Technology Research

A SXSW Playlist for Higher Education

SXSW turns 30 years young this year. What started out as a small, Austin-weird music festival has grown into a mainstream cultural force that celebrates film, interactive software, the environment, and—our personal favorite—edtech innovation at SXSWedu. In honor of this milestone, we thought we’d pay homage to SXSW’s musical roots with a playlist to showcase some of the themes we heard around Austin last week and those we wish we had heard more of.

Don’t Stop Believing

Although it may have overstayed its welcome, the well-worn anthem of lifelong learning seemed to be everywhere. Jim Deters, CEO of coding bootcamp Galvanize, suggested that the best path forward for the underemployed and “unhappily employed” is still the time-intensive, skills-focused, and cohort-based programs immersed in IT and related data sciences. Other speakers referenced the enduring popularity of lifelong learning in recent surveys of college mission statements. When we compared the number of talks on this theme to last year’s program, we found that sessions on continuing education increased by 50%. Unfortunately, the phrase seemed as imprecise as it was ubiquitous; everyone’s using it, but they all refer to different things.

School’s Out (…Forever?)

There were ample opportunities to catch up on the latest crop of outcomes-driven boot camp and alternative credential programs. Jake Schwartz, CEO of General Assembly (GA), attracted quite a crowd after his powerful analysis of why close to 99% of GA graduates find jobs within six months of completion. According to Schwartz, employers are increasingly relying on micro-credentials instead of conventional, time-based credentials. The conversation took an interesting turn when Schwartz was asked about the level of rigor in GA programs and responded, perhaps tongue in cheek, that it may be time to acknowledge the possibility of an MVE, or “minimum viable education.” While the concept of a minimum viable product might work in software development, how “minimum” and “viable” are defined are critical to its broader applicability in higher ed.

You’ve Got a Friend (in Stackable Credentials)

Under Secretary for Education Ted Mitchell’s opening remark— “I’m from the federal government, and I want to help” —was greeted with polite laughter and more than a few raised eyebrows. Mitchell deftly outlined a “clear imperative” toward greater innovation and, unsurprisingly, focused on the rising tide of competency-based and outcomes-driven models. While the current presidential campaign will define the next chapter of the Department of Education’s (ED) focus, Mitchell identified several factors driving current innovations, many of which echo our analysis of the adult or “post-traditional” learner:
  • Increasingly immersive environments can measure student learning and reveal where students are successful and where they need help.
  • The new normal is the working, single-parent, who demands more flexible learning opportunities.
  • There will be more openness in how learning can be certified and credentialed. Look out for the announcement of the new EQUIP grants, which are designed to expand access to Title IV funding for providers of alternative credentials.
We heard echoes of Mitchell’s cheery vision for competency-based education throughout the week. In particular, Ryan Craig, Managing Director of University Ventures, positioned competency-dominated education as the potential disruptive interface in higher education, akin to what Uber and Airbnb have done in their respective industries. According to Craig, a future (and perhaps present-day) vision of higher education includes learners uploading their competency profiles to a platform and selecting their desired jobs. The platform would then identify gaps between their current competencies and those required by their dream jobs to assign assessments to close these gaps. These assessments could come from learning content providers across a broad spectrum of conventional and insurgent organizations. CBE would be delivered directly to students’ doorsteps or, in this case, their laptops.
While our playlist features these greatest hits, there were several tunes and themes we wish we had heard more of.

What a Wonderful (Learner-Centric) World

Many attendees likely made the edtech pilgrimage to Austin this year with hope for a glimpse of a more promising future for their students and institutions. What was missing, however, was more of a focus on student learning. Bill Hughes, Chief Strategy Officer at Learning Objects (recently acquired by Cengage Learning) offered up one such vision. According to Hughes, far too many digital learning platforms are developed in isolation from those for whom they are designed: students. Because of design decisions that product creators make at the outset, Hughes contests, learner-centricity is neglected. The downstream consequences of this approach for many systems are higher production costs and lower levels of user satisfaction.

I Will Survive

With a few notable exceptions (including a case study on retention and completion rate gains at Georgia State University), there was a striking absence of insights into why so many higher ed students continue to struggle, fail, and drop out. In a sense, the predictable emphasis on platforms, tools, frameworks, and competencies may have drowned out inquires into these critically important questions. Thankfully, Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup reported that undergraduates were twice as likely to be “engaged” at a new job if they had benefited from this kind of sustained, in-depth work. According to Busteed, the ways in which undergraduates sharpened their abilities to persist through challenging and immersive experiences prepared them for success in the job market.


SXSWedu is a hub of teaching and learning innovation, but the institutions that prepare the most teachers (regional, public colleges of education) were conspicuously absent. While we hope to hear more from them in the future, there were glimmers of respect for the teaching profession and calls to consider others that deserve respect as innovation transforms this profession. Ayah Bdeir, founder of littlebits, acknowledged that as her company moves from home-based toys to the classroom, it must rely on teachers’ expertise to develop tools that are truly effective and meet STEM/STEAM standards. Sean Hobson, from EdPlus at ASU, called for more respect for instructional designers, who are often misunderstood, explaining that “they can be a conduit between the content and the tech companies.” As an in-demand, growing field that is not teacher or engineer, instructional designers are the next generation of professionals in education and deserve our respect.

Now What?

We hope the 2017 version of this conference heeds the call for greater transparency and dialogue between higher ed institutions and the vendor community. Institutions need to be a more central part of the innovation conversation. We agree with Richard Montgomery, Superintendent of Star City Schools, who observed, “Culture will eat structure for breakfast everyday.” Lasting change will not be accomplished through tools and platforms alone.  

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