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The benefit of a big conference like SXSWEdu is a sort of ambient exposure to trends. Here are five concepts that everyone (or at least key, smart people) were talking about at last week’s conference, and that bear keeping an eye on for the future.

no buzzwords, please

1) ConnectED . Companies including Apple, Microsoft, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Autodesk, Adobe, Prezi, and O’Reilly Media are all touting recent commitments to the president’s initiative to get 99% of students access to broadband within 5 years. The private sector commitments total $1 billion, but that’s a squishy figure–it includes both cash and in-kind donations such as software. Nevertheless, broadband in schools is a big deal. It’s a basic prereq for 21st century learning, and, some argue, a civil and human right.

2) Student voice. Last year at #SXSWEdu everyone was asking “Where are the teachers?” This year, what I heard several times was “Where are the students?” Truly student-centered, student-focused, and student-led innovations and reforms are thin on the ground. And the conference’s one student session, led by teenage firebrand Zak Malamed, founder of Student Voice, was ill-attended. Some student-slanted innovations I did turn up: StudyBlue, which has been around for a bit and has 5 million active users who create study guides and interact online; & Socratic, a Q&A focused site with young founders.

3) Tech becomes invisible.

Speaking of student voice, at the end of January, the White House asked high school students to submit 3 minute videos about their experiences with technology in the classroom. They got over 2500 submissions. One of the 16 official selections is above. Overwhelmingly the kids didn’t talk about the tools per se, but how they enabled them to do the things they love, connect with people and explore ideas. Several people I spoke with have predicted a tipping point where conversations about educational technology become obsolete. Broadband and 1 to 1 computing will be just part of the landscape, like pens and notebooks are today, and we’ll refocus on innovative practices.

4) Tests as we know them are obsolete.

This is my personal hobby horse — the subject of my next book. But it was striking.
When you hear essentially the same prediction from executives at a big tech company (Microsoft), an ed-tech company (Lynda.com), a former test-prep king (Jon Katzman, founder of Princeton Review, and an assessment incumbent (McGraw Hill), and a learning scientist (Jan Plass at NYU) it’s time to pay attention.

The long term vision: software based assessments that are “Embedded, low-anxiety, formative not the Assessment event that creates stress for teachers, principals, students , families,” said Cameron Evans of Microsoft, and that serve as “durably predictive short term metrics,” said Katzman of “real-world outcomes” like happiness, employability, and civic responsibility. “We have to think about assessment as something that should bolster education not just measure it.”

5) #NewSATs.

Speaking of obsolete tests, the #NewSATs were the biggest mainstream media story to come out at the event; as I write this there are three related stories on the NYTimes most emailed list. More than anything, this reflects the status anxiety of upper middle class parents that too often drives mainstream education coverage, as my friend Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed observed on our panel.I wasn’t the only person critical of the changes. People are criticizing the SATs as outdated, irrelevant, and unfair, and the changes as too little, too late. The bigger question: is our society willing to do what it takes to offer a high quality higher education to everybody who can participate, not just 1600-point lottery winners?

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Anya Kamenetz is a journalist, the author of The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children's Lives, And Where We Go Now, and a senior advisor to the Aspen Institute's This Is Planet Ed initiative.

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