SXSWedu – Day 1

It’s day one at my first go around at SXSWedu and the message I am receiving loud and clear is simple:

We (as in they, that is, us…well, you get it) seem to be obsessed with finding THE thing that works.  

“We”, “thing”, and “works” are somewhat negotiable, but all are driven by a quest for capital gain, profit, and (if and when some glimpse of social good is hinted at) the desire for moving the masses toward greater social mobility through (very large) assumptions about cultural assimilation as the medium of change.

In short: Products need consumers and education is the holy grail of new consumer markets.

Neuroscience, that frontier of knowledge about human beings even neuroscientists are rightfully skeptical about, is the dominant lever that speakers readily push to advocate for changes in educational marketing, practices, and policies. The logic goes something like this: “Brain research says we do X in Y settings. Someone tested the X-Y theory in this other setting. So that brain research means that we need to do Z when marketing our products to parents.” Or, in another version: “We know, from neuroscience, that people do X whenever Y is the goal. So, we need to create more Y for people to do more X.” The problem with that logic — admittedly oversimplified for the purposes of making a point here — is that reliance on “brain research” alone, even when variables are controlled for and the like, is that people are fickle and, more importantly, contexts are dynamic. So, while “brain research” can point us to interesting phenomena and patterns of human behavior, without a rich(er) understandings of sociocultural, affective, and even aesthetic understandings of where, when, and how these patterns or phenomena unfold, they will remain inaccurate theories at best… at worst, they become suffocating tools of maintaining an inequitable status quo of access and experiences that currently dominates our educational landscape.

Even theories and proposals that strive to start with the user — the notion that a product may be used in unexpected ways, for example — ultimately are driven by the hope of converting the user (that is, a child, his or her parent, a community, a teacher, a school, etc.) to become brand loyal to whatever the seller is selling: lifestyle tools and apps, software, toys, games, helpful devices and gadgets and so much more. I was pleased to hear a couple of speakers talking about learning through the prism of joy in a recognition of some of the affective qualities of how we learn and grow as human beings. However, this joy at new product/toy/game discovery by kids was placed in an oppositional position to what a child may encounter when “forced” to do so by a teacher; the assumption here is that schooling is ultimately a teacher-dominated enterprise, and will remain so, particularly as teachers continue to be viewed and treated as instructional pawns by educational policy and reform. (Please note: while the implicit view by publishers, ed tech product developers, and policymakers may in fact reinforce this view of teachers, the reality is that teachers, by and large, are motivated by creating meaningful experiences with and for their students. And children and youth, likewise, are deeply invested in their own learning and would be more so if only we — that is, they, you, them, us… — let them.)

I hastily formed these initial impressions while moving in and out of six different sessions today. I spent time in the Playground, where exhibits about various educational technology tools, platforms, and whole programs are set up to invite attendees to interact by trying on augmented reality goggles, for example, or play with the 3Doodler (the line was too long, so I’ll have to get there early tomorrow; I’m determined to give it a try before giving in to my own consumer desires to acquire one…for the good of our program, of course…). I also attended a couple of presentations at the Industry Hub and the Policy Forum.

As the day winds down, I am preparing to attend a reception and a dinner meeting during which time I hope to learn more about how players in the domains of educational technology development, practice, research, and policy interact and intersect at this site of confluence. I’m curious to learn how the conversations here may be relevant to the new digital games masters degree that our program is launching, that is aimed at people who want to design educational games most effectively for learning in a variety of ways and across a variety of settings. I want to know how we (they/them/us/you) are taking into account the ineffable qualities of educational experience in the ways that Dewey invited us, again and again, to attend to, to notice, to cultivate?

Or, viewed another way, is there room for Dewey in a consumer-driven, brand loyalty motivated enterprise masked as education?


I do believe that the effectiveness of toys, games, and tools aimed at supporting children’s educational experiences can be assessed in holistic, generative, and multifaceted ways that go beyond what third party media/tech reviewers can offer. But I also would like to see that conversation and its concomitant set of frenetic byproducts — ie, scoring systems, policy statements, use of learning analytics to predict behaviors, and the like — slow down to consider what the assessment of effectiveness in service of and for whom a toy/game/activity/product may be effective. We can’t zoom past these definitions by assuming that we are all on the same page, when it is certain that “we” are not. Pausing to examine these elements will allow us to better commit to the purposes behind our efforts to assess, evaluate, perhaps even re-design and implement technologies in creative, educationally rich ways that actively engage the voices, experiences, funds of knowledge, and desires of the people often at the center of educational discussions: children, youth, and educators.


In my more Illich-like moments, I might be inclined to riff on what exactly we mean by effective and the circulation of power embedded in such questions. But I’ll keep those questions at bay… for now.