Event Spotlight

SXSW EDU Primed to Set Education Innovation Agenda for 2020

The thing about SXSW EDU, an event unlike any other in the education segment, is that you just don't know who's going to show up or what they're going to say.

In 2012 Arne Duncan, then secretary of education, declared technology the "new platform in learning." In 2013 Bill Gates showed up to interview pioneers of ed tech to make the point that "online learning and other educational technologies are taking off in a big way." Goldie Hawn appeared in 2015 to tell education delegates to give students "brain breaks." In 2016 Jane McGonigal delivered a "master class in how to think like a futurist." Tim Ferriss and Charles Best shared a stage in 2017 (the two originally met in high school as wrestling partners), where Ferriss, guru of The 4-Hour Workweek, gave a call-out to his wrestling coach, Mr. Buxton, who "provided a very unique form of tough love in the wrestling room that was extremely critical to me." (Best added that Buxton was the teacher "who made me want to be a teacher." Without him, he added, his organization, DonorsChoose, wouldn't exist.) Last year Paula Kerger, the head of PBS, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans and Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr., debated how history textbooks cover the country's Reconstruction period after the Civil War, an ill-studied era of U.S. history that "continues to haunt the nation 150 years later," as one observer put it.

This year's keynoters are bound to set the agenda for discussions on education in 2020 in new and provocative ways. That includes sessions with Sir Ken Robinson, whose critical examinations of education have inspired transformation initiatives in schools around the world; Jennifer Eberhardt, the Stanford professor who has pointed out the negative impact of bias in teaching and learning; Mary Murphy, Indiana University professor whose research has called into question how academic motivation and achievement affects "majority" and "minority" students differently; Ted Dintersmith, whose documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, has been screened in thousands of communities; and David Yeager, from the University of Texas at Austin, who will explore his groundbreaking work in the processes of adolescent development. The conference will be closed by Carol Dweck -- she of the growth mindset, who once wrote, "After seven experiments with hundreds of children, we had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen: Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance."

Last year's event drew nearly 13,000 attendees, representing 41 countries, of which 1,200 were speakers for almost 500 sessions.

Program tracks cover what you'd expect: accessibility and inclusion; the arts; early learning; equity; K-12 education; and leadership. But there are a few that don't get much attention at other education conferences: social-emotional learning; global education; equity; and others.

What's unusual is how the sessions are chosen. There's a multi-step process that involves a tool called the "PanelPicker," which allows the education community to propose ideas for sessions and then lets people vote and provide feedback on the topics. The final choices are developed through a combination of public voting (30 percent), advisory board evaluations (40 percent) and staff review (30 percent). The top selections are what turn up in the schedule.

Here's what's on tap:

Competitions are a big part of what's happening at SXSW EDU. This year's contests will highlight finalists in a Launch Startup competition (for education tech); the new Amazon Alexa competition (to identify applications for voice technology); the Learn by Design competition (to celebrate the work of designers and educators in creating learning spaces); and the Student Startup competition (which lets high schoolers showcase their business ideas).

Finally, sitting all day makes for a long week. So it makes sense for delegates to participate in networking that involves moving their bodies. For music lovers, there's the music walking tour; art lovers get the East Side art walking tour; and gym fans can attend an early morning HIIT workout. For dinner, show organizers have set up pop-up dinners at various venues around downtown; attendees just need to sign up earlier in the day for the reservation that meets their budgets. And what would a visit to Austin be without a few night-time mixers -- hosted by Teach for America and Raise Your Hand Texas. (When you're there, check out social media -- #SXSWEDU -- to hear about the events that don't make the official schedule.)

This year's SXSW EDU tickets are $540 through Feb. 14 and $595 after that. Learn more on the website.