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This again.

I got home late last night after a 5 day stint in Austin, Texas for SXSWedu – the first time I made it through the entire event without bursting into tears. Some of those tears do come from exhaustion, to be sure – the late nights, the intensity and density of the crowd. Some of those tears come from the crap I see and hear and put up with there. But this year, I didn’t cry.

That’s a testament, no doubt, to the fact that I spent a lot of time surrounded by friends. (Thank you all.) I escaped the halls of the convention center and the Hilton to catch up over coffee and red wine and burgers elsewhere.

But in retrospect, I think that part of what kept me sane at SXSWedu this year is part of what makes the event a disappointment, if not a failure.

SXSWedu brings together some of the leading voices in (US) education: politicians and policy wonks (at the state and federal level), industry folks (from startups and corporations), the money people (from foundations and investment firms), educators (teachers and administrators), students, PR people, and journalists. And yet these groups mostly keep to themselves, only really mingling for pitches and press bonanzas. When they do talk to one another, it’s often talking at one another via panels lasting 50 minutes with 10 minutes for Q&A. (The exception, I suppose: the parties. I mean, even panels like the one I was on that hoped to bridge startups and researchers still was, well, a panel.)

This was SXSWedu’s fourth year; I’ve attended the last three. I’ve left all three with the same sense of disappointment and frustration. In all fairness, it’s awfully hard to know if it’s the event that’s screwed up by design or if all this is just a reflection of our screwed up education politics and industry business practices writ large.

There was lots of chatter this year among repeat attendees as to whether SXSWedu has gotten better or worse over time; but among those I talked to, no real consensus. Some said better; some said worse. Yes, there had been a concerted effort this year to recruit more teachers for panels. Yes, the insidery-investors-as-judges bullshit in the LaunchEDU startup competition had been toned down. A wee bit. Yes, the sponsors’ control over the program agenda and themes was softened. Yes, there were students (yay) showcasing products (oh) in an exhibition hall. But none of this cleansed that bitter taste SXSWedu left in a lot of folks’ mouths – and not just educators’ mouths, I should add.

So why go?

The first year I attended, David Wiley and I stood outside then Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino’s closing keynote with a handful of members of Occupy Austin who were holding signs protesting the company’s influence in and profits from Texas education (from testing and textbooks). The keynotes were the only SXSWedu events in the Convention Center that year, and so (almost) everyone had to walk past us as they exited the Hilton en route to the talk. We got “the look” from plenty of people; we were ignored by plenty more. And then we got “oh my god, that’s David Wiley and Audrey Watters” from a fair number as well. Why were we outside, people asked. Why weren’t we at the keynote? Well, we replied, we’d had our fill of the Pearson messaging over the course of the event; there wasn’t really any need to listen to an hour-long sponsored keynote. 

The following year, I figured it was better to “protest” from inside the keynote than stand with a sign on the outside. The closing keynote was Bill Gates, and I tweeted (with commentary, duh) what was yet again a very self-promotional talk following a conference that felt dominated by inBloom, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative.

And for this year’s feature speakers and keynotes, well… someone has to point out when the emperor wears no clothes, when the presentation is just straight-up bullshit. I tried.

The thing is, that’s the easy stuff. The harder stuff is the real work. (And real work is often nuanced work. And it probably does involve some tears.) As it stands, SXSWedu is much better at the splash and the snake oil than the substance. And I haven't been convinced yet that we can even start the conversations at SXSWedu necessary to do that work, despite so many of us having just spent the past few days in Austin.

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Audrey Watters


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