Sometimes you have to start at the end to see the beginning more clearly.  On my {somewhat delayed} journey home from SXSWedu, our Mike Abbiatti posed the question, “if technology is all it’s cracked up to be, why do we spend so much time in airplanes and hotels?”  

Sasha Thackaberry & Cali Morrison selfie at SXSWedu
Smiles of like minds colliding at SXSWedu. Thanks for the great convos & saving me a seat, Sasha!

For me this is a simple answer. We’re human.  No matter how good virtual reality gets or artificial intelligence becomes, no matter how slick the graphics in an app, how sensitive the haptic feedback, as long as there are still human beings, there will be an instinctual desire to shake a hand, share a hug, or dance to the piano man.

This is the heart and soul of my SXSWedu experience – the opportunity to connect with far-flung WCET’ers, meet some of my twitter pals who live across the world, connect with edtech entrepreneurs who are breaking the mold in how we help students learn, and have some really intriguing conversations with changemakers at the pre-K and K-12 levels.  

Many will talk about SXSWedu as the place where disruption starts or as a place where the educator’s voice is left by the wayside but my experience was more about the conversations in the backchannel and side hallways.  

Learning is Earning 2026

image of the display of conversations in the learning is earning 2016 game
A look at how the top 20 futures connected through this game.

One of the more intriguing and pivotal pieces of my SXSWedu experience was getting started in the Learning Is Earning 2026 game developed by Jane McGonigal, Institute for the Future, with the ACT Foundation.  I came across this in the expo hall (which, btw, is open to the public and there were busloads of high school students checking out their postsecondary education options) where ITTF had a slick booth and got me set up with a log-in. After I left the expo hall, I basically forgot about it….until the next morning when McGonigal gave her keynote address “How to Think (and Learn) like a Futurist.”  

It was during this talk I fully engaged with the game.  It was a set timeframe game, where we were asked to envision the future of education, based off some basic tenets set forth in the game-play rules, and share as many visions of the future as we could before 9pm on March 9th.  You share your ideas and together with the other players, you build those ideas with the pros, the cons, and what-ifs for each of those clusters.  I’m not going to sugar coat it, I became obsessed with the game. Maybe not as much as those in the top 10, but I did finish at 70th of 2068 players. Let’s say I have a slightly competitive spirit and a lot of ideas about what we can and should be doing in education 10 years from now. However, the game tech was fairly simple — its power was as a conduit for human connection, human interaction and the way, especially in education, ideas build upon one another.  This reminds me that the technology should be invisible, the learning should be evident.

Humans on the Other End of the Line

Speaking of being invisible, your use of data to support students, should be invisible to students as well. They should, of course, know that you are collecting millions of data points on them as they move through their postsecondary career and that the purpose in doing so is to support their learning.  However, as Mike Sharkey, vice president of analytics at Blackboard, pointed out to a completely sold out room, an advisor should never pick up the phone and say, “Based on your data, you have a 47% chance of failing this course.”  We have to always remember there are other human beings on the other end of that line and that many of our students are one piece of bad intel, one ‘life happens’ moment away from becoming a non-completion statistic.  


Garn, Corona, Thorne, Gorske panel
Myk Garn played provocateur with a panel of working learners enrolled in competency-based education programs and PelotonU.

This was totally evident in another key session for me which featured a panel of three students currently enrolled in competency-based education programs and supported by the start up Peloton U.  MC’d by long-time WCET’er, Myk Garn, these three students shared their experiences as working-learning adults.  Personally, as a proponent of competency-based education, what I heard from these students was reaffirming.  Their CBE program had helped them ‘chart a path from point a to point b,’ and ‘without it, I don’t know where I’d be.’   In a showing of the “Myk-style” we all enjoy at WCET events, he asked “I’ve heard CBE is a cold, lonely experience. There’s no one to share onion bagels with at the student union.”  Which of course drew a laugh, but also some very considerate responses from students.  One student pointed out he actually likes working alone, but that he was never alone because he was always supported by his mentor.  Another said, she connects just like we’re all doing here – through social media with others who are doing what she’s doing and that her mentor never lets her down.  The overall feeling that a human, learning connection is lost in online, competency-based education programs was disavowed, at least by  these students.

Another unique piece to these students experience is they are all part of Peloton U — a startup non-profit in Austin, TX which helps working, learning adults get connected with high quality online programs and provides them with an office to do their work and receive tutoring and mentoring support.  Again, bringing that visceral connection to a tech-driven education experience. As a boutique model, they are doing very well.  They survived the Shark Tank edu but the biggest questions they still have to answer are scalability and sustainable funding model.  This is definitely something I’ll keep an eye on for you, WCET’ers.

It’s all About Learner Experience

There were many, many sessions about instructional design and learner experience sprinkled throughout SXSWedu.  One I chose to attend was “Creating Viral-Worthy Creative Classroom Content” arranged by Strayer University to showcase the different technologies they are piloting to bring content to their students that will capture their attention better than cats singing Frozen on YouTube.  The panel reminded us that learner experience starts at the first interaction, during recruitment, not at enrollment, which I agree is often overlooked.  However, the meat of the session came down to – tell a story that is compelling to students, and they’ll stay engaged with it.  Even better, as Douglas Fajardo, CEO of Mirum Miami, noted, “when students get the opportunity to create, it brings great learning opportunity.” My biggest takeaways from this session are be where your students are, engage with them in ways they wish to engage, and involve them in the process of creating the content which fits your curriculum.

Breaking the University from the Inside Out

Another thread where the undercurrent of human connection popped up was in the closing day session put together by Allison Salisbury, director of higher education strategy for EdSurge, featuring Josh Kim, Dartmouth College; Sean Hobson, Arizona State University; and Paul Freedman, Engangled Ventures. The discussion was centered on how edtech companies and institutions can work together in better ways to solve educational problems. But the conversations revolved around topics I consider human connection problems:

  1. The edtech community is small, we all know each other.  If you show up to our community just pushing a product, we’ll retract like turtle — into our hard shell. If you join our community as yourself first, as a colleagues, you’re more likely to be heard. As Josh Kim put it, “You need long-term relationships, not another product.”
  2. Pursue the answer to a question, to a recognized problem, together — engage both industry and institution in the solution. Design should be a shared process.
  3. Institutions need to come into the era of transparency. If you can’t open up and look at your own barriers, any product will just be a bandaid. Know that product developers have good intentions but if you leave them blind, they will be constantly looking for the lightswitch to illuminate your problem and may never come to a solution that works.

My suggestion, let’s not just break the university to put it back together the way it’s always been, like a 5 year old with their first engineering kit.  Let’s break it apart and remix it to help our learners gain the knowledge and skills they need to be engaged citizens, lifelong learners AND successful in the workplace.

And the Beat Goes On…

If I tried to cram all my experiences into this blog, it would become the War & Peace of blog posts.  I very much enjoyed getting to attend the Gates Foundation’s Imagicon (though side note, it was not what I had imagined, ha!) and their discussion of personalized learning.   I thoroughly enjoyed when Mike Buttry, Capella University, compared digital badges to ramen noodles (some are full-flavored and bursting with nutrition, some are dry and packaged in cellophane) while noting the importance of the metadata underlying them. And in the same panel, Jake Schwartz, CEO of General Assembly, asked “Should liberal arts cost more than a house to acquire?”

Let me not forget to mention the great edtech companies I interacted with at SXSWedu (by no means a comprehensive list, see War & Peace comment above, in alpha order):

  • Cerego: This adaptive learning product, uses predictive performance to help students recognize when they might forget a concept if they don’t review it…and then provides them with the content to stay fresh.  Cerego won the best product of the Gates Foundation Imagicon during SXSWedu.
  • Foliotek: From the name of it, you might put together that they offer e-portfolios, which they definitely do – in a way that is not only useful for the institution but which student can use to showcase their skills and abilities to the outside world. What really intrigues me about this solution, is the assessment and strategic data side of it. They are using assessment data from the e-portfolios to help build accreditation review packages. It’s technology that can help students and institutions demonstrate actual learning through capturing authentic assessments. (As a former assessment specialist, I swoon over this idea.)
  • Kurzweil Education: provides tools which overlay content in order to help students who have literacy challenges unlock their potential.
  • Mirum Learning: Phil Ice, formerly of APUS and principal investigator of the WCET-incubated PAR Framework, has joined this team which is looking to combine creative services and learning science in new ways to bring rich, dynamic media to course environments. This  could change the way our students literally look at learning by bringing them content that is engaging and on that extension of their hand known as a mobile device.

SXSWedu was an amazing experience, one I’d like to have again. Though I’ll be sure to plan my travel better to not miss anything and bring my wellies for that springtime Austin rain. I’d love to hear from other WCET’ers who were at SXSWedu — what moved you? Would you go again?  


CaliMorrison0615Cali Morrison

Manager, Communications



1 reply on “Edtech is a Human Experience: My First SXSWedu”

Please, let’s not go back to equating working alone (CBE discussion) with being lonely. It is what you make of it, depending on your drive, personality, organizational skills, and mentoring. Some actually take self-paced or non-group courses to be alone and independent, traits that can help in finding a certain type of job.

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