4 Takeaways from the 2014 SXSWedu Conference

4 Takeaways from the 2014 SXSWedu Conference

By: Peter Stokes and Kevin Bell

The first thing you must know before setting out for SXSWedu is that the sun will come out and the air will warm only as you step into the cab to begin your journey back home.

The second thing you should know is that SXSWedu is a sprawling affair, with thousands of attendees, dozens of concurrent sessions underway at all times, and some very long lines at the Hilton Starbucks.

Northeastern’s Role
We were there representing Northeastern but also discussing Gates Foundation foci; Kevin described progress in the Gates supported adaptive learning collaboration between Northeastern and Shoreline Community College in Seattle, WA, while Peter participated in a panel discussion – also organized by the Gates Foundation – on online learning, MOOCs, and business models.

The conference agenda, which encompasses a broad set of K-12 and postsecondary concerns, covered a wide range of ‘future-impact’ ground – competency–based education, badges, gamification, adaptive learning, MOOCs, assessment, cognitive science, and other usual suspects.

But because Austin likes to keep it weird, as they say, SXSWedu also threw the occasional curve ball, such as the concluding keynote delivered by Jeffrey Tambor (he of Arrested Development fame), “No Touching!

The Top Sessions
Our third takeaway was the quality of the presented sessions. Peter particularly enjoyed a panel discussion on Georgetown University’s “Designing the Future(s) of the University” project, in which faculty, students, and alumni are engaged in an extended effort to re-imagine what a Georgetown University experience ought to involve in the coming decades.

Kevin found the session featuring Nolan Bushnell discussing brain science to be of great interest. Bushnell invented both Atari, Chuck-E-Cheese, was Steve Job’s boss for a while and is going to be played in an upcoming movie by Leonardo DiCaprio (unless Wikipedia’s lying). He stressed the role of student activity in online courses; “The minute you ask for response, everything lights up,” and the notion of appropriate challenge, “If we make it really hard but still allow you to save the princess, you can get in the zone, we got you–you’re our meat!” (side geek detail note –  maximum dopamine release in the brain is seen when challenges are set at a level where people think they have a 50% chance of solving them – no more, no less).

Networking with Smart People
Finally, as intriguing as some sessions were, it may well be that it is outside the ballrooms and suites that SXSWedu really comes into its own – as a networking event. And that’s our fourth takeaway. Industry colleagues from universities, foundations, think tanks, government agencies, tech companies, and services firms throng in the hallways and restaurants and coffee shops. Connections were made, collaborations were discussed, and brains were picked, and industry gossip was exchanged.

Perhaps because of the expansiveness and diversity of its agenda, the conference felt more diffuse than cumulative, but the general impression one comes away with is that there are a lot of smart people digging into a lot of areas that have good potential for us educators in the coming years. There remains a slight schism between the tech entrepreneurs and more traditional academics, but the social and collaborative feel of the Austin vibe, produced a sense of possibility. Admittedly damp, late winter possibility – but possibility nevertheless. And George Bluth.

About Peter Stokes

Peter Stokes, PhD, is vice president of global strategy and business development at Northeastern University. As a commentator, public speaker, and advisor to a variety of educational organizations, Peter has been a longstanding contributor to debates about higher education public policy at the federal and the state level.

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