The Blenderbox team was fortunate enough to go to SXSWedu this month in Austin, Texas, where we presented our work on NYC College Line, New York City’s new website for helping students get into and stay in college. To learn more about the project, you can check out our presentation online.

While we were there, we did some learning ourselves, too. We attended talks and discussed some of the biggest trends in education technology, from emerging technologies in big data to student-side innovations in LX design. Here are a few takeaways that surprised us at SXSWedu:

SXSWedu1. Infrastructure: Get the plumbing right first

The day when every student in the country has an iPad and whiz-bang software is likely in the distant future. In the meantime, many edtech companies are focusing on laying the foundational infrastructure that will enable future innovations and create consistency across platforms and organizations. InBloom is one nonprofit that is focusing on tools to integrate and manage states and school districts’ data to better support partner learning applications. One of their many partners is Clever, which focuses on integrating all of a school’s software through the school’s student information system, or SIS.

On the other side of the tech spectrum, educators and content creators can learn from this as well. Lesson authors can help their resources be searchable by tagging them according to the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI). As with any emerging standard, adoption is still spreading, but LRMI has two major partners in the Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) and Creative Commons (CC), which is promising. (Please forgive the alphabet soup.) InBloom is supporting LRMI as well; the inBloom tagger allows you to quickly tag content, then export the metadata to CSV, JSON, or HTML formats.

2. Adaptive Learning: Focus on the learner

Adaptive learning technologies use data patterns and self-teaching algorithms to optimize the way a user learns through a digital interface. For example, a language-learning tool like Memrise works like a series of flash cards, building your vocabulary word by word. It makes you repeat words with varying frequency, depending on how often you get them right, until you’ve absorbed the word and can move on.

Several private-sector entrepreneurs presented in this space at SXSWedu, notably DreamBox, which focuses on adaptive learning in math education for grades K through 5. Knewton, another presenter, works primarily in the college arena. After starting as a content producer and adaptive learning tool, they’ve since delved deeper into the data side, focusing on adaptive learning and partnering with commercial publishers such as Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Wiley for lessons that are optimized for their adaptive system.

3. Social Media: Part of an education

Amid talk of big data and adaptive learning, social media doesn’t seem particularly cutting-edge. However, panelists discussing social media in higher ed had a new thought: that perhaps universities themselves can play a part in “digital literacy.” In a report co-authored by two of the panelists, they write:

As social media technologies become more enmeshed in our lives, there is an expectation that students will develop digital literacy…. The same can be said of higher education staff and faculty. As a result, institutions are increasingly responsible for addressing the role of digital literacy within the educational environment.

In short, they say that universities are partly responsible for their students’ digital literacy – which could be today’s equivalent of a mandatory swim test or public speaking requirement.

4. What’s Missing: Focus on teachers

From APIs to metadata to adaptive learning systems, data was the biggest theme arching over SXSWedu this year. But when the dust (and barbecue sauce) had settled, I was left thinking about one omission. The conference heavily featured edtech entrepreneurs. Given their toolsets, it’s expected that they would focus on the problems they’re best equipped to solve: quantitative education around quantifiable subjects, such as math and vocabulary.

But let’s not forget the qualitative end of the spectrum, including English & language arts and social studies. As schools switch over to the Common Core, teachers will need a different set of tools to help them connect with their students and focus on critical thinking skills. (And it so happens that we’re working on one such project here at Blenderbox.) Big data is certainly exciting, but it’s only half the picture; as innovators expand to the more human side of education, we’re looking forward to seeing tech that doesn’t replace teachers, but enables them.


    Sean |

    Particularly excited for inBloom Tagger (and hopefully more like it to come)…good indexing starts at home, after all.

    I particularly agree on the need for tech innovation in the humanities, etc. There is some older peer assessment software that allowed students to critique their own and others’ work with rubrics — possible in a more analog fashion, of course. But combine that with karma points, informed matchmaking, etc., and an adaptive system could be formed that teaches critical thinking and communication skills while encouraging students to teach themselves and teach others.

    Folks are moving down the road of machine grading of essays, which is awesome for many applications, but a system that not only preserves the human element but elaborates on it, while getting more done and better, would really be amazing.

    Thanks for the article!
    –Sean @ Saylor Foundation