SXSWedu Day 1: Reflections and Round-up

I want to document my experiences at SXSWedu for anyone interested in the conference or for my educator friends in the blogosphere or on twitter. First off, Austin is a super fun city, with a motto of “Keep Austin weird,” how could it not be cool. Second, this is a huge conference, and I mean huge.

Morning Keynote: Temple Grandin

We kicked off the morning with a keynote by Dr. Temple Grandin, a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Temple is openly autistic and focused the bulk of her presentation talking about the different ways that people think and how traditional educational models often put up roadblocks for students who are “smart but quirky.”In her talk, she emphasized the need to ground educational experience in practical assignments so that students can learn practical lessons. Since many students struggle with abstract concepts, there are tons of ways to combat this by making experiences more practical. Temple used lots of anecdotes to support her points, which were insightful and comedic at the same time. My biggest takeaway from this session was that education can’t focus on teaching people the same skills in the same way. Differentiation is a must if students all have to learn the same content, but we should really be thinking about how to foster individual interests in all students, even if that means that people take different paths towards the content.

Virtual Reality is the Future of Media

The second presentation I attended on Day 1 featured some educators from an Israeli ed tech incubator called MindCET.  This was absolutely mind blowing for me, to say the least. It’s rare to see something with so many possibilities in the ed tech space, as a lot of technology just seems to replicate or mechanize things we can do in the physical classroom. VR is different and way cool.

The group from MindCET shared several projects and had some reps from Google Apps for Education to share some cool things that Google is doing in the space.  Their philosophy was that VR could do a lot to help create immersive learning experiences for students. The participants had an opportunity to test out three different products that I’ve reviewed below:

Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift is the prototypical VR platform and was really the first big player (and maybe only real player) in the space. Of the three devices, this was by far the most complex and the most immersive. You could reach out and interact with 3D objects, and in the simulation I participated in, I was able to disassemble a jet engine in virtual reality. To me the biggest downside to this tech is the lack of third party developers. Since the technology is still new, there aren’t that many people creating experiences for it. I’m going to spend more time to see what it would take to develop something and report back.

Google Cardboard 

Google Cardboard is the least complex of all the VR systems we looked at. It is literally a cardboard viewer that encases a regular mobile device that runs an app called Google Expeditions and other third-party apps. Since you can develop these apps for Android and iOS, it seems like there are a lot more people making things for Cardboard. The best thing about this project is how cost-effective the technology is, which starts at $15.00. One of the best things about Google Cardboard, in my opinion, is how the teacher can use their own app to start and control the VR experience for students. Using the app, the teacher can use directional arrows to draw student attention to certain points and monitor the gaze of everyone connected to the session.

Samsung Gear VR

The Gear is best described as something in between the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard. It requires a pretty big upfront hardware purchase, which is much more costly than Google Cardboard, but you still pop in a Samsung phone to actually run the VR experience. This was also interesting because some of the examples we saw integrated audio experience with headphones, which was pretty immersive.


Teachers as Designers

This session was my favorite of the day. A team from IDEO and the Teacher’s Guild talked about how all teachers should think of themselves as designers and challenged us to participate in a design sprint focused on how to involve students in the process of making every day.

It was great fun to work with a different group of educators to come up with a solution to this problem. After going through an intense brainstorming session, we decided to create something to help incetevize risk-taking, teach iteration, and destigmatize the idea of failure.

Enter the Failure Lab

We came up with an idea for Failure Lab, a safe space in schools where students can work on and fail at solving wicked problems. We decided to support this physical space with an app that students can use to share failures so that we can iterate more effectively towards the problem. To work on destigmatizing failure, we decided to gamify the idea of failure and reward students who fail hard and fail often.

wireframe for Failure Lab app

wireframe for Failure Lab app

You can check out and vote for our idea on the Teacher’s Guild here >>>


I love design thinking and have consumed books and resources from IDEO for several years so I was fairly familiar already with the constraints of their design process. What I found most interesting was how difficult it was for other people to participate in certain parts of the design process. For example, two of the IDEO rules for a brainstorming session are “Defer Judgement” and “Focus on Quantity.” For most people, the idea of producing ideas and analyzing them are very intertwined, and I see this happen in almost every meeting I’ve ever been a part of. However, to get really good results, you need to spend some time producing ideas without having to justify or explain them. There was one person in the group in particular who just couldn’t resist this behavior, and it was interesting to see how quickly the process stalled as he started asking people to elaborator on or defend their ideas. There are tons of other design thinking sessions here at SXSWedu, so I’ll continue to post on this all week.

Learning Lab Show Podcast

The DEC team go together Monday night to reflect on our sessions and record some thoughts for everyone else on the Learning Lab Show podcast.

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