Mia’s Guide to SXSW EDU 2018

March 4, 2018

Mia’s Guide to SXSW EDU 2018

I’m excited to be returning to Austin for SXSW this year. While I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas, I volunteered at the very first SXSW Interactive in 1998, and was pleased when the festival added a new segment focused on innovation in education seven years ago. Since then, SXSW EDU has grown dramatically. Just reading through the whole program is a project! Having completed it, I’m delighted that many sessions and events that connect with key issues we’re grabbling with at Mia Learning, particularly AI in education and student agency.

AI in Education

Artificial intelligence is all over SXSW this year. I’m particularly looking forward to AI in Education: Opportunities and Challenges (Wednesday, 3:30-4:30), where top technologists and futurists will discuss what they’re seeing as their work with ed tech companies and schools around the world. The Rise of AI & What It Means for Education Meet Up (Tuesday, 11:00-12:30), hosted by Tom Vander Ark, should be a great opportunity to begin discussing AI’s potential and reality.

The captivating possibilities for supporting learning with AI also raises ethical questions we must engage now. In her keynote, What Have We Wrought? (Wednesday, 9:30-10:30), the always excellent danah boyd will examine the biases from our larger society that are too often reproduced, with a veneer of objectivity, in AI and machine learning. A panel of educators and data experts will grapple with the challenges of Ed Tech & Data Privacy: The Case for Transparency (Tuesday, 12:30-1:30), and Jennifer Galegos will consider what it means for an AI itself to be an ethical educator in the session with my favorite title this year, Letters to a Young AI (Monday, 12:30-12:50).

When I visited Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia last week, principal Chris Lehman expressed his conviction that schools should “use humans to do human things.” I agreed, but both of us found it challenging to define makes an activity distinctively human. Chris settled on things that involve “making meaning.” I’d add things that involve caring relationships. Ensuring students have a close relationship with an adult at school is one of the most powerful things we can do to help through thrive.

In Who Wants to Outsource Relationships? (Monday, 3:00-6:00), leading educational AI researchers and entrepreneurs from Israel and the US will join media literacy expert Rene Hobbs to consider how much of the relational work of education we want to turn over to computers. At Mia Learning, we believe that there’s no substitute for regular discussions about reading with caring adults. We’re committed to making the student-Mia relationship a springboard to deeper engagement with teachers and parents focused on literacy. Mia always augments, never replaces.

One key to counter bias in educational technology is to make sure those designing it start to look more like the people who will use it. The panel Diversity of Ed Tech (Monday, 5:00-6:00) will argue this is the result not of a lack of diverse talent—not a “pipeline problem”—but rather a failure of hiring practices. Even small startups like Mia Learning need focus from the start on building a diverse team. I think we’re doing fairly well so far, and I am committed to making diversity a key HR objective as we grow, learning from innovators such as The Mentor Method.

Learner Agency

Another powerful way to address ethical challenges is to empower learners themselves. Technology can be better designed to address privacy and security concerns, but ultimately the Best Internet Filter is Between A Child’s Ears (Wednesday, 2:00-3:30). We need to help kids develop the critical and creative ability to make good choices for themselves.

Kids’ choices are more likely to shape educational technology when they not only use it but also create it. Among the many sessions on maker spaces, media production, and coding, I’m particularly intrigued by Ann Gadzikowski’s suggestion that even early learners can begin think about machine intelligence design issues in Teaching AI in Kindergarten (Tuesday, 11-11:20). I’m not sure if I’m ready for five-year-olds yet, but I do look forward later this year to helping high school and GED students at the Maya Angelou Schools (where I serve on the board) develop their own AI using some of the same services that power Mia.

Empowering learners is fundamentally about supporting ensuring they have agency over their own learning and support in exercising it well. Student agency require intrinsic motivation to learn. However, many of the attempts to build motivation in educational technology products today are misguided. Elliott Hedman will argue that We’re Doing Gamification Wrong, (Wednesday, 4:00-4:20) likely drawing on the research that shows extrinsic rewards—points, virtual gold stars and the like—actually dampens intrinsic motivation. This is why Barbara Marinak and Linda Gambrell titled their excellent book on motivation to read, No More Reading for Junk.

Standard approaches to assessment, whether high stakes or informal, can also be a motivation killer and need to be radically rethought, as we’ll hear at Ed Tech & the Radical Disruption of Assessments (March 5, 2-3). Our team has resisted adding gamification and assessment features to Mia precisely to avoid such pitfalls. I’m looking forward to hearing about alternatives with which we might experiment.

Better approaches likely involve helping students map their own paths, as 25 Ways to Drive Student Agency Using Goal Setting (Wednesday, 1:00-3:30) will examine, with a renewed focus on the whole child (Promoting Holistic Success for All Students happy hour, Tuesday, 5:30-8:30) and policies that offer flexible pathways, prioritizing and supporting student choice (Personalized learning and Competency Education Meet Up, Wednesday, 2:00-3:00, hosted by iNACOL’s dynamic Susan Patrick). The fruits of such efforts will be showcased on Monday and Tuesday by students themselves at the Learning Expo.

In addition to all the talk about agency at SXSW, I’m also very glad to see opportunities for educators use theirs. To that end, PBS is hosting Choose Your Own Adventure: A PBS EdCamp (Tuesday, 12:00-6:00). EdCamps are peer professional learning events organized by the participants themselves. In my experience, it’s way less chaotic than you might expect, the learning is substantial, and the experience energizing.

Let’s Talk

If you’re going to be in Austin this week, I’d love to chat with you—about any of these issues, about Mia Learning, or about whatever else is on your mind. Tweet (@dcambrid) or email me (darren@mialearning.com), and we can find a time to meet up. I hope to see you at SXSW!

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