SXSWedu 2012: Notes for Thought

In March 2012, my colleague Chris Fosen and I attended and presented at SXSWedu. Now that it is summer, I have some time to collect my notes and share thoughts with the Digital Is community. You may also be interested in submitting your ideas, classroom practices, or research for a SXSWedu panel for 2013. The Panel Picker should open in August 2012. Below, I share links, summaries of a few sessions, and thoughts that may be useful in the design of learning spaces. 

While SXSW (music) and SXSWi (Interactive—think technology—and Film) have been around for twenty-five years, the Edu component is only two years old. For this reason, they still have some glitches to work out. The biggest issue was that teachers and researchers were outnumbered by vendors, which means there were a lot of people hoping to share their new educational solution, aka product. Unlike other academic conferences, the vendors were not kept in a central location so that you knew you were entering the vendor area, and could be prepared for the solicitation. Here, the vendors looked like any other participant and were often the presentors. At a few sessions, I would be listening only to realize I was hearing a sales pitch. Or a participant at the session where we were presenting asked which book we use, and we realized that he was a book representative not an educator who was thinking about curriculum. Some of these vendors are truly creating some wonderful, free, open educational resources, and that’s great. Others were hoping to sell a solution to a “problem” that might not exist. I often worry about administrators who are targeted by these vendors: schools then leap to buy a solution, and as educators, we have to shape our problem to fit that technology. We often buy a hammer when we need a screwdriver. It was also odd to have a keynote speaker from Pearson, a huge publishing company, and Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, alongside a lot of innovative educators. As Chris Fosen mentioned to me, we had some “cognitive dissonance” at times.

Here is a nice summary of SXSWedu from DMLcentral, by Jon Barilone: “SXSWedu, Highlights”

After days of input and lots of conversations, I did leave with a ton of new ideas about learning. I left wanting to think even more outside the box about first year writing than I do now. In fact, I’m ready to design a Massively Multiplayer First Year Composition experience. I’m thinking quests and more student choice about assignments, and collaborations across sections, and lots more public writing. Some of the syllabi that gave me inspiration are the ones below from a Digital Storytelling course and a World Geography course:

Digital Storytelling Syllabus

World Regions

I’m also taking inspiration from the online gaming platforms that Jane McGonigal created, particularly the work she’s done with the New York Public Library:

Overall, I left the conference with a continued interest in the concept of “play” (think Lev Vygotsky here), designed learning spaces (and students’ input into these spaces), participation, community, and identity. I can imagine connected classes where students are a massive research team, creating documents and resources related to what it means to write in college. Students create a resource for other students, as the main work of the class, as opposed to using a resource created for them. Or, they could research our town and university and their connections to place, the stories of other freshmen, their use of literacy in the first year, and make all of this public to other students.

Here are a few of the panels that spurred thought with links to some of their resources:

From the conference summary: “Students in Austin, TX interview undocumented immigrants at their school about the challenges of being illegal; teens in Waterbury, CT confront their principal about a recycling program that appears to be a sham; and youth in a New York City “dropout factory” school investigate why only 60 percent graduate. What do these kids have in common? They are all part of innovative project learning through the Student Reporting Labs, which matches public broadcasting mentors with classrooms and after school programs to create unique video journalism and the next generation of media literate, aware and engaged citizens. This will not be your typical talking heads panel. You will watch some amazing youth produced videos and hear from the Austin students, teacher and mentors who produced them. Then we’ll discuss efforts to create broader youth news networks and how authentic media projects can change the education experience as we know it.”

Link to student-produced news:

From the conference summaries: “The open digital world is characterized by its allowance of free widespread and effortless sharing. Sharing can make our lives richer and more meaningful; as individuals, educators and members of society. Yet only a small portion of the general population, to include the educational community specifically, actively shares in the digital realm. While some lack the time or inclination, others remain unconvinced of the benefits and several are still concerned about negative consequences. What are the benefits of sharing? How can a culture of sharing be developed in schools and in society at large? What is your favorite example of how sharing has made your life better? We’ll explore these questions and more in this interactive discussion session.”

Instructors: Jim Groom and Alan Levine

*Note: Some background on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and a recent article about MOOCs from Cathy Davidson at HASTAC. Although the 3000 person class included here is not exactly a MOOC because it’s not open to just anyone:

3000 class syllabus

3000 class slides:

New York Public Library game:

Evoke (solving urgent real world problems) game:

Fold it (solving real problems in science):

The article that came out of Fold It: “Predicting protein structures with a multiplayer online game”:

Link to Brian Sutton-Smith Library & Archives of Play:

McGonigal’s TED talk: “Gaming Can Make a Better World”

With apologies to those of you who are a supporter, this was not a great showing for Secretary Duncan: he read from a script, said a lot of nothing—“technology is a game changer” and “technology is a necessary tool in learning”—and ultimately was not very well received by this innovative crowd of educators. Here is a great article from Diane Ravitch in the NYR of Books Blog called “Flunking Arne Duncan”:

Also, a nice comparison of the various perspectives on Duncan’s talk, using Storify, by Jac de Haan:

Finally, some cool (and free) educational tools I found out about while attending the conference:

With apologies for the drafty and note-like quality of this post, I hope you find some of the links useful and thought provoking.