Data, makers and MOOCs: 6 ed tech trends to watch at SXSWedu

If SXSW Interactive is “spring break for geeks,” SXSWedu is spring break for geeks who want to help the country turn out even more geeks.

sxsweduKicking off Monday in Austin, Tex., the conference attracts entrepreneurs, investors, school leaders, policy makers and others trying to use technology to improve and remake education. Last year, it drew about 2,000 participants and, this year that’s expected to double, organizers say.

That’s still just a fraction of the more than 24,000 people who head to Austin for the celebrity-saturated consumer tech event a few days later. But the growth of SXSWedu, which is in its third year, underscores the boom-time vibe in the ed tech industry in general, which last year soaked up $1.1 billion in venture capital and spawned no less than four ed tech accelerators in the last month.

Ahead of the event, I chatted with a few SXSWedu and ed tech veterans about the topics and themes likely to inspire chatter in Austin and beyond.  Whether you plan to attend or follow it from afar, here are six trends to watch.

Unlocking and mastering data

Data and analytics startups and organizations are quickly becoming darlings of ed tech. They aim to uncover new insights and support personalized classroom learning by helping educators integrate and analyze often historically disparate datasets. “We’re just getting to the point where data gets interesting,” said Heather Gilchrist, founder of the New York-based ed tech accelerator Socratic Labs. At the conference, InBloom, the new nonprofit focused on helping educators aggregate data, will provide the first demos of its platform, host codeathons and share insights from its first pilot programs with school districts. Also expect to hear about the role of big data from startups Clever and LearnSprout, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Technology, the Gates Foundation and LinkedIn (s LNKD). (If you’re interested in general trends in big data and the future of the field, check out the line-up at GigaOM’s upcoming Structure:Data conference.)

Supporting the lifelong learner

In the last year, massive open online courses (MOOCs) captured the attention of the public and the media. And they’re sure to spark a good amount of buzz next week.  Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng and edX president Anant Agarwal will participate in a keynote conversation. But during the week, others, including professors and administrators, will bring their perspectives to the debate. Still others will talk about the wider world of online education beyond MOOCs and how learners can track their experiences and use it for career advancement.

Encouraging the maker mindset

The maker movement will also take center stage at SXSWedu this year with a dedicated Makerspace to show off hands-on approaches to learning, as well as several DIY workshops and panels throughout the week. For example, MAKE Magazine’s editor and founder will talk about tools for bringing the maker mindset into the classroom, Khan Academy will demo universal remote-controlled robots made from everyday objects and the Digital Harbor Foundation will share their experience in helping to build maker programs aligned to Common Core standards in Baltimore.

Bridging industry and philanthropy

It’s not just startups driving innovation in ed tech. Nonprofits and philanthropic organizations, from the Gates Foundation to InBloom to open-content non-profit CK-12, are playing key roles in using technology effectively in education. Bill Gates himself will give a keynote speech on his foundation’s work in education. And Matt Greenfield, a partner at Rethink Education, said the industry is seeing more “creative alliances between foundations and philanthropy and for-profits.” At the event, companies like skills-focused startup Everfi and University Ventures will also share how their models blend public and private sector players.

Making way for mobile

Just like in the consumer tech world, mobile technology is top of mind. “Mobile penetration in the K-12 classroom is happening a faster clip than we thought,” said Jennifer Carolan, who leads the NewSchools Venture Fund’s Seed Fund.  Tablets like the iPad and the Galaxy Note are spawning new learning apps and, at SXSWedu, educators will talk about how mobile devices could narrow the digital divide, empower students in Hispanic communities, boost in-class engagement, and more.

The maturing ecosystem

Some might look at the recent surge in ed tech accelerators and say it’s a sign of a bubble, while others argue that it’s more evidence that the nascent industry is growing up.  Thanks to the rise of emerging technology, policy changes and the successful exits of a few ed tech startups, more talent and investors are giving the space an unprecedented amount of attention. “There’s an increased number of the most talented and smart people becoming attracted to this space … it’s not the way it’s always been,” said Mark Miller, a co-founder of new Boston accelerator LearnLaunchX.  In addition to accelerators that give ed tech startups the infrastructure for success, more teachers-turned-entrepreneurs are bringing their experience and networks to bear in ed tech.  “The rise of the teacher-preneur is a meme I’m hearing more about,” added Carolan. “They have an idea that’s effective in the classroom and are scaling [them].”