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?