A Look Back At #SXSWedu2017 From A Leadership Perspective

By Jason Ribeiro

The SXSWedu Conference bills itself as a conference and festival that “fosters innovation in learning by hosting a passionate and diverse community of education stakeholders.”

This year’s 7th annual meeting was held from March 6-9 in Austin, Texas, and provided attendees with the opportunity to engage in sessions, workshops, policy forums and many other events that coincided with the field’s latest trends.

As a first-time attendee, I would say that there were both tensions and triumphs in living up to its billing, particularly from a leadership perspective. After all, nearly 1/4 of last year’s attendees were either K-12 or Higher Ed Administrators. Clearly there is a draw at the conference for education leaders and I sought to investigate what that might be.

Here are four of my observations about what worked at #SXSWedu2017 from a leadership perspective, as well as recommendations for next year:

1. Design Thinking is Coming


Over 20 sessions at the conference were dedicated to design thinking, and from my anecdotal observations, they were often the most attended. Attendees were clearly drawn to the approach – a practice-oriented solution that helps education leaders navigate the relationship between technology and stakeholders in their respective policy environments.


The explanation of the practical approach to meeting user needs (in the vein of IDEO’s design work) or the methodology itself, could be solidified a bit more and directed towards both teachers and education leaders (i.e. beginning each offering with an explanation of the basic principles of design thinking and applying them to clearly-defined problems facing today’s education institutions). This year’s session offerings largely focused on the work of individual teachers in individual classrooms rather than at an organization-wide level that fosters systemic change through collaboration – I believe future sessions in this vein could be truly transformative.

2. Innovation vs. Improvement


A huge tension (tension can be good) I noticed in both formal and informal moments throughout the conference was the robustly different ways attendees from a variety of backgrounds (e.g. education, industry, governance, etc.) approached innovation and improvement-framed conversations (there is a distinct difference between the two!). Participants and session leaders were sometimes operating from robustly different understandings of the two concepts (and their inherent differences and similarities), which lead to exciting discussions around ‘innovation’ in session.


The flip side of this triumph is that participants may have left sessions/conversations with more abstract ideas about innovation and fewer practical strategies. Greater focus and direct solutions for attendees on how to apply these concepts to their home institutions upon leaving would have been beneficial. I find it helpful to focus the conversation on “innovation activities” in particular rather than a broad, “buzzword-based” approach to disrupting education as we know it. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a great definition that I feel would be useful for leaders seeking to foster organizational change :

“Innovation activities are all scientific, technological, organisational, financial and commercial steps which actually, or are intended to, lead to the implementation of innovations. Some innovation activities are themselves innovative, others are not novel activities but are necessary for the implementation of innovations.” There 3 kinds of innovation activities: 1) successful (new innovation is implemented – does not necessarily mean it is successful in achieving underlying goal), 2) ongoing (work in progress), and 3) abandoned (before innovation could be implemented).

Suggested Reading: The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence, Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley

3. Addressing Issues of Equity


This was a rather surprising focus at SXSWedu and my assessment was confirmed in conversations with attendees from previous years. Issues of equity and diversity took center stage at this year’s conference and sessions with this focus provided thoughtful and inspiring commentaries about the future of education and the work that lies ahead for system leaders and teachers.

This was made beautifully clear in Chris Emdin’s opening day keynote which borrowed its theme from last year’s stand out album by A Tribe Called Quest. Despite my initial assumptions, equity was not addressed in technology-centric contexts either (i.e. issues related to access).

Instead, the conversation was far more open and encompassing of opportunities for increased mentorship, leveraging of informal learning spaces, social capital, etc. The song “Kids” captures the feelings of much of the youth in North America at this point in time – we need to recognize their experiences as authentic and seek ways that education can meet them where they’re at and unleash a world of possibilities.


It would have been refreshing for industry to have clearly mirrored this thematic focus in their offerings (especially given that issues of diversity and equity loom large in the tech sector). This is far from a knock against the companies that participated, but a mere suggestion for conference organizers as there are a number of industry leaders who are working tirelessly to close many of the gaps in our education systems. The more that mission is placed upfront and center, the more we can grab hold of it and lead change forward.

Must listen (NSFW): Kids – A Tribe Called Quest

4. The Fading Presence of Educational Technology


This year’s conference did not seem industry-centric and it seemed as though the conference planners were making a concerted effort to lead through pedagogy rather than technology. Perhaps this shift is representative of the changes educational leaders are currently facing – stakeholders are far less concerned than in years past with what the latest and greatest is in devices/software and more concerned with how we prepare students for a knowledge economy in an increasingly digital era. Technology’s role in service of that mission may be less overt than previously thought.


From my vantage point, there seemed to be very few sessions or product launches that represented the transformative shifts education might face over the next few years. Sessions on learning analytics, information technology and artificial intelligence were few and far between. Teachers and leaders know, the balance between pedagogy and technology is often hard to strike. But the opportunity to learn about what is up and coming in the educational technology sector may have been missed by many. A more balanced approach between education and technology may be more fruitful in future.

In summation, education leaders can learn much from SXSWedu, especially through informal channels. In my opinion, the networks and communities that form at this conference are where the deep knowledge and transformative thinking truly lies.

Jason Ribeiro is a K-12 teacher Ph.D. student and a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholar at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada specializing in Leadership, Policy and Governance. Follow Jason on Twitter: @jason_ribeiro

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