Future of Learning

Highlights from SXSW’s education confab in Austin – and beyond

AUSTIN – Educators, advocates, researchers and education technology vendors gathered last week at the SXSWedu conference here, an annual event that is now in its seventh year.

As usual, the gathering brought a variety of announcements about innovation in education. Here are some of the major highlights, along with one important development that took place in Washington, D.C.

► Project Unicorn: The mythical creature is the namesake of this new initiative for good reason. It’s not going to be easy to explain or to deliver on. Announced at SXSWedu at a session sponsored by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and championed by Brooklyn Lab Charter School co-founder Erin Mote, the project is trying to get schools to use their collective buying power to strong-arm ed tech developers into delivering programs that provide interoperability. Interop … what? Yeah, it’s a mouthful. In a nutshell: Right now schools use a variety of digital programs that collect data that could be of use to teachers, but programs made by different companies don’t play well together – and some programs won’t even allow teachers to export data out of the system to use it themselves. Schools and districts that join the project are urged to sign a “data interoperability pledge.” For updates on Project Unicorn follow along on Twitter: @projunicorn.

Talk of the town: The most talked-about speech during SXSWedu came from Christopher Emdin, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the 2016 book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … And the Rest of Y’all Too. Straightaway, he went after education technology providers, saying those who came to the conference to sell things were “the enemy”: “There are people in the world of education who are simply here to listen to good ideas and monetize off of them. I don’t worry about people getting their bread, but you can’t take and not give back.” Watch a video of his address here.

Expert help: The Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and its Jefferson Education Accelerator announced a new program with a nifty acronym: NERD. The National Education Researcher Database, online at uva-nerd.com, provides a directory of education researchers who can work with schools and ed tech providers to provide expert advice. And, in a similar vein, a new program from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education recently released an “Evidence for ESSA” database online, at evidenceforessa.org. This free tool provides information on ed tech programs that have enough evidence to meet federal standards under the Every Student Successes Act, the federal law governing K-12 schools. Jessie Woolley-Wilson, the DreamBox CEO, told me in an interview that education technology providers must do more to test the efficacy of their programs – even though it can be difficult to open up to outside scrutiny.

What’s up with E-Rate: This happened in Washington, but was worriedly discussed in Austin, as well. Schools and libraries across the country have been on edge ever since the new Trump-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission shelved a staff report that outlined the success of the expansion of E-rate, a multibillion-dollar program that pays for school internet connections to help teachers use modern tools in the classroom. The chairman, Ajit Pai, spoke last week before a Senate oversight committee, where he spent a large portion of his remarks talking about his passion for expanding internet access to rural communities. Meanwhile, 11 Senators wrote a letter to Pai expressing concern about his choice to scrub the staff report on E-rate from the public record. “Your actions threaten to roll back progress made in all of these states and disrupt schools and libraries’ carefully planned multi-year budgets,” they wrote. “Accordingly, we call on you to guarantee that this treasured program will not be undermined in any way under your watch.” The report Pai banished remains available on the FCC website but it is no longer part of the official public record for the program, which could make the program harder to defend. “We are not completely sure what’s happening, but they are troubling signals,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. “It’s really important that the education community convey to the Congress what we accomplished with E-rate.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is a staff writer and social media editor. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift,… See Archive

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