SXSW Education 2019

SXSW Education 2019

I’ve been to SXSW several times and love Austin. Every time I visit, I try to extend my time as much as possible. This year I had asked work if they would cover a few extra days so that I could attend SXSW EDU. In the end, I ended up paying for everything myself, which meant I was actually on holiday while at the conference.

Oddly, I didn’t mind this. When work pays for a conference I feel I have to attend everything that will be useful to my work, even sessions that I don’t expect to find interesting. I feel I have to maximise the return on the expense. Without the pressure to attend all sessions, I could attend the sessions that interested me and drop out of the conference whenever I felt like a break. It also meant the evenings were my own with no pressure to start early every day (although, I did)

Having been to several SXSW, I have a good idea how to tackle it. But I didn’t know what to expect from EDU, other than expecting it to be less hectic than the main conference.

As registration opened on the Sunday afternoon, I took the opportunity to have a wander around Austin and reconnect with the city and it’s music.

Austin’s State Capitol Building – designed to be taller than Congress (It’s Texas, after all)
Street Art.
Street Art
Music is everywhere in Austin

Registration was quick and quiet. Rather than registering in the big hall where SXSW registration takes place, it was one of the side rooms. This was an indication of how big the conference would be. Apparently, there’s only 8000 attendees which is considerably smaller than the main SXSW and this was a good thing, it meant no queuing an hour in advance for keynotes. Throughout SXSW EDU, it never felt crowded and although some sessions did fill up, in the main, there wasn’t the queuing you see at SXSW

On the Sunday evening there was an early-bird reception. I was in two minds as to whether to attend or not. I’m not the most sociable person in these situations, but in all honesty, I thought there might be some free beer and food – and at SXSW, you take every opportunity for free stuff. As it turned out, the alcohol wasn’t particularly free flowing, so I didn’t stay too long. In all honesty, I think they could have made more effort, maybe host it at Maggie May’s and put some music on.

Despite heading off. I did meet some interesting people. Although the talk was always about work (more on this later), and thankfully they weren’t the vapid social media vampires of the main conference who are desperate to sell you something or increase the size of their Linkedin network. Instead it was a mixture of teachers, lecturers, school administrators, the odd service provider and I was surprised to chat to some students who had paid their own way to the conference.


Day 1

Each day, the conference started with a keynote. The opening keynote given by David Brooks, was about ‘Building Community’ in the USA. To be honest, it was completely uninspiring and tinged with religion. (and the odd inappropriate comments from David). As somebody who attended a Catholic school and now see myself as an atheist, I believe that we should keep religion out of education. The keynote left me with the strong feeling that some of the people on stage thought that religion was the most likely way to transform US culture.


Google had a big presence at SXSW EDU. They had built a ‘classroom’ in a nearby hotel to demonstrate how their technologies can be used in teaching. During most of the week you could drop in for hands on demos.

To set the context, Google invited a number of teachers from US schools who use Google tools. There was nothing particularly different about the way these teachers were using the tools and I’ve seen similar presentation from UK teachers on the Google stand at BETT.


The SXSW EDU trade show opened today. I always like the SXSW trade show. There is often interesting startups and it offers a break from sessions. Based on some of the previous sponsors of SXSW EDU, With Google opting for their own space, no Microsoft or any of the big VLE manufactures, it wasn’t a very big trade show. Like BETT earlier in the year. There was a big emphasis on STEM, with companies pushing their robotic solutions, maker labs, and VR. In all honesty, there wasn’t anything particularly inspirational.

Robots everywhere
Maker lab
3D printing
Space to share ideas

During the day I attended a range of sessions. One was on the importance of music education, featuring a country musician, an astronaut, sports person, and a news presenter. Apparently, according to this panel, kids spend too much time playing with their phones but when asked why don’t we leverage music making on the phone, they said it wasn’t music if it didn’t involve learning how to play an instrument. When asked how they could use music as the basis of science class, none could think of any music relating to the cosmos. Really? In all honesty, it was a really weak session. Disappointing considering the panel.

Other sessions featured Mitchell Baker, the co-founder of Mozilla, talking about ‘hacking STEM’. There were sessions on ethical design and what I hoped would be an interesting session on data interoperability. Sadly, the presenters – who were meant to be working on standards, lacked any real idea of learning and teaching outside of the US. This session also demonstrated how some of our suppliers see our user data, with the Khan academy showed themselves up because they didn’t feel we shouldn’t have access to data about our own students using their material – as it’s their data and has the potential to be monetised.

Mitchell Baker taking about hacking STEM

As we were reaching the end of the day, I have to admit, I was disappointed by the number of panel sessions and the quality of some of the people on them.

Thankfully the last session of the day saved the day and vies as one of my favourite sessions of SXSW EDU.

The sessions was titled Nordic Rebels. This was a really interesting session, not least because it was essentially about Design Education, which given my Industrial Design background, was of obvious interest. The presenters talked about how they had embedded a multinational, multidisciplinary design project into their Masters programme. As teachers they made use of technology to keep the course feeling fresh, for example, they invited real-world designer to offer their thoughts through car-share type interviews. Students were encouraged to make use of technologies to allow them to communicate with the group members in other countries and there appeared to be a genuine feeling of community.


What was interesting was how flexible the course was. I couldn’t imagine a course at my Uni adapting so rapidly to change. It would need re-evaluating before some of the big annual changes they made would be allowed. It also appeared to be ‘intensive’ concentrated into the first few weeks of the course, essentially acting as the introduction to the Masters Programme. It wasn’t about passing or failing. It was all about learning.

It was also interesting to see how young the teaching team was and how they didn’t see challenges as reasons to not do something, it was the reason to do it. If it failed, they would learn from it, as would their students. One example was trying to communicate using VR between countries, it failed. They learnt something.But the students weren’t critical of the failure. The whole course felt like a true partnership between students and staff. It was very inspiring.


Closing the first day was the opening party at Palm Door. Again I was there for free alcohol (and free food – but there wasn’t any again!). I learned the price for free alcohol was having to discuss work with a range of admittedly very nice people. Normally, I’m happy to talk work. The subtle difference between this being a working holiday and being a work conference, meant that I really didn’t want to talk about work, as this was my first long break from work since SXSW 2016. And as there’s so many more interesting things to do in Austin, I’m afraid I disappeared off to find music around 6th Street and Rainey. Interestingly, this pattern was repeated during SXSW Interactive, but at Film and Music, our jobs weren’t of interest to people, only the bands and films we had seen.

Disappointedly, no live music. Only a DJ

Music on Rainey Street

Day 2

After Day 1, I adjusted my my expectations. SXSW EDU isn’t a traditional academic conference with paper-led sessions, it’s more a coming together of like-minded people to talk generally about education. Don’t get me wrong, there are traditional sessions and 2 hour workshops (they seemed to much like work for holiday so I didn’t attend one). However, a significant number of sessions are panels and panels are only as good as the participants.

I have to admit, I was hoping that there would be more sessions where I could learn good practice from others. Selfishly, if the conference was full of great sessions, it would help me justify to work why they might want to pay for SXSW EDU, next time I plan a trip to SXSW (as I’m paying for the flights, hotels, etc – it isn’t anymore expensive than a UK conference). However, as the conference progressed, although I enjoyed it and got something from it, I increasing felt that I couldn’t justify asking work to send me to a ‘Davos for Education’. Little of what I was learning could be applied to my job.


The Keynote on Day 2 was much more inspiring than the first day’s keynote. Patrick Awuah Jr, talked about how he had left Ghana to be educated in the US. Eventually working for Microsoft. Around the time of his first child. He realised he wanted to give something back to his home country and decided to setup a University with the intention of producing a more ethical leaders, his belief being that ethical leaders would contribute to transforming Ghana.

It was a really interesting talk. Exploring the challenges faced, such as dealing with plagiarism and sexism when the ethos of the University is to create more ethical leaders. He explained how they included students in contributing to the solutions so that they saw the University’s mission statement, as their mission statements

Reflections on Learner Analytics

Learning Analytics is one of my big interests. Unlike most in the field, I don’t think simply looking at data and guessing what the data means is going to lead to predictive learning analytics. I think it is important if we are going to make predictions we have to understand what are the intentions behind the data we are producing. So we have a project to attempt to capture the learning structure to provide greater context to our data. It’s a long term project as the project is as much about changing the way academic staff think about their teaching activities.

There were numerous sessions on ‘Learning Analytics’. Today was my first session and it started me thinking about how when we talk about predictive analytics, I think the US and UK are talking about different things, and it probably explains why some of our suppliers seem to be struggling with our concepts.

I thought it was interesting how many of the sessions on learning analytics really weren’t about learning, but data. There was little discussion of learning and to be honest most of the sessions mainly demonstrated (often impressive) retention analytics. I came away with the strong view that for many US Universities their analytics aren’t so much about helping a student learn, but more about reinforcing what they are good through ‘gaming the system’ analytics.

While I knew British and US educational systems were different, I’d never considered how this might affect the learner analytic products we use. As the week went by, I started to think that the US system is causing vendors to design fundamentally flawed analytics models, that are too restrictive in their vision of learning analytics. I had already seen the day before examples, in a session about developing data interoperability ‘standards’ that clearly weren’t flexible enough for UK Universities and when questioned, they hadn’t a clue about other education systems.

A UK degree is designed to deliver a graduate knowledgeable in a discipline. For example, I graduated as an Industrial Designer. All my modules contributed to making me an Industrial Designer. In the UK, students rarely switch degrees and if they do, in the main, they switch to a related subject. The US system is a more open and students can alter their path more easily. But they also take longer to reach the same point as a UK student and therefore at a greater cost.

If I use my degree as an example, I studied modules relating to design along with elements of mechanical and electrical engineering. This required me to pass some mathematical-based engineering modules involving topics such as flow dynamics, finite element analysis, etc. Earlier modules laid the foundations for more in-depth modules. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed these topics, few Industrial Design course, focus this much on the engineering side. But I had to pass these topics to continue with my degree. There was simply no way to graduate without passing these subjects.

The learning analytics we are developing are designed to help us identify weaknesses as early as possible, so that we can direct student’s learning so that they can reach an acceptable level of knowledge to progress. Part of the reason why I feel it is important to understand the teaching structure, is so that we can help students reflect on their learning and direct them to improve. For example, we hope our analytics can understand which aspects of a course a student is struggling on that may effect them later in the course, and help them earlier. We hope knowing the structure will help us understand the importance of these earlier activities to the overall degree and allow us to provide supplementary support to students who may hit stumbling blocks later in their degree. Essentially, we want to break the idea that ‘passing’ a module means you are ready for later years. For example, a student with 60% might have failed to understand a part of the course, and then struggle later on. They need to know this.

What became clear was that many US Universities were doing some very interesting and in some cases impressive work with analytics covering hundreds of metrics. But in my opinion they weren’t learner analytics as I understand them. Really they were ‘pathway analytics’. Like us, they were looking at how performance in certain modules might effect later modules. But it wasn’t to help the student improve, they were using their analytics to direct students down different paths to avoid areas they would struggle with later, improving the chances that the student will graduate with the best possible degree.

Both models have merits. I’m too close to the UK model to judge which is best. The British model produces a ‘subject specialist’ more quickly and with less expense for the student. But the US model, seems to have the potential to maximise the chance of a student completing a degree and since so many graduates end up in jobs that aren’t related to their main degree, I can see the merit of it.

Oddly, I was struck by how low the graduation rates are in many US Universities compared to a UK University and I can understand why ‘gaming the system’ analytics might be seen to be so important. But it does concern me that it’s also encouraging students to always take the easy path and that could have an unforeseen affect on US society if these clever ‘gaming’ systems start to decide that everyone avoids complicated subjects such as the sciences. And since social and economic factors seem to be a major reason why students fail, you could also end up with everyone from a poor background pushed into lesser degrees.

It was also interesting talking to some people who deliver School district analytics. I hadn’t realised how big this is in the US and also how different the approaches can be between different states and different districts. It also struck me the size of some districts was the size of a small European country and it’s no wonder that suppliers focus on the US School system over Europe. (yes, I know I should have twigged this)

Throughout the week I found all the analytics sessions useful. Not so much for what they were doing with data, more it helped me understand our suppliers. Throughout the years of talking to suppliers about learner analytics. Our requirement to see the whole programme of study, and the ability to for longitudinal learning analytics, seems to fall on dead ears and at times, blank faces. In the past, we have had to sit and try and explain to US-based suppliers how we need analytics to work. Now I understand. The US School and University system is so focused on the performance of individual modules and not overall subject-based degree, it’s understandable.


Back to Day 2

I’m a big supporter of project based learning. It’s how I learned as an Industrial Designer and almost all my optional subjects at School were project based. (I’m also pretty terrible at exams). Problem based learning develops creativity, problem solving and when you look at the literature, most of the disadvantages are things like PBL being difficult to assess and how some students struggle without tighter defined learning tasks.

For me, the benefits of developing a wide range of graduate skills and potentially improving knowledge retention always outweigh the perceived negatives (Although, I never found the retention bit to be true)


I was really interested about a session on an ‘E-sports’ curriculum. I have to admit I went into the session with mild skepticism but with a large dose intrigue and I was concerned about how they could use computer games for teaching. However, I was left with a really positive impression. As described by the presenters, the E-Sports curriculum leverage students interests in gaming as a framework for a range of transferable skills and did appear to be a valid problem-based learning academic subject.


The idea appears to be that the kids studying this course, develop a school team to enter regional and national championships. This means they take on different roles, develop project plans, team identities, manage the team, etc. These activities allow the teachers to bring in appropriate knowledge when needed but in a context that’s interesting. While it’s easy to scoff at the topic, anything that engages kids with education gets a thumbs up from me.

As mentioned, I’m still a designer at heart and I’ve been following the rise of Maker Spaces in the University sector with some interest. I was surprised to see sessions at SXSW EDU about the rise Maker Spaces in US Schools, and I was intrigued to find out more.

In all honesty, I really got the feeling that most spaces are just rebranded workshops and art classes that students can use in their own time. Something, that I was allowed to do at School anyway. However, it was these spaces were supported being supported by good teachers that really fostered the idea of the space becoming a ‘maker space’.

One interesting presenter talked about creating inclusive maker spaces. Creating a workshop where students with different disabilities could participate and be creative. These spaces worked not so much because of the space, but because of some really inspirational teachers.


One teacher talked about how an autistic child wanted to create some music that could be played on a Fisher Price children’s record player and explained about how they helped the student achieve it. Supporting them with composing music and then both learning how to 3D print the music onto a disk. I don’t know about you, but this is what inspires me about education. This is a real achievement and one both the child and teacher participated in together. Good teaching should be a partnership, something sadly difficult with such large class sizes.

Another inspirational teacher, talked about his ‘Design Thinking with Puppets’ and how he used to increase engagement with his class with some quiet complex ideas like designing products to meet user requirements.

I have to admit, I did squirm a few times in some of the Learning Space sessions, when presenters mentioned Learning Styles. I always railed against the prevalent thinking in the 90s and early 2000’s when academics talked about supporting students through concentrating on their learning style – because to me, that not how life works, you can’t pick and choose what life presents to you and therefore you have to work through problems by having an ability to learn new approaches.

I always feel, I’m a case in point. In my case, I hate writing reports or academic papers. While I’m not dyslexic (although I did used to write B’s and D’s incorrectly). I’m a working class man who has limited vocabulary, who since a young age has struggle with spelling, I have a brain that thinks more quickly than I can write it down and I have a brain that’s very good at filling in the blanks which means I’m terrible at proof reading. (My parents did make me read a lot, but it didn’t seem to help). Sadly I was never taught any form of grammar in 16 years at school, beyond simple commas and fullstops. I was also, top of my English class. So you can see how poor teaching was in the 1980s.

Where visually, I can capture my thoughts by slowing down my thinking, I struggle to with writing, I find it is an inelegant means of capturing my thoughts and my brain is always racing on to the next sentence before finishing the current one. Even a short tweet needs significant editing. I end up writing rambling tosh (The blog article being a good example).

Part of the reason I started this blog, was to practice writing as I know it’s my major weakness and one I was allowed to sidestep since the age of 16 as no one stopped me taking four A-levels that had no significant requirements to write reports. I reinforced this by taking a Design degree which required little visual communication over written and if we did has to write essays, we weren’t penalised for grammar.

I’ve come to feel that simply allowing students to learn in the way they think is best, isn’t necessarily the best thing for them.

In the last decade, the concept of Learning Styles has fallen into some disrepute and I would have thought by now that most educationalists would have realised the learning styles movement has thankfully died. But it was amazing how often the term was used during the conference. Sorry, a bit of an aside, it’s something I noted down several times during the conference and seemed to have been mentioned several times during Day 2.

Closing Day 2 was a pitch session for the Learn By Design awards, an International Learning Spaces Awards. Each finalist explained what was special about their design to four judges and the winner was announced at an awards party in the evening.


There were some really interesting spaces. Some didn’t necessarily look interesting spaces, but were concepts to make inclusive spaces, such as a value engineered Google Code Space designed to be both cool and scalable so it could be rolled out across the country.


There was a really interest School, Spero Academy, that was designed to support students with autism and was designed to be a calming space.

There were two outreach spaces from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Spaces that allowed school children to gain a better understanding of the environment and environmental research.

Then there were the more traditional learning spaces, such as Seoul Foreign School and Waukee Innovation and Learning Centre. Big new expensive designed schools / learning resource spaces featuring lots of informal and student centred spaces.

The winner announced later that evening was the Wakuee Center. But I have to admit, my favourite was Spero Academy.

In the evening I headed off to Beerland to catch some music and drink the odd beer.

Prom Threat at Beerland
Prom Threat at Beerland
Doofus at Beerland

Day 3

SXSW proper starts. It was early badge pick-up day and with the sight of film posters appearing in the foyer, meant the next phase of my holiday was just around the corner.

SXSW Film posters
SXSW Film posters
SXSW Film posters

The keynote on Day 3 was very parochial, featuring a talk about the ‘Reconstruction’ phase after the American Civil War by a Public Tv presenter called Harry Louis Gates Jr.


We are not taught much about American Civil War in British Schools, beyond the poster byline of it being a fight over slavery. My only real understanding of the Civil War is through documentaries and films. Most notably the epic ‘The Civil War’ documentary from the 90s.

It was an relatively interesting talk. I suspect if I had know who the presenter was, I’d would have found it more interesting. However, the Reconstruction phase wasn’t something I’m really aware of and I hadn’t realised there was a backlash against freeing slaves, especially in the Southern states and this backlash led to the issues that arguably still divide the US and came to a head during the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement. I did wonder if Trump is a similar stop backwards?

Day 3 was a bit light on content that interested me. So I took it easy. With sessions on Retention Analytics, more Learning Spaces, personalised learning and a ‘Shark Tank’ pitch session. Nothing particularly outstanding.

The highlight of the day was the student design awards. There were some amazing products developed by pupils from around the world. Most were professional looking phone apps, but the winner though was a product to help blind people navigate.

The winners are announced
Another party. Grabbed a few free beers and then headed off to catch some music
Evening closed with more music

Day 4

The final day opened with a really great keynote from Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy Director. She was such an effortlessly entertaining, informative and engaging speaker. Using an analogy of aerodynamics and drag vs lift, she explained how to introduce change into school and deal with the challenges that drag down a project. The talk was full of little tips such as how important being the ‘first follower’ is to a projects success as they can help build the momentum. If it’s not your project, becoming the first follower could contribute to making your colleagues project successful.


Jennifer had a really interesting technique to change the emphasis of her presentation. For most of the presentation, she’d walk around the stage as many presenters do engaging with the whole audience. However, whenever she was talking about personal stories with some kind of emotional impact. She would sit down and lean forward, drawing you into her story. It was very subtle and effective.

She also managed to involve the entire audience in her presentation. Making nine different sections of the audience remember her core principles for dealing with change in a project. It was a great start to the final day

I missed the start of the session I wanted to go to, so dropped into a session on Badgr. It’s a long time since I have looked at achievement Badges. We had built an ‘achievement’ system into our previous VLE but didn’t progress too far with it. I was interested to see how far they’ve moved on. The honest answer, not far. As with some of my previous points, I think they are modelled on the wrong education system. Although they now have some aspect of ‘pathway’ available, they are in the main still focused on modular achievement. However, the session did get me thinking and I might be able to extend their approach to a wider pedagogical context and feed the results into learning analytics.

The next session wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I misread the brief. I thought it was a session that explored different learning spaces. It turned out it was a session on one learning space, Canyon View High School in Waddell, Arazona. It was a new School designed from the ground up with many of modern approaches to learning space design built-in to the School.


The panel talked about the many challenges of transforming a school to a blended learning, technology rich, socially inclusive, student centred space. The Headmaster was really inspirational and as mentioned earlier, ultimately, the success of all teaching is down to the passion of the teachers and he made sure he surrounded himself with teachers who bought into his vision. The space itself, wasn’t necessarily innovative, something they admitted, but it brought all the best ideas into one space, utilising lots of glass, moveable walls and collaboration spaces. I have to admit, I loved the open design of this school and the ethos of the headmaster.


However, and this is a big however. USA…… As a country you are seriously broken. Sorry, you are. As the presenters talking about the space, I thought of a searching pedagogical question to ask the panel. Because, that’s what I saw. A space to support different pedagogies. However, what US teachers and school administrators saw, was something completely different. Several people asked ‘how is this school safe from gunmen? WTF USA?! Really? This is your reaction to a great learning space. What happens if a gunman turns up with all these open spaces? That question didn’t cross the mind of any of the educationalists from outside the USA. We were all thinking about how great the space was. Sort your gun laws out. No teacher should ever have to worry about their space being safe, it should be taken for granted.

(As a side note. That night I was blocked from entering my hotel. There was a gunman in the building. There had been a family argument in a nearby apartment block and a son had killed his father and ran into my hotel. He’d been apprehended by the time I arrive, but they’d locked the building down while they dealt with him. Let’s say I sobered up quickly)

My final session of the evening and conference was on VR.

I’m realistic about VR. When I was a Design student in the 90s, it was going to be a transformational technology. Due to the limitations of the technology, it didn’t go anywhere and I moved on into multimedia and the web technologies which looked like more realistic technologies to transform learning. We are now onto the third try of making this tech work.

Having built some very expensive custom learning technologies in the late 90s, I realised that the key to success wasn’t people like me, it was the lecturers. I would hand over a product to them and it would quickly die without my support – something I couldn’t do, because I would be developing a product for another member of staff.

The reality was academic staff would be unable to, or unwilling to spend the time, updating my pedagogically sound, but complex interactions, no matter how easy I made their update tools. In the end I gave up and built a VLE because it allowed me to raise the basic IT competence of the entire University, which seemed a much better return on my time than simply designing one pedagogically sound approach to a product (I always tried to build pretty complex simulations or problem based learning apps)

Virtual Reality applications, require a level of artistic and technical skills that’s simply lightyears beyond the skill of an average academic. Microsoft estimate that the cost of a simple Hololens app is about a £250,000 – and that’s a basic app. If you hand over the app and the academic is unable to easily update the model, then you might get a year or two out of the app before it needs refreshing and if the academic is unable to edit the apps, you’ve thrown away a lot of money (which incidentally, what happened to every complex app I developed)

I had avoided VR sessions all week as I knew what to expect. Lots of potential, not much reality. I thought I’d close the conference with one VR session. In summary, the two VR researchers reckon that VR is just around the corner. Just like it has been since the 90s. So, that’s reassuring.


And just like that, SXSW EDU was over. Well, after a few beers at the closing party – and there was food. Then it was off into Austin, to start SXSW proper, hoping around bars listening to music.

A much better party, than those earlier in the week.
After the party, I headed to the nearest bar with live music. (Next door)
Another impressive guitarist playing a bar Friends on 6th Street
How to sober up quickly!

So was it useful?


Useful, or enjoyable?

I’m going to finish this long article, as I started. I love Austin. I would move there tomorrow. Austin feels like my city. I had hoped SXSW EDU might be an excuse to extend future stays in Austin the next time I go to SXSW and to be honest, it was. I enjoyed the conference and I think I’ll do it again, at my own expense. At times it simply gave me the space or inspiration to think. But like my first visit to SXSW, it turned out it wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s more of a talking shop, than an evidence led academic conference. It didn’t fulfil the criteria for my reason for trying it, that it might be a useful educational conference that I could ask work to cover, to give me a few extra days to acclimatise in Austin before SXSW. But there simply isn’t a enough of a return on the investment. However, I feel I personally benefited from the experience. I enjoyed the way the conference provided the environment for me to think. So I think future visits to SXSW will feature SXSW EDU, I’ll just have to budget for the conference ticket and an extra four days.