SXSW Interactive: The Future of Education

In the United States this last week, it’s been hard to avoid the gushing news coverage of the annual South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference that just ended (March 9-13, 2012). Many U.S. media outlets had reporters in Austin, Texas to cover the event: National Public Radio, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and of course Wired Magazine, Bloomberg Business Week, etc. Reporters love the sexy combination of technology, futurism, social media, and camera-ready intellectuals and young corporate leaders. It’s a sort of hybrid of Davos and TEDx.

But I didn’t hear anything in the media about the many presenters who talked about education and the future of schools. When I visited the web site, I found 21 education-and-technology presentations including:

I highly recommend clicking on some of the above links and reading the panel descriptions; you’ll feel as if you are looking into the future of education. I wish I had been there!

However, I noticed something else: there are no learning science researchers on any of the panels! Colleagues that I think of as the leading experts in mobile learning, learning in virtual worlds, and games and learning–none of them were there. Instead, the names you see above are almost exclusively people working in the private sector or at various nonprofits. (There are a few exceptions: Gary Natriello, Professor at Teacher’s College and founder of EdLab; Paul Resta, Director of the Learning Technology Center at UT Austin; and Michael Mayrath has a loose connection: he studied for his doctorate with Chris Dede at Harvard before founding his own private education-related company. Still, none of them are known as learning scientists.)

There are a few obvious differences between learning scientists and these SXSWi presentations. First, learning scientists don’t use technology just for technology’s sake; we use technology when and how the research suggests it can contribute. These SXSWi speakers are more of the breathless evangelist type. A lot of them work at private companies with technology and services to sell. Learning scientists are a bit more skeptical: we want to see the research first. And we generally believe that technology is only one component of a complex social system, with teachers, students, and cultural practices. Second, learning scientists look for underlying patterns and general explanations for how and why learning is taking place. We are focused on the science of learning, after all. I didn’t see anything like that at SXSWi. (I think all of these presenters should read the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.) 

Still, I wonder: Is the learning sciences research community missing something here? SXSWi shows that there’s a lot of activity in this space of technology and learning, and a lot of it taking place outside of traditional research universities. Shouldn’t we be at the table at SXSWi? Shouldn’t we be building partnerships with these other folks, working toward the same ends–transforming education for the 21st century?

5 thoughts on “SXSW Interactive: The Future of Education

  1. The biggest barrier, in my opinion, to marrying cutting edge technology evangelism with research-based knowledge is the pace of the traditional research cycle. The typical timeline from research proposal to publication of findings is YEARS! For some disciplines or areas of study that may not matter as much but in the area of technology, which is moving at light speed, it matters a lot. Until academia can pick up the pace of the research cycle, most traditional researchers won’t be relevant enough to sit at these tables.

    1. You make a good point. The technology moves so fast that the technologists never have time to actually examine whether there are improved learning outcomes, and the research and publication cycle is so slow that once an article is published, the technology in it already seems dated. The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, mentioned in the post, was published in 2006 and already a lot of the technology described there seems positively ancient. I’m working on a second edition, but the same problem could happen: once all the chapters are written, it will take the publisher a year to publish it. The key, I think, is for learning scientists to focus on underlying and fundamental principles of learning that are relevant regardless of the details of each year’s new technology. And in fact, I think that’s what most learning scientists are doing. Even when technology changes, human learning stays the same. That’s why those scholars should be at the table.

      1. “Even when technology changes, human learning stays the same.” Good point, Keith – although one of the areas of study that is especially interesting to me is to what degree this actually is the case. The brain maintains a level of plasticity throughout life and can be changed, at least to a degree, by what we do with it. For example, one of the hot debates among child advocates and educators is whether or not the rapid-paced nature of technology-based media is actually changing (i.e., shrinking) their brain’s attention capacity.

        But still, you’re right – it’s the human component in the human-machine interface that researchers can explore and add to the discussion at these kinds of conferences. And it’s certainly the part that educators and those who aren’t first-adopter techies care about! So there will always be a need for resources like your handbook. The question is how often do you need to revise it??!

  2. Thanks! I appreciate the guidance in finding the relevant links. I constantly find myself torn between the excitement I feel when envisioning the things education can do with technology and fears when yet-another-group of people outside the sphere of learning/education (politicians, business folks…) believe they know best. Not saying that’s true on these panels, just a general concern.

    1. I agree with the general concern. A lot of successful businessmen think they know best when it comes to schools, from Bill Gates to George Lucas. That said, my sense of the SXSWi speakers that I named is that they are deeply engaged in education and that they are not dilletantes nor naive. It’s just that I wish they also had learning scientists as well.

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