Five Takeaways from 2018’s SXSW EDU
It is the end of March in Austin and that means we are still recovering from the globally renowned South by Southwest festival. I had the pleasure of attending and participating in SXSW EDU and the SXSW Cities Summit this year, not to mention appreciating all the live music. Here are my top takeaways from the events.
Learning from Precedent
There were a variety of ways to find tips from previous attendees, but you must sign up early to attend sessions. One program included a 15-minute, one-on-one session with a SXSW EDU mentor. These valuable sessions fill up fast, so if you are attending SXSW EDU in 2019 be sure to make plans more than two weeks prior to the event or you might miss the chance to hear from veteran attendees. Another feature where attendees could gain personal insights from experienced individuals at this year’s event was the Learning Space Genius Bar, organized by room2learn. DLR Group K-12 educational designer Jason Lembke served as one of the geniuses, and provided targeted advice for attendees on their school and space designs.
The "Why" is Clearer Than the "How"
Rather than simply talking about what's good for schooling through new technology and approaches, I saw a surge of sessions diving into the process of actually getting from Point A to Point B. Sessions offered tips, research, and strategies around change and making transitions in the way you teach or how your school operates. One focused on change in the higher education market, discussing examples of behavioral economics "nudging" choices of students to prevent negative outcomes. For example, an email sent to high-risk students with the subject line "we are proud of you" versus warning language, saw a 9.5 percent increase in these students returning to school the following semester.
Another session shared strategies to create a visual roadmap for change, identifying positive and negative steps along the way, and enlightening users to identify where pinch points and remedies can ease the process. I followed this trend myself with my session sharing workshop games from the ILETC research I worked on last year in Australia. I asked attendees to analyze their change processes using the metaphor of a machine. Each machine made reference to the need for a feedback loop, recognizing that change is ongoing and in need of continual reflection.
Participants Want Experience
If you want to attend a workshop session at SXSW EDU, you must arrive early. Workshops consistently fill up, and many folks are turned away at the door due to capacity. This is indicative of the shift we see in schools: Students aren't engaged just listening to information being shared, they want to experience it, discuss it, and engage with the topic hands-on.
This doesn't mean that panel sessions are dead, but panelists need to think critically about their narrative and how they share their story. One panel that discussed designing schools for students with autism did this particularly well. The first speaker, AJ Paron-Wildes, is an incredibly engaging storyteller who shared palpable examples with the audience. Attendees left this session having experienced what it is like to be an autistic learner. The example below not only shares the science behind the autistic experience, but her use of lines and their uneven spacing allowed her to compare some audience member's sense of detail to the everyday experience of a student with autism.
Another fun experience added to this year’s conference was the Deeper Learning Puzzle Bus. This is a great example of applying the concept of the popular escape rooms to improve deeper learning skills for students.
School Design Matters
I was honored to co-emcee this year's Learn by Design competition with Sam Siedel, Director of K-12 Strategy + Research at the Stanford d.school. This event featured 10 finalists with educational projects spanning all age groups and multiple continents, evidence of the power of design for improving the lives of students and their communities. The winning project was DLR Group's own Pathfinder Kindergarten Center, which features a design that disperses dining and other special services, decreasing the transition time of students and recapturing up to three weeks of learning. The Honorary Winner was The Ghata Project from Design & Flow Partners, featuring portable school campuses that provide educational and cultural programming to refugees in Lebanon. The competition was fierce but indicative of the shifting expectations we have from our school buildings today. Absent from all projects were teacher-centered buildings with identical classrooms and immobile desks.
In addition to SXSW EDU, I had the opportunity to attend the SXSW Cities Summit, a two-day event part of the larger SXSW conference. Here, I was able to learn of the broader societal and technological trends that are shifting the landscape of the cities in which schools must thrive. Major topics included climate change, autonomous vehicles, and government trust. The latter topic on trust was especially pertinent as a prerequisite for any type of advancement, and a similar issue within the walls of a school. Another interesting panel featured the use of distributive ethnography, a data collection tool that meets community engagement through the company Cognitive Edge. The concept builds qualitative data, at scale, combining the objectivity of numbers with the persuasion of narratives. Its uses span all the major topics discussed at the conference. Seeing how data directly impacts policy and decisions is one way to quickly build trust. I look forward to seeing this collection technique grow and exploring how it can extrapolate to the school level as well.
All in all, I left the conference invigorated, and I am already looking forward to the SXSW festival in 2019! The sentiment that schools must support each individual student to learn in personalized, engaging, and relevant ways continues to grow stronger through SXSW EDU, and at DLR Group we are passionate about ensuring the schools we design meet the unique needs of all learners.
Learn more about our K-12 school design practice.
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