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Educational innovators deliver a wake-up call at SXSWEdu

Lorna Sheridan/Index-Tribune Education Editor

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While it is still too early to tell if Sonoma will be an early adopter, stay in the mainstream or be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, all signs at the recent South By Southwest Education Conference (SXSWEdu) in Austin, Texas, indicate that we should brace ourselves for dramatic and exciting changes in education.

More than 4,000 educators, administrators, tech developers and media attended the three-day conference in Austin last week. The education-centric event is only in its third year and it leads up to the more famous SXSW music event, which follows a week later. There were panels, keynotes, parties, book readings, workshops, a competition for promising education startups, and the launch of some high-profile products and initiatives.

The conference included more than 300 presenters and the overwhelming focus was on how technology will – not could or can – completely transform education in the next few years. I managed to squeeze in 11 sessions in two days on topics that ranged from how technology can help deliver America’s new common core curriculum to specific apps that can transform elementary education (see more at sxswedu.com/schedule).

The conference took over Austin’s enormous conference center, as well as the adjacent Hilton Hotel. The audience seemed split almost evenly between teachers/administrators and ed tech companies. The conference cost $375, but the teachers and district staff I spoke with all indicated that in terms of professional development, it was money well spent. (I paid my own way but was given a free press pass).

I chatted with Jaime Casap, the Google’s global education evangelist, and he said the conference has quickly doubled in size and is now his favorite annual education conference. “Instead of disjointed workshops on narrow topics, the focus is on how can we all work together to take what we are doing to the next level.”

Even for a technophile like me, the conference provided a sobering and sometimes scary perspective on how much change lies ahead.

1. Apps: There is now an education app for everything, with thousands more on the way. My jaw dropped over and over at innovative new ideas to help teachers access, organize and deliver content and to help students learn and engage in both traditional content and the new core curriculum. Most are free, some cost a few dollars. See the sidebar for some of my favorites.

2. No more textbooks: It is very possible that your children will never again hold a new textbook in their hands. The new common core curriculum standards being adopted by California will require new curricular materials and at least right now it looks unlikely that schools will place large orders for new traditional textbooks. The talk in Austin was not about e-textbooks but instead the advantages of open education resources (OER). OER materials are free, the information has been vetted for credibility and some of it is derived from some of the world’s top educators. Most important, OER materials don’t require slow and costly edition upgrades. Teachers can change, add to and update content anytime, and they control their classroom content. Students can access the materials online or offline. One misconception is that teachers have to create their own textbooks. Instead, teachers use curriculum developed by other top educators, picking and choosing the lesson plans that best deliver the content right for or relevant to their classroom goals. The top resources for teachers I heard praised were: Net Texts, iTunesU, OER Commons, CK-12 Foundation and Project Gutenberg. Presenter Karen Fasimpaur, who has helped launch the open-ed movement, told the administrators in the audience, “Please don’t just buy a new set of common core textbooks. This is an opportunity to take curriculum back from the giant textbook manufacturers.” (Check out OER Commons, Curriki, K-12 Open)

3. MOOCs are not a fad: Everyone from high school students to stay-at-home moms will be taking MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) by the end of the decade. I heard the founders of Edx and Coursera speak and build compelling cases for the increased access these courses provide. Imagine the best courses taught by the best professors, all available free to curious students of any age. Coursera reached 1 million users faster than Facebook and 2.8 million people are now taking courses with the site online. These courses are guaranteed to cause a fundamental change in the organization and delivery of higher education. MOOCs democratize knowledge and learning by putting high quality education and instruction into the public domain.

4. Gaming is good: Kids love video games and instead of fighting it, ed-tech companies are hard at work creating educational games that will engage and teach kids. Forget games like Call of Duty – there is a compelling case to be made for educational games to be used to supplant homework, to engage less motivated students and to differentiate instruction. Games can enrich and support existing teaching and learning (designing game mechanics around critical learning outcomes). Because a game can easily be adaptive, getting harder or easier in response to the player, the potential for differentiation is huge.

5. The Maker Movement is hot: The growing Maker Movement centers around the idea that kids learn from making, building, playing and creating. The renewed focus on encouraging kids to “make” things reflects current thinking that we need more project-based and hands-on learning to engage students (less worksheets, less clicking, more doing). Most famous is the annual Maker Faire (created by MAKE magazine in Sebastopol). If your child loves tinkering, check out the Sonoma County Mini-Maker Faire at Sonoma Country Day School on April 13.

6. The Common Core will hopefully be worth the effort: Switching over from the California state standards to the new national common core standards is going to be a bear, but students are going to be taught material and skills that are better aligned with what is expected of them in college and in the workforce. Parents who are wondering what the common core includes might want to download MasteryConnect’s free Common Core app onto their smartphones. It lists exactly what students are expected to know by grade and by subject in considerable detail.

7. No new normal for higher ed: Perhaps the most intriguing session was Andrew Ng, founder of Coursera, and edX President Anant Agarwal, talking about the future of higher education, which both say will be turned on its head by the end of this decade. Agarwal asked: “Why is college four years? Where did that magical number come from?” and “Why do we learn for 16 years and then stop, despite the fact that careers constantly demand new skills and knowledge?” Ng suggested that maybe education is going to evolve into something that we dip in and out of over our entire lives. Can MOOCS help us become true lifelong learners?

8. Campuses are here to stay: While Ng caused a stir with the notion of upending higher ed, he feels strongly that there will always be brick-and-mortar campuses. Even the most rabid proponents of online learning see a critical value in university campuses (collaboration, networking, group projects, socialization). But the ones that survive the shakeout must adjust their offering and their price structures.

9. Brain research will play an important role: We now have a much better understanding of how the brain works with regard to the four key steps to learning: attention, encoding, storage and retrieval. The best schools and teachers will use that powerful knowledge to change how they teach and assess, and serve the needs of alternative learners and use technology and what we now know about how the brain works to personalize instruction for each student.

10. Technology, technology, technology. Perhaps the most buzzed about line coming out of the conference was: “Your awesome smartphone is the crappiest tech your child will ever see. It’s their Commadore 64.” – Google Gobal Education Evangelist Jaime Casap.

Within two years, a tablet fully loaded with endless curriculum options will cost less than 2 to 3 new textbooks. Textbooks are static, heavy, expensive and one-dimensional and they are hard to use for differentiation. How can a dusty textbook compete with a tablet or computer through which students can access up-to-date coursework (from home with no wifi) that contains videos, slideshows, e-books, audiobooks, PDFs and web links? Where will the money come from for this technology? California school districts have had textbook and technology budgets combined so that the funds can be used for either.

There is no putting the horse back in the barn. Even the most wary educators seem to agree that going forward, curricular content needs to look different. It is no longer enough for our students to read a text, memorize data and answer four multiple-choice questions.

There were several sessions on the pitfalls of technology used pointlessly and on the hazards of too much screen time. But the overall sentiment was that, when thoughtfully used by a teacher, there are sites, games, courses and apps already on the market and on the way, that can transform the learning experience for our children for the better.

And the price tag for a school to go digital keeps coming down. Tech leader Amplify unveiled a ($299) tablet customized for schools that features an open platform, preloaded curriculum and supplemental resources, as well as controls and data tools for teachers (amplify.com). Google already offers a similar $199 Chromebook.

But technology is a vehicle for transporting instruction – it is not a teaching method. The real focus here was on the potential of blended instruction – meaning good teaching leveraging technology.

How will this play out in Sonoma? I can’t begin to guess. These are some significant changes to embrace, but we have a district superintendent in Louann Carlomagno who has proven to be comfortable with change and insistent on doing whatever it takes to get our students college and career ready by graduation.

Many of the talks are or will soon be available as podcasts, or on YouTube. Just search for sxswedu.