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SAIS Goes to SXSWedu

Monday, March 16, 2015  
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By Sarah Stewart

SAIS recently traveled west to Austin, TX, for SXSWedu, held on March 9-12. A prelude to the popular music, film, and interactive SXSW festivals, SXSWedu hopes to foster innovation in education in the United States and around the world by bringing together a diverse mix of stakeholders and visionaries. This year's event drew more than 6,000 attendees from 35 different countries, representing educators from K-12 to higher education, as well as researchers, entrepreneurs, media outlets, and organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and Common Sense Media. Sessions covered just about every topic imaginable in a whirlwind four-day education extravaganza. Highlights included a tour of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum and an ongoing education film festival - eduFILM.

Takeaways for independent school leaders:

Social Media

Social media continues to be a hot topic in all circles, and such was the case at SXSWedu. Numerous sessions discussed how teachers are using social media in the classroom, with a shift away from concerns about policing students' attention. At the Pearls and Perils of Social Media session, Nicholas Bowman, Professor and Research Associate at West Virginia University, described social media as “the persistent classroom,” a place where students are already congregating. His assertion aligns with Danah Boyd’s research on teen's behavior online, documented in her recent book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Boyd found that teens see less of a divide between the digital and physical and consider them equally as places to congregate. Social media is popular simply because it allows people to connect with their friends and/or new people at any time.

Bowman creates a Facebook page for each class he teaches and posts topics they are discussing. In his research, he says the practice increased students’ engagement with the material, as well as their cognitive performance and test scores. In addition, students who were surveyed after the class said discussing the topics on social media made the material seem more useful or relevant in everyday life.

Karen Freberg, a professor from the University of Louisville, said that learning shouldn’t stop when class is over and that social media can be a great place to flip the classroom and keep the conversation going. Freberg uses Facebook pages to organize groups, Twitter for chats and outreach, and YouTube for posting content or research. “This is real world communication – it’s a new language and we are helping them navigate it while asking them to be part of a new form of learning.” 

Freberg also believes that school is where students should learn how to use social media. Faculty should be modeling its use and talking to students about their choices or activity online. “School is one of the last places we can catch kids in inappropriate behaviors and hopefully help them learn [before they enter the workforce],” she said.

As part of her journalism courses, Ohio State University Professor, Nicole Kraft assigns each class its own hashtag they can communicate with throughout the course. She has students research sources on LinkedIn and reach out to them on Twitter. She also covers social media guidelines. For instance, when posting on social media, students should always ask themselves, what’s the goal? They should also be aware that posting to social media is the real world and a public form of communication. There can be legal ramifications for posting things that aren't true or validated. “There is such a thing as Twible, or Twitter libel,” she said. “There are boundaries that we have to follow.”

Data and Privacy

As more schools go digital with wireless campuses, high-speed connectivity, digital curriculums, paperless systems, one-to-one laptops and iPads, and an endless supply of apps and programs aimed at educators, two topics are being pushed to the forefront – data and privacy. More than 20 different sessions at SXSWedu discussed various aspects of student data and privacy. As students' digital footprints in schools have grown, so has the industry of learning analytics. Some companies are already working in higher education, where data is amassed based on students' grades, SAT scores, and ongoing class work. Students are categorized as likely or not likely to succeed, and coached based on those predictions. Supporters say the data could help identify at-risk students who need more help, and ultimately improve graduation rates.

However, opponents are concerned about the massive amounts of data that will exist about students as young as elementary school. Topics ranged from complying with and educating staff and parents on the myriad federal laws protecting children’s data, to setting up a system or organization to vet software and providers, to requiring providers to sign a pledge to only collect and use data for school purposes. The question of who has access to a student’s data was also in debate. Along with the school, should teachers have access, or parents, or colleges? 

Another development follows the gamification trend, with edtech companies folding assessments into their platforms. The upside is that the assessments are integrated into students' work in real-time. Assessments are more frequent and, supporters say, less stressful because they are presented as games instead of tests. The assessments can also guide instruction such as with LightSail Education, which tracks students' reading and provides quizzes and ongoing feedback for the student and the teacher. However, opponents worry about how the massive amounts of data could be misused. With changing ideas about the skills students need to succeed and how to assess those skills, critics wonder if these assessments are that different from standardized tests in their ability to measure what matters.  

Rethinking Higher Education

The changing face of higher education was a hot topic at SXSWedu. The Chronicle for Higher Education released its 2015 Trend Report during the conference. The executive report cited some of the challenges faced by higher education, such as growing public scrutiny from parents, students, employers, and politicians, who are increasingly questioning the relevance and value of a college degree. In addition, shifting demographics are requiring more support for first-time college students. Changes in technology are shifting more and more resources online, not to mention the impact of free online instruction via massive open online courses (MOOCs). The Chronicle found that boards are also becoming more vocal, pushing colleges to adapt and rethink how they operate.

Another trend in higher education is a new spotlight on retention. As student turnover has grown and enrollments dwindled, colleges are seeking new ways to keep students on track to graduate. In order to address employers' widespread concerns that graduates are not career-ready, many colleges are reinventing their career offices. Changes include making career development a priority for students from the beginning of their college careers and using new technologies to connect students with companies and corporate recruiters. 

Non-traditional credentials will also become more common and popular with colleges unbundling degrees and creating new specialties. Adults wanting to gain specialty or advanced credentials will have more variety and access via courses online. Colleges are also discussing a shift away from credits that are based on seat-time, to competency-based credits, a reality that could shorten the time some students spend in college. Other trends are a need to navigate change and attract the next generation of students/customers while continuing to find means of support. As for the latter point, federal funding for sciences is on the decline, putting many research-based colleges in a crunch. In addition, alumni contributions have been weak among Generation X and Millenials. Smaller colleges will continue to merge and some colleges are rethinking expensive infrastructure such as libraries or gyms and considering eliminating these services or offering them for an extra fee.

Wearables – The Next Technology Wave

Among the many technology topics showcased and discussed at this year’s SXSWedu, wearable technology was a noteworthy standout. In the Wear to Learn, the Body as Interface session, Maya Georgieva, Associate Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at New York University, and Emory Craig, Director of eLeaning at the College of New Rochelle, explored the possibilities of wearable technology in the classroom. Google Glass introduced people to a blended virtual/physical world where users could access data at any moment from their lens. Fitbit and recent smart watches have allowed users to monitor different physical activities and characteristics such as heartbeat, sleep patterns, exercise patterns, and blood pressure. The Muse headband can measure brain signals much like the Fitbit measures heartbeat.

Microsoft recently announced its newest augmented reality product, HoloLens, which allows the user to interact with 3D holograms in the environment while still viewing the physical environment. After an exciting review, Georgieva and Craig invited the crowd to discuss possible questions around the use of wearable technology in the classrooms. Examples included, "In a world where digital screens are ubiquitous and virtual and augmented reality offer immersive experiences, how do we define, teach, and assess visual literacy? Will students willingly exchange personal data in return for the promise of personalized learning? Will privacy disappear? How will institutions develop a wearable tech strategy? How will inconspicuous recording devices reshape the learning environment? Do our classrooms become public forums, open to access and critique by anyone?"

From the discussion, participants agreed that the hologram devices could be used to give students fantastic learning experiences without leaving their classrooms. Also, wearable technology could help students identify and even alter their physical state for optimal learning, such as in the case of mindfulness practices. However, many questions arose about student privacy. Should teachers have access to students' physical states? Should parents have access to that data during the day? Would a parent want to know that a student was experiencing stress in the middle of the day due to test anxiety or bullying? Would physical attributes exposed by wearables become another way children could stereotype each other? Another question – how would wearables fit into students' assessments or test prep routines? If testing a student wearing Google Glass, who is able to access any information, how would you measure critical thinking, or the ability to synthesize information, collaborate with teams, and create? The possibilities are riveting. Regardless, wearable tech is coming, and Georgieva and Craig believe it will begin to enter classrooms in higher education and K-12 schools in the next 5 to 10 years. Follow their blog.

Luckily, if you missed SXSWedu, you can find almost all of the sessions on their website, www.sxswedu.com. You can also check out highlights via our Storify feed


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