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Summary:

At the SXSWedu ed tech conference this week, I got an earful on plenty of new technologies aiming to remake education. But here are a few themes I still hope to hear more about.

education innovation

Given that I’ve been writing about technology in education for some time, I’ve come to think an awful lot about how kids these days can have it so good. Graphing calculators that actually make math beautiful? Digital notecards that can figure out my biggest knowledge gaps? Easy access to information, people and tools that cater to my interests — whether that’s music, programming or stop motion animation? Count me in.

This week in particular, at the SXSWedu ed tech conference in Austin, I happily geeked out in panels and conversations about data science, makerspaces, online learning and other movements angling to remake education. But, impressed as I was, I still found myself looking for more conversation and answers to questions about a few themes.

Much like the SXSW Interactive conference that’s just getting underway, SXSWedu is a choose-your-own adventure experience — there’s another option around every corner and you’re always wondering what you missed. It’s possible other participants got their fill on the following topics, but here’s a wish list of what I hope to hear more about in ed tech — in the year to come and in Austin in 2014.

Digital equity

Technology (especially mobile) is marching its way into communities across the country. But, obviously, that doesn’t mean penetration, quality and connectivity are evenly distributed. When I spoke with Edmodo’s VP of engineering Dimon Sicore a few weeks ago, he emphasized the need (and challenge) to develop for the lowest common denominator in schools because while some school districts might have the latest iPads and Macs, others are using outdated technology. In his keynote speech, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton cautioned the crowd to be mindful of the potential for technology to exacerbate the gap between kids in richer and poorer communities. And Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, in his speech, made the important point that uneven access to the Internet needs to be addressed. But, amid presentations from Silicon Valley startups and discussions about pilot programs with the Palo Alto Unified School District, I didn’t hear digital equity issues echoed widely throughout the conference. I wish I did.

Digital report cards for students

Data, data, data. Between presentations from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-backed inBloom and panels on personalized learning and analytics, it was a common refrain. But one of the most compelling ideas I heard all week was about a digital student report card that, like an electronic medical record, would give parents and students a digital record of academic progress. Stephen Coller, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, first raised it during a panel on the future of student data, making the point that education could follow health care’s lead when it comes to opening up access to data. But later in the week, I heard Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE magazine and advocate for more hands-on learning in schools, draw a similar parallel between education and health data. If presented in a meaningful way, data could give parents an unprecedented window into their child’s learning and, while a digital report card seems like little more than idea now, I hope the concept takes off.

The Four C’s

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects get a lot of attention in education — and they should. We’ve all heard the reports about how U.S. students lag the world in those areas and how desperate businesses are for skilled workers. But real-world success doesn’t just come down to the mastery of those subjects, and technology is starting to play an interesting role in encouraging and tracking progress in “softer skills,” like the “four C’s”: creativity, collaboration, community and critical thinking. Scoot & Doodle, a social creativity site that blends the video conferencing capabilities of Skype with the playfulness of Draw Something, and school Makerspaces are starting to give students and teachers opportunities to exercise these skills. Class Dojo is another in-class tool that helps teachers promote and measure non-cognitive skills.  Startups and educators seem to be paying more attention to this area but it seems ripe for so much more.

More teacher involvement

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 percent of this year’s 5,000 attendees came from higher ed, 30 percent were from K-12 education and 30 percent were business folks and policy wonks. But it didn’t feel that way to me (or to others at the event). Most of the people I ran into in lines or who stood up to ask questions during panels seemed to be more technologist than educator.

This could certainly be because I chose panels that attracted a non-educator audience. But even if the group was 60 percent educator, I’m sure many of those people were not the teachers who will be using this technology in the classroom. As I wrote earlier this week, it became increasingly clear to me during the week that the composition of the conference attendees, like the composition of the ed tech world in general, is varied. The technologists and the educators have different perspectives, different information contexts and different interests. I spoke with a few teachers at the conference (mostly local) but would love to see more at conferences like this and involved in online and offline communities in general.

  1. Thanks for sharing! I especially appreciate your point on teachers! I am the founder of an app called BrightLoop (www.brightlooplearning.com). I am also a first grade teacher. There are very few teachers who have any say in what techies are doing to “make their lives better.” Due to this we are also beginning to create and organize groups to bring teacher together to talk with people who are designing apps, tools, policies for them because until the divide is not as wide there will never be complete understanding and adoption of tech tools!

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  2. Hi Ki,
    I think you made very correct observations and especially in teachers involvement I can see serious lack in all discussions. That’s in my eyes it’s given partly by the fact that teachers crowd in its majority is not made out of early adopters, so they really don’t get it until they have to and from the second part I assume it indicates unfortunate situation that to actually create any change in education, we’ll have to “exchange” big part of teachers crowd. I wish teachers would have interest as well as budget to work on changes in education much more than technologists do and so far it’s the opposite way.
    Petr

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  3. Wow guys, I usually love Om stuff, but this little piece really irked me. Your list isn’t a bad one, but how about a point of two about the deep, underlying issues preventing these things from becoming realistic?

    More teacher involvement? Guess what teachers were doing while you were enjoying yourself in Austin? Guess how much professional development time and funding teachers typically get? Guess how many schools and administrators incentivize teachers to expand their horizons and try new things? Guess how much time teachers have to connect with other teachers and teaching communities and figure out how to change their methods, tools, lesson plans, and try out new classroom models? On my wish list: let’s please talk about and address the underlying issues.

    Digital report cards? How about you discuss whether schools are measuring the right stuff first, then on whether or not we have the right assessment tools, and then worry about how to report it. It’s clear that most schools are strong armed by content publishers and an expectation that a rigid factoid-based curriculum is useful for our society. As a result, assessments are rigid and fact based and that’s what we put in our report cards. On my wish list: let’s please talk about and address the underlying issues.

    Thanks for listening.

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    1. My thoughts exactly.

      Although I enjoyed the article overall, it was clear to me the author was unaware of the reasons that many educators were not there. The lack of funding far outweighs the lack of interest. We have to have a lottery like drawing to see who gets to go to the conference because so many want to go and so few are allowed.

      Your comment on digital report cards was spot on as well.

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  4. I much prefer a new call to attention for ‘The Four C’s’ as opposed to slyly slipping an ‘A’ in STEM.

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