Reflections from SXSWEdu

Warning: Undefined array key "ssba_bar_buttons" in /home/kriste25/public_html/wp-content/plugins/simple-share-buttons-adder/php/class-buttons.php on line 598

Warning: Undefined array key "ssba_bar_buttons" in /home/kriste25/public_html/wp-content/plugins/simple-share-buttons-adder/php/class-buttons.php on line 598

Warning: Undefined array key "ssba_bar_buttons" in /home/kriste25/public_html/wp-content/plugins/simple-share-buttons-adder/php/class-buttons.php on line 598

Warning: Undefined array key "ssba_bar_buttons" in /home/kriste25/public_html/wp-content/plugins/simple-share-buttons-adder/php/class-buttons.php on line 598

Warning: Undefined array key "ssba_bar_buttons" in /home/kriste25/public_html/wp-content/plugins/simple-share-buttons-adder/php/class-buttons.php on line 598


This year was my second visit to SXSWEdu. As much as I love Austin, I am not sure I want to return. The event should be a great opportunity for higher education and Silicon Valley to come together and design interesting partnerships from opposing worldviews about the role of education. With the exception of one unofficial gathering, the conversations I saw unfortunately never quite got there. The gathering that did was the brainchild of Dale Stephens (UnCollege) and Allison Salisbury, appropriately titled ‘UnCollege + College = ?

Here is the description of that event:

“Over the last five years, the face of education has changed dramatically. MOOCs, coding bootcamps, and independent learning programs like UnCollege and the Thiel Fellowship are here to stay, yet they now face many of the same challenges that confront traditional higher education institutions. At the same time, traditional higher education is grappling with the kind of external pressures that gave birth to edu startups, developing a need to innovate in order to meet the evolving needs of modern learners. In order to succeed, Edu startups need to advocate for the social contract in higher education and incorporate good learning science in their efforts.

Advocates for startups are skeptical about higher ed’s ability to change and meet the critical needs of a 21st-century society, while Higher Ed is skeptical about the motives, learning science, and public policy impact behind educational startups. We believe these sectors can learn a great deal from each other and potentially develop partnerships that leverage the strengths of each.

UnCollege and Davidson College are reaching out to thought leaders like you, to shape the conversation and bridge an important ideological gap in the service of modern learners.”

I like the description of this event, and not just because I helped write it (smile). I also believe this lack of collaboration is potentially harmful to the social contract of higher education. Allison and Dale are leading what SXSWEdu should be fostering – broadening the impact of educational innovation through empathic design.

In my opinion, SXSWEdu fails at being productive for the education sector as a whole for two reasons: First, they privilege a pervasive entrepreneurial narrative about education that is deeply polarizing. Even those with the best of intentions to collaborate use phrases like “whipped into submission” to describe the student experience in the current education system. They are given a platform to ridicule the echo chambers of higher ed, blissfully unreflective about their own. Second, higher ed is mostly avoiding the event altogether. There are some amazing ideas here for new educational models, but it’s hard to find common ground and drive educational innovation forward in a responsible way when you can’t even be bothered to come to the table.

SXSWEdu is about startups and innovation. It’s not about the status quo. From San Francisco, most of higher ed looks like the status quo. From higher ed, most of Silicon Valley looks like an attempted hostile takeover that needs to be resisted. I think we may be more alike than we are different.

Both draw from and develop strong, smart personalities that one colleague over breakfast described as two “alpha’s”. They are thought leaders, intellectuals, and idealists. They hold sway. Entrepreneurs call themselves “thunder lizards”. Educators don “regalia” and march to pomp and circumstance. #DIGTBK!

Both are innovative. In Silicon Valley, this goes without saying, but Barbara Fister reminded me in a Twitter conversation that there are lots of innovative things happening on smaller scales in higher education. And we should not forget that some of those blossom into large-scale transformations. Remember the internet? And MOOCs? And wasn’t Facebook born on a college campus?

A dear friend accurately classifies the hard stance on both sides more as “truths” than worldviews, making it very difficult to bridge the ideological gap. I’m not convinced the gap is ideological. I suspect the gap is less about change itself and more about the pace of that change. This is a shame in my opinion. These are some of the smartest people in any industry, and the potential for a collaborative and faster re-imagining of educational models toward transformational student experiences is great. We’re competing, when we should be cooperating.

UnCollege + College = ? How can we start solving this equation together?

Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

2 Comments on “Reflections from SXSWEdu

  1. Kristen…thank you for this reflection of SXSWEdu.

    I’ve been depressed that I could not attend the event, and in particular the UnCollege + College = ? gathering.

    Your post made me both less depressed (for missing SXSWEdu) and more depressed (for missing Allison and Dale’s convening).

    The challenge with SXSWEdu (at least for me) is not the content of the event, or the makeup of the participants. It is more conference overload. The luckiest amongst us can maybe go to a couple of conferences a year -and there seem to be too many “must go” events (ELI, and for many of us the edX Global Forums) – which leave the “want to go” events like SXSWEdu out.

    I’d like to be part of the conversation between the startups and the incumbents…..

    We need each other if we are going to make change beyond the incremental.

    Thank you again for helping those of us who could not attend the conference in Austin feel a little bit closer to the action.

  2. From my perspective the rightly recently parodied Silicon Valley and the perpetually challenged Higher Education System suffer from too-much-talk syndrome. Yes both have their plumage and pomp be it wasteful, premature swag, or mothballed, annually-worn robes. Discovery and progress happens organically in the lab where mistakes can instantly be made, identified and corrected. There is another voice that isn’t being heard largely because it also is too busy to talk. It is the voice of those participating in learning labs adjusting as they go. It isn’t specifically the bootcamps and it is definitely not traditional. The best mainstream representation of this type of voice and organization is, a “learning community” that promotes learning in a way that is neither bootcamp nor higher ed without dishonoring either. This model is proven to work elsewhere, in the world of art as a residency. Flow state, as discussed in the many works on “deep work” both recently and before, is largely not a consideration in the conversations between the valley and the campus. Recurse promotes learning with dialog and deep work (as you would find in the Calculus lab and not the lecture hall). It also benefits from being directly and importantly tied to industry both to provide for its needs and respond to its feedback. This is absent almost entirely from both bootcamps and campus education. There are hints of it with alumni organizations and partnerships, but nothing as direct as what Recurse has espoused. The conference I would make time to attend would be one that involved organizations like this third one—whatever its name turns out to be. I like “learning lab or learning community.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *