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SXSWedu - Best of Show

The SXSWedu conference was first launched with a simple mission; bringing together educators and tech industry leaders to discuss trends in education and indicators of what the future holds for our students. Today, it attracts thousands of attendees from all over the globe and just in case you weren’t one of the 17,000+ folks who crawled across the expo floor or ran between hotels I’ve put together this short list of themes, highlights, and tech tools that’ll give you a taste of what the conference had to offer.


Not surprisingly, the topic of equity was front and center at this years conference in many different ways.

In opening keynote, Dr. Christopher Emdin challenged his audience to re-examine their role in the education world by asking tough questions about the goal of technology and its role in education. He warned about the dangers of “profit-centric” companies taking over with big data tools and cautioned non-profits to make sure that they aren’t acting as “frenemies” by refusing to acknowledge the lives that the students they seek to help actually lead. He strongly advocated culturally responsive approaches to learning, saying that educational technology must address the socio-emotional needs of students alongside curriculum, and that you can’t “tech away trama”

Dr. Emdin’s message of understanding and respecting the cultural interests and background of students to help them learn and access curriculum is the mantra of a non-profit called the Urban Arts Partnership. This group utilizes a creative combination of music, art, media, and technology to get teens from urban New York City through the rigorous Regents Exam. Here are some examples of the great work that they are engaged it;

First Nations (Native Americans) -

You can learn all about their culturally-responsive curriculum called Fresh ED here in this online guide.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

Augmented reality was being discussed all over this years conference as a way to engage students and as a training tool that businesses can use to better prepare employees. Some of the VR and AR gadgets discussed questionable applications, like these glasses that upload content directly to Snapchat (this is a public service announcement, not an endorsement)

Others have more apparent real-world applications that include more effectively training lab technicians or science students. You can try out one such training program developed by Labster here! Within a few years, students in public schools will be learning in online virtual worlds like this one as a way of teaching content and lessons so introducing AR and VR into K-12 schools was advocated repeatedly.

One sign that VR and AR is here to stay was the recent decision by the New York Times to begin producing VR content with a series called NY Times Daily 360. This web-based content allows students to interact with 360-degree content through a browser or a headset.

If you’re looking for an augmented reality tool to help you get started, start with Blippar. Blippar is totally free to educators and you can sign up for an account here! New users will also have no trouble looking for support through a robust community of users that posts videos on YouTube.

Games as Assessments Tools

Games as learning tools is always a popular topic at tech conference, and SXSWedu was no exception.

Kahoot! took over one corner of the conference and in addition to showing all the ways it's platform was an engaging and easy-to-use assessment tool it also highlighted the ways in which it could be used to engage ESL students. Watch part of their presentation here for more Kahoot! ideas you can use in your classroom.

A company called Triseum is taking this a step further at the higher education level by producing games that can be used to teach and supplement college courses. Their newest release, a game called ARTe: Mecenas teaches art history and humanities by allowing students to take on the role of a Medici banker in Florence. They also have a fantasy-adventure game called Variant that teaches calculus.

Here are the the trailers for their two games;

21st Century Skill Development

Responsible teachers understand that in order to prepare students for the future, they need to develop ways of teaching content along with 21st century skills like empathy, critical thinking, and the ability to revise and iterate ideas. With an eye towards providing younger students engaging ways to develop these key competences, an international company called The Creativity Hub has developed The Extraordinaires Design Studio, a tech-free game that helps students develop key 21st century skills by playing a hilarious game where they are challenged to design tools and devices for ninjas, super villains, wizards, and a whole bunch of other crazy characters. Their complete design studio is available on and you can learn how to play with this video -

Communication is also a key 21st century competency, as is digital citizenship. Being able to discuss ideas respectfully online and post multimedia content appropriately through social media or other online discussion platforms is one way to develop students into digital citizens. A tool called Flipgrid provides a safe way to combine both. It allows teachers a way to create video chat boards where students can post, reply, and discuss prompts through short videos. Teachers also have total control to privatize, delete, or share content on their Flipgrid’s. They also have an amazing support center that helps teachers get started. Check it out here!

Skills like these become all the more important as alternative methods of assessing college and career readiness are talked about more and more. Traditional methods are under more scrutiny as professional cheating services like Ultius and Unemployed Professors call into question the value of traditional assessment methods like term papers and standardized tests.

Project Based Learning

Both the Buck Institute for Education and New Tech Network were present to discuss the importance and evolution of project-based learning in formal sessions, but several smaller firms were sharing ideas and strategies for helping PBL practitioners overcome common challenges.

The Teacher Network has a great series of videos on PBL practices that promote deeper learning. You can browse the entire collection here!

One of the biggest challenges for PBL teachers is moving products outside of the classroom so that students can share their learning and engage with the public in an authentic way. A company called Bulb has produced a Google-compatable portfolio program that is simple enough for students in the 1st grade to use independently. Portfolios are a great way to document the project process and make products more public.

Another company, Bloxmob, has created an app building program that is both Android and iOS compatible and can help a students take an idea from start to app in less than an hour.

And for those who struggle to make their product design projects more authentic, there is EdCorps, an initiative sponsored by RWS that provides grants to classrooms so that students can start their own small businesses, sell their products/services, and donate the proceeds to charity! And all you have to do to get your grant is apply here! RWS has absolutely won “Best of Show” among the non-profs at SXSWEdu in my opinion.

This report only scratches the surface of what was available at this conference, but hopefully it gives you a place to start and some tools and ideas you can investigate yourself.

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