SXSWedu 2019 Preview

The annual SXSWedu phenomenon has rapidly become the most innovative, fresh, and prognostic venue for envisioning the future of the ed-tech marketplace. This year, the SXSWedu Conference & Festival will be held in Austin, Texas from March 4-7.


Using conference session analysis as a discovery methodology, the following ed-market trends appear to light up the screen at this trailblazing conference. (I have provided links to clarify educational terms and jargon that may be unfamiliar to the reader.)

Dominant Themes.
Not every topic pervades the messaging at SXSWedu. The following memes clearly prevail in conference sessions this year, overshadowing all other messages with frequency and fervency: concerns over equity, digital inclusion and learner accessibility for schools and children.

New Risers.
Several other educational memes have gathered considerable steam this year (as compared with past years), and clearly represent up-and-coming areas of interest to educators world-wide. In order of importance in conference sessions, these include: Social-emotional learning, also known as SEL; learning science, as applied in the classroom; and the timely call for increased school safety.

I’d like to pause a moment, reversing our momentum, to reflect on the mushrooming learning science theme. Its growing importance is described best in one of the SXSWedu conference session descriptions:

Learning science research continues to help us better understand how people learn and how we can learn better. But it’s next to impossible to keep up with all the new research from fields like neuroscience, psychology, and learning analytics. What are the most important and valuable findings that learning science has taught us? What should educators know about and be able to apply to their own learning or classroom instruction?

Learning science (in some circles referenced as neuroscience or brain research) has been on a steady upwards trajectory in educational technology conferences for more than a few years, and isn’t likely to go away. Manufacturers would do well to line up their product messaging with this increasingly important catchphrase.

The Incredible Shrinking Innovator.
I’ve been following SXSWedu program offerings for many years, and I think I picked up on a troubling trend. In the past, most SXSWedu presenters were thought leaders, unpolished yet vivacious startup entrepreneurs, in-the-trenches educators, and delightful innovators. This year, however, I sense an unsavory increase in the number of larger companies who have managed to warsle their sales presentations or minions through the crowdsourcing funnel that SXSWedu has used so successfully over the years to curate their slate of praiseworthy offerings. SXSWedu does not look well wearing a commercialization uniform. It doesn’t suit them.

Virtual Reality’s Diminishing Returns.
Virtual reality, a darling of previous SXSWedu conferences, is clearly on the downswing this year, shrinking from a high point of sixteen dedicated sessions in previous years to just ten sessions this year. And more interestingly, many of the sessions are taking time to question the soundness of virtual reality as an unassailable boon to learning. In fact, conference session descriptions seem less propagandistic and unusually peppered with misgivings over ‘pitfalls’, ‘cost-effectiveness’, ‘democratizing-for whom’, ‘accessibility’, ‘protecting emotional sensitivity’, ‘manipulation’, ‘privacy concerns’, ‘inclusiveness’, ‘equity’, ‘ethical suspicions’, and the need for ‘critical evaluation skills’ to judge the content children are viewing. To quote a VR session description, one set of presenters see their role as to provide “rational, fair-minded, and cautionary counterpoints to commercial dogma in this space…as the technology seeps into our learning cultures.” It makes one wonder whether VR is waning or settling into a predictable trough of disillusionment; if it is finding its desirable balance or just temporarily losing its edge to sexier memes.

Conversely, some of the sparks of interest surrounding the VR meme at SXSWedu are in fact laudable, focusing on innovative efforts to develop student-created content, partake in sense-making for this new immersive medium, and knowing how to foster student collaboration within VR instruction. I should note that, again, AR is experiencing a smaller footprint than VR at least at the last several edtech conferences I have attended.


Some concluding thoughts are in order. It would well serve any manufacturer, content developer, integrator or sales professional in the display industry to keep a pulse reading on these topics. It would be well to stay tuned in and find ways to leverage these trends in their messaging. And especially, keep track of the learning science motif. –Len Scrogan