXSWedu: How to Stop Worrying (about Education) and Love Technology

I was expecting some fireworks at South by Southwest Edu. The nerdy cousin of the hip SXSW festival, Edu held its second annual conference last week, as a place where those in tech and education could come together. Many showed up with apps to sell, and others showed up looking to buy. Teachers came, many with an eye toward incorporating technology into their lessons. But the many panels and three keynote speeches all came against a backdrop of budget cuts, low teacher morale, and changes in the the basic expectations of schooling, particularly around assessment. The panels would often allude to the trouble—one I attended, on "Redefining 'Data-Driven'" proved to be cathartic for some of the teachers laboring under strict expectations of performance.  

But the conference also showed just how easy it is to talk around the fundamental points of contention in education policy. The three keynote speakers were all big names: Levar Burton, the actor who brought children of my generation the amazing show Reading Rainbow, Marjorie Scardino, the CEO of the biggest education company in the world, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Duncan has been pushing many reforms that are controversial among teachers—like merit pay—while Pearson, the company Scardino heads, makes a lot of its money off of testing contracts, as well as data management for schools. Then there was Burton, clearly there to please the teachers (and Star Trek fans) in the crowd.

Burton, who spoke the first day of the conference, heaped praise on education professionals and made it clear they had a role no matter what the educational technology brought to the table. "Our job is to inspire!" he told the crowd theatrically. "To light the spark if it's not lit, and if it's lit, to fan the flame." He only mentioned politics once in a dig at No Child Left Behind, arguing that testing had gotten out of hand. His line prompted applause. Clearly this was a crowd that felt the burden of testing. 

But when two of the chief proponents of testing came to the stage, the focus, instead was on the positives of technology in education—and little else. Marjorie Scardino took the stage with a much smaller audience. A handful of protestors stood outside with signs admonishing the company as a Walmart for education, profiting off of a broken approach to testing. Inside, however, Scardino praised risk-taking and a for-profit approach. Profit, she said, was hardly a motivator, explaining that "most of the people who work there think they're waking up every morning to teach a child to read." She was unabashedly honest that there may be a price involved in that skill, noting that "we do not believe content wants to be free."

I wondered if the company's work lobbying government officials and pushing for certain policies would come up. Nope. Somehow, there were no questions on testing, one of Pearson's big cash cows, and really no questions on the complicated nexus between public education and for-profit companies. I probably shouldn't have been surprised. Pearson, however, also buys up promising companies and products, and, while some teachers were in attendance, this was largely a room full of people hoping they would get picked next. There were also plenty of Pearson employees—the company sent more than 70 people based on the SXSWedu directory, and from the opening reception to the lanyard ribbons, everything had the Pearson logo on it.

Even Arne Duncan fielded mainly softballs, despite pushing controversial reforms, including advocating for more school choice and teacher merit pay. Like Burton and Scardino, Duncan stuck to his love of technology, telling attendees to "just keep doing everything you're doing." While he argued for the need to "de-privatize public education," Duncan was hardly hostile to private-sector companies in education. "For-profit, nonprofit—I just want more tools to help kids learn," he said. Duncan, perhaps impressively, even criticized standardized testing because the standards kids are tested on is not skills-based. Left unsaid, of course, was that standardized testing would be good with the right standards—likely the Common Core standards Duncan is so fond of. 

I was hardly the only one surprised by the lack of dialogue. Patrick Michels at the Texas Observer noted that "at its core SXSWedu had all the sweet gooey hype of a startup jam session." At EdWeek Jason Tomassini also noted the lack of discussion around "private and public interests in education."

It was a strange three days because the rhetoric all sounded so similar, yet the tensions between the different speakers were obvious. Technology is great, but teacher morale is low, and funding is getting cut right and left. Many in education fear that private companies will argue that technology saves costs—by reducing the need for teachers. Virtual schools and for-profit charters are creating firestorms in states across the country. SXSWedu offered a great showcase of some of the cool tech tools making their way into classrooms, but little was said about the fundamental disagreements over just how the classroom would look.

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