The 3 Hottest Debates at SXSW Education Conference 2014


Education activist Diane Ravitch takes the stage Monday at the 2014 SXSWedu conference in Austin.

The fourth annual SXSW Education Conference (#swswedu) drew more buzz than ever before as educators and edupreneurs butted heads on a range of hot-button issues surrounding teachers’ involvement in the growing education revolution.

In EdWonk blogger Andrew J. Rotherham’s view:

“The oddest thing about SXSW this year was that it was really two conferences happening parallel to one another. You had ed tech types, reformers, innovators having one conversation. For a taste of that follow Tom Vander Ark (@tvanderark) on Twitter. The anti-reform crowd having another. Follow Diane Ravitch (@DianeRavitch) or Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten). And even though everyone was in Austin – which is a great town – there was little cross-pollination. Instead it was mostly two armed camps united only in affection for Starbucks.”

Indeed, tensions loomed large as attendees descended upon the Texas hotspot and took to social media to live-tweet polarizing speeches, share ideas and air grievances.

Behold, three of the most heated moments out of Austin, beginning with Ravitch, a leader of nonprofit Network for Public Education (NPE):

1) The Assistant Secretary of Education ruffled feathers with a set of fiery speeches defending public education and denouncing standardized testing as a fear-based, and faulty, measure of schools’ success. “These reformers have the nerve to say they’re leading the civil rights movement of our time … Some poor kids nevertheless manage to succeed, but let’s not kid ourselves: The deck is stacked against them,” said Ravitch, making her case against the data-driven, corporate-ized takeovers of community schools. The activist staged NPE’s debut conference over the weekend at UT-Austin, getting an early jump on SXSWedu — which began Monday — and stealing some media attention from its edupreneur-centric rival. Ravitch later gave a presentation at SXSW, blasting “$1,500 conferences where you can cash in on education” and the rise of EdTech as harmful to teachers and students.

2) Meanwhile on Monday, Amplify (@amplify) — the education branch of the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corporation — rolled out an all-digital English curricula for middle school students. While many teachers praise the fast and furious new developments in EdTech, some industry critics such as Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers union (@AFTUnion), expressed skepticism ahead of Amplify’s announcement of its latest endeavor at a SXSWedu kickoff party it hosted. Underscoring the uneasy relationship between veteran educators and investor-backed technologists, Weingarten told The New York Times, “Teachers do not trust either Murdoch or [Amplify CEO Joel] Klein. They have a long road to go.” Then she added: “They may have done some great things that makes it aligned to critical thinking in a way that people will say, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.'” The launch, however, was greeted with excitement by EdTech evangelists like Vander Ark of Getting Smart, who tweeted a post on his website listing “10 Things You’ll Like About the Amplify Middle Grade ELA Curriculum.”

3) Keynote speakers Vivienne Ming and Norma Ming, co-founders of the EdTech outfit Socos, set Twitter abuzz during one of the conference’s most-talked about presentations. The pair advised ambitious edupreneurs to create products that adapt seamlessly into the classroom and fit the needs of teachers and students, not technologists. “We can build technology that provides amazing support without you ever realizing that it was there,” said Vivienne. “Technology does not need to be intrusive. … Stop trying to disrupt everything. There are systems out there. Integrate them. You’ll get so much more done that way. We’re not talking about big intrusive technology.” The duo also attracted disapproval from some educators in the audience for remarking that it’s not the job of teachers to figure out how to implement tech in the classroom. They warned that while EdTech will not replace teachers, the teachers who resist EdTech will get replaced.

For all the disagreements and passionate rally cries, there’s one thing everyone agreed upon: in order to rescue the American education system, we need to look toward the future — and that means making a positive and meaningful impact on young learners, who are the future.

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