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Kicking Up Dust in Austin at SXSWedu

By, Van L. Davis, Ph.D., Director of Special Projects, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board

This week, NGLC headed off to SXSWedu in sunny Austin, Texas. Only in its third year, this conference has grown to 6,000 attendees from 30 countries and draws an exciting mix of instructional designers, faculty, policymakers, funders, and educational technology entrepreneurs. Keynote speakers this year included Asenath Andrews (principal of Catherine Ferguson Academy, an alternative public high school for teen mothers that provides early childhood education services to their children), Anant Agrwal (president of edX), Andrew Ng (co-founder of Coursera), and—as a culmination on Thursday –a closing keynote by Bill Gates, accompanied by Dianne Tavenner of Summit Public Schools, another NGLC grantee. 

One of the highlights of the conference for NGLC was a well-attended panel highlighting two of the Breakthrough Models (Wave III) grantees, the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan and the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Project. "Breaking the Mold: New Models for Learning (K-20)" was moderated by NGLC program officer Nancy Millichap and included presentations by Mary Esselmann, the Chief Officer for Accountability, Equity, and Innovation for the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, and by this writer, Van Davis, Director of Special Projects for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and project director for the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program. The session focused on the ways in which learning science, technology, and policy are being leveraged to support schools and university programs that leverage big data, unique staff support models, and competency-based pathways to shorten time-to-degree and truly personalize learning. The panel addressed an example of blended schools as well as an affordable competency-based baccalaureate program that provided a glimpse of what the future of learning might look like. 

The four-day conference afforded participants plenty of opportunities to explore some of the biggest themes in K-20 educational technology as well as several exciting ed-tech startups through the conference's incubator program, LaunchEdu.

The big themes we overheard?

OER and MOOCs: Most panelists and attendees were excited by the potential for MOOCs to change the landscape of higher education, although few agreed on what those changes would look like. 

Big Data and Emerging Technologies: The collection and analysis of big data was a hot topic at the conference. Several panels explored the ethical aspects of collecting big data, especially at the K-12 level, and the ways in which those data can be leveraged to create personalized learning opportunities across all educational levels. It's clear that this is an area that will be exploding over the next few years.

Social and Mobile Learning: Although bring-your-own-device discussions were clearly present, most of the discussion around social and mobile learning focused on the ways in which technology can be used to break through the classroom walls and integrate learning into students' lives. 

DIY and Maker: Several panels explored "hacking" education, whether that be students forgoing college to create their own course of study or providing students with hands-on applied technology practices. In true Maker fashion there were several DIY and Maker spaces for participants to practice what was being taught, including a lab equipped with 3D printers.

For more about SXSWedu, scan the numerous tweets coming out of the conference (#sxswedu) or visit the conference website at