Executive Skills & Strategy

Educators, Entrepreneurs Connect at South by Southwest

By Benjamin Herold & Michele Molnar — March 11, 2014 7 min read
Mitchell Stoner, 11, of Austin, Texas, tries out a mobile virtual reality device at the Education Expo at the South by Southwest education conference in Austin. The conference aims to connect educators and entrepreneurs to improve schools.

About 6,000 educators, entrepreneurs, and other innovation-minded people gathered in Austin, Texas, last week for the South by Southwest education conference to talk about how technological advances are fueling improvements in education, better ways for businesses and schools to work together, and what it will take to establish a more customized approach to teaching and learning. The growing interest in such issues was underscored by the rapid growth of the conference itself, which has surged 650 percent since it was started four years ago. Education Week Staff Writers Benjamin Herold and Michele Molnar were in Austin covering the conference, sending dispatches via the Digital Education and Marketplace K-12 blogs.

Following is a sample of that coverage.

Big Ideas About Digital Learning Tempered by Words of Caution

Bigger data and better learning analytics. Flexible physical spaces that more closely resemble workplaces. More multimedia. Greater access to large content repositories for teachers, and customized instruction for students. Lower-stakes assessments that are embedded in learning activities rather than delivered at the end of the school year.

Rebecca Klemm, the founder of NumbersAlive!, a Washington-based company that works with students to improve numerical literacy through the use of fun number characters, shows off her dedication to numbers during SXSWedu.

Such is the future of K-12 classrooms, according to a group of high-profile panelists who addressed the South by Southwest education conference, or SXSWedu, during a discussion about leadership and inspiration.

The driving force for all the potential change, of course, is the Internet. Jose Ferreira, the founder and CEO of Knewton, a New York City-based ed-tech company which customizes digital curricula, described it as a “spectacular” engine for cheaply mining data and distributing content.

“There is no doubt that education is having its ‘Internet moment,' " Mr. Ferreira said. “Nothing is going to stop that.”

Not everyone in attendance was enthusiastic about the panelists’ vision, however. During a lively question-and-answer session, Tim Reilly, the founder and CEO of the New York City-based ed-tech startup Quexter, was among those who questioned the benefits for students of the brave new educational world being described.

“One thing I worry about with adaptive learning and big data is that we’re not necessarily doing anything to empower individual student learning,” Mr. Reilly said. “Does this make learning more passive?”

Mr. Ferreira’s fellow panelists included Michelle A. Rhee, the former chancellor of the 46,400-student District of Columbia school system and the CEO of the Sacramento, Calif.-based advocacy group StudentsFirst, and Rob Lippincott, a former executive at PBS and current senior education adviser at Washington-based i2 Capital Group, which works to secure funding for promising new strategies in education and other areas.

Mr. Lippincott said the rising tide of educational data “is not scary” and “will liberate teachers” by providing them with better guidance on how to educate students. Better assessments—think learning games—will help, he added.

Keynote speaker Vivienne Ming, a neuroscientist and entrepreneur, wears Google Glass as she delivers her speech at SXSWedu about keeping the promise of educational technology. Ms. Ming was named one of 10 Women to Watch in Tech in 2013 by Inc. magazine.

Mr. Ferreira of Knewton said the digital revolution in K-12 will make experimentation easier and cheaper.

For her part, Ms. Rhee, appearing on the panel from Sacramento, Calif., via Skype, was somewhat more muted. Educational technology will undoubtedly help support greater differentiation of classroom instruction, she said, but ultimately, Ms. Rhee said, her vision is “pretty basic.”

“Teachers have the hardest job there is in the country. They have to have the tools and resources they need,” she said. “When we think about what the ideal is, sometimes we forget about the foundation.”

—Benjamin Herold

In Colorado, a ‘Surreal’ Experience With InBloom and Angry Parents

Data, data, data.

It’s probably no surprise that big ideas about using educational data—everything from building personalized-learning engines, to improving the college-decision process, to screening teacher-candidates based on predictions of how they will affect student achievement—were everywhere at the South by Southwest education conference.

But protecting student information was on an equal footing this year.

No fewer than four panels over the first two days of the conference addressed the hot-button topic of student-data privacy.

Perhaps the most interesting commentary came during a morning panel, when Greg Mortimer, a former chief information officer of the 86,000-student Jefferson County, Colo., school system in suburban Denver, spoke about his experience with inBloom.

A view of the Austin skyline through windows of the Hilton hotel, where SXSWedu attendees were gathering.

Mr. Mortimer played a key role in the Jefferson County district’s ill-fated agreement to partner with the Atlanta-based nonprofit, which aims to host states’ data; to clean, organize, and secure the information; and to facilitate the development of new tools for schools and districts by approved third-party vendors granted access to it.

“I still stand by that,” he said. “It was the right strategic decision from an instructional, fiscal, technology, and data-security and -privacy perspective.”

In January, though, the Jefferson County school board cut ties with inBloom and halted the pilot program that was underway, in part because of a firestorm of controversy ignited by parents concerned that their children’s sensitive information would be improperly shared with third-party vendors or would be vulnerable to potential hackers. Similar concerns have been raised in other states that backed out of ties with the organization, such as Louisiana, as well as in New York, where a fight rages on.

Mr. Mortimer, however, praised inBloom’s security protocols, saying an independent assessment “confirmed what we believed all along: that [the organization] was doing an excellent job of putting in place systems and people to protect the privacy of that data.”

The persistent critics, he said, were a “small but very active” group of about 50 parents who were in “philosophical and ideological opposition to national education reform, from the common core to educator effectiveness to anything beyond local control” of schools.

He said the Jefferson County district was caught off guard by the rancor and was unprepared to respond to the concerns. Eventually, Mr. Mortimer said, he had to start doing his IT work at night because so much of his time was spent at public meetings, on the phone, and with parents, trying--unsuccessfully--to stem the tide.

“It was one of the most surreal years of my life,” said Mr. Mortimer, who is now senior director of infrastructure and development for the 87,400-student Denver public schools.

—Benjamin Herold

Ed. Businesses Seek to Learn What Educators Really Want

Most ed-tech companies attending the South by Southwest education conference last week would probably love to grow at the rate the conference itself has experienced: 650 percent since it began four years ago. “It’s a reflection of the community’s hunger for these kinds of conversations,” said Ron Reed, SXSWedu’s executive producer, explaining why more than 6,000 participants were converging for the four-day conference and festival. Businesses were in Austin to find out what educators and students want, discover new markets and partners, and learn how to access funding.

A LAUNCHedu competition gave 10 entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their businesses for the K-12 and college markets, receiving feedback from judges who included education practitioners, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. RobotsLAB of San Francisco, which produces a teaching aid demonstrating core concepts of math and science using robots, won the competition.

Last year’s winner in the K-12 category was Clever, for its technology that helps schools sync learning software with student-information systems. This year, Tyler Bosmeny, Clever’s co-founder and CEO, shared his insights about getting funding in a “Show Me the Money” session. He advised entrepreneurs to evaluate carefully the benefits and drawbacks of working with startup incubators and accelerators, to make sure any investment those entrepreneurs receive is worth the percentage of the company they give up.

The venture capital industry, as a whole, is showing interest in educational technology, said Jennifer Carolan, the managing director of the nonprofit NewSchools Seed Fund, which was established to make investments in early-stage ed-tech companies.

“The whole venture capital industry has seen a major contraction in the last 10 years,” she said. “Yet the amount of money going into ed tech is growing.” Last year, 59 seed investments were made in K-12 ed tech, a significant increase over the previous year, she said, and “we’re starting to see top-tier [venture capital] firms get interested in investing in ed tech.”

—Michele Molnar

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Dispatches From the South by Southwest Ed. Conference

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