Saturday, March 8, 2014

My SXSWEdu Reflections

Conferences are funny.  The leadup is filled with much anticipation and unrealistic expectations.  SXSWEdu certainly didn’t disappoint in this regard.  The schedule was packed with hundreds of sessions.  It would take the super power of dividing yourself numerous times to manage to attend everything you would ‘like’ to attend.  This applies to the evening activities as well.  So, what to do?  The best anyone could do is take each time slot and the desired activities for those time slots and throw darts at the narrowed down choices, commit to those, and don’t look back!  Otherwise, you can spend much of your life second guessing choices and thinking about what you  coulda shoulda woulda chosen.  And truthfully, the best part of any conference is just being in the space and making relationships, some of which you only hope sustain beyond the conference.  The people at SXSWEdu were great.  I really enjoyed all of the interactions I had.  Now I just need to sort through the business cards and hope I remember who was who.  Otherwise, I might just have to send an email to everyone and say, “Hey.  We met at South by and you made enough of an impact that I asked for your card.  I’m the guy who teaches Video Game Design and Development.  Who were you again?”  Not sure if that’s too tacky.  We’ll have to see.  Quite honestly, in the spirit of this conference in particular and the large number of startups present, it makes me think I should partner with someone to create an app that really helps you organize these relationships.  I wonder what that would look like?  Perhaps a quick and easy method to take a picture, scan the business card, and jot a quick note with keyword tags.  Anyone interested in partnering on this one?    Let me know…

OK, so I can’t write about the sessions I couldn’t make it to.  Time to switch gears and share what I can!

Bridging the Teacher / Entrepreneur Divide

My main reason for attending South by was to present with Katya Hott as the session we submitted was accepted.   Our session had the distinct honor of being the first problem solver session offered at the conference.  This is a new category and the intent is to present a problem and work with the attendees to address it.  We were excited to see our session show up on the official daily South by Southwest EDU “What ‘s happening today” bulletin for the first day of the conference.  This was quite an honor as only about 5 sessions (one being the keynote) were highlighted on this publication delivered to all attendees.  Katya is a former teacher who worked at e-line media until recently when she moved to a new position at Brainpop.  One of her primary roles is to work with educators to recruit feedback on products in order to make them better and more effective in reaching desired learning outcomes.  I have been fortunate enough to connect with Katya and develop a relationship that has been mutually beneficial for sure.  As an educator, it’s wonderful to have the ear of a developer.  It has helped me to shape the development of products and see key features added that help me use the product as a teaching tool.  I’ve managed to develop similar relationships with other developers and for me it has really enhanced my experience as an educator and a member of the EdTech community.  Our goal in preparing for our session was to work with others to create a community of those already interested, but also to provide a means to reach out to those who would be interested in participating but may not be connected currently.  It is our belief that teachers want to be involved in this process and that developers value the input of educators. We also entered the discussion assuming there were cultural factors that interfere with the potential.  It was our hope to acknowledge and address these factors and work together to come up with a method to move past any cultural issues and develop empathy for both sides so that we can truly work together in a way that can ultimately move the EdTech field forward in a positive way.  In our session, it was confirmed that developers and educators have similar goals and definitely want to work together.  I’m excited to continue to move forward and work with others to make an impact.

Ours was not the only session looking to address this issue.  Lindsey Own (@lindseyown), Stephanie Sandifer (@ssandifer), Dion Lim (@dinolim), and Jay Goyal (@goyalj) spoke on a panel titled, “Win-Win! Strategies for EdTech/Educator Engagement”.  We were able to initiate conversation with Stephanie and Lindsey prior to the conference and continued to collaborate and share ideas through the conference and support each others’ efforts.  Their session provided attendees with the opportunity to explore some common myths or misconceptions that occur on both sides.  The resounding message that I took away from their session was how crucial relationship building is to the success of collaboration.  This is right in line with what came out of our session as well.  Clearly, teachers do not want to be approached randomly by edtech companies that don’t even know what we do.  Rather, creating and nurturing relationships is the key to success.  Many other great points came out of their session, but this idea really stuck with me as the most relevant. 

As the week went on, the twitter connections certainly continued.  One connection that was especially productive was the discussion that developed with William Jenkins from Tech Stories.  Clearly, we have set out on the same mission.  William has been working on community development in this area already through online chats and his work with (and outside of) Tech Stories.  The synergy is obvious and as we move forward, I am certain the collaborative efforts will grow.  

#minecraft your classroom!

I was able to attend and support the #minecraftedu crew in this hands on session.  In order to make this session a success, 30 computers were rented and configured for the activities designed for the hands on experience.  The 30 computers were snagged immediately and about another 30 (or more) people continued to flow into the room creating a standing room only environment.  In fact, a good number of people were turned away once the room filled.  Joel Levin (@MinecraftTeacher) and Stephen Elford (@EduElfie) led the session.  Elfie came in all the way from Australia.  He is one of the key contributors to the MinecraftEdu online community.  To give a little context, MinecraftEdu is a product created by Teacher Gaming, LLC.  The idea behind minecraftEdu was to create a mod that made using minecraft in the classroom easy (so easy that even a teacher could do it!).  The mod provides teachers with a launcher that does not require individual logins, a server tool, and building tools that facilitate the creation of in game content.  The community of educators is wildly active and the level of support teachers provide for one another is amazing.  There is a google group devoted to the minecraftedu community as well as a google+ community. 

The session was comprised of educators who have heard about minecraft, but had little to no experience with the game (aside from possibly watching their own child play).  There was a lot of excitement in the room as the possibilities of the game were explained and the buzz got greater as the audience of teachers were able to log into a multiplayer server and experience the game first hand.  Several maps were shown, including the tutorial map that teaches beginners how to navigate the world.  It was great to be part of this and help teachers get acclimated to the game.  Of course, seeing those ‘a-ha’ moments really made the experience rewarding.  I believe a number of these teachers will be bringing minecraft to their classroom in one way or another after engaging in this experience.

The SXSWEdu Playground

I spent a good deal of time in the ‘playground’.  This area was introduced to the conference last year and has grown this year.  The playground was essentially made up of a number of experiential areas related to the maker movement and game based learning, Digital Harbor Foundation ( was represented and shared some projects created by students in their programs.  One that was especially cool was an LED board that changed colors based on a tweet indicating the color you wanted it to change to.  

Sparkfun electronics ( gave attendees a chance to play with some of their neat makerspace products including the Raspberry Pi, Arduino board, and their LilyPad product helps people ‘hack’ their clothing and create wearable electronics.  Tynker ( had an active presence in the playground at their own booth allowing people to explore their approach to teaching coding to kids in grades k-8.  

The brainpop ( crew was showcasing the Game Up section of the site (  Game Up is brainpop’s integrated approach to game based learning.  The site features 91 games covering content areas including Science, Math, Social Studies, Health, English, and Engineering & Technology.  I have always been drawn to the way Brainpop features the game in context rather than isolation.  Every game is displayed on a separate page with the associated brainpop video and related activities and lesson ideas on the same page.  This really helps teachers to bring game based learning into the classroom in a seamless manner.  In addition to GameUp, brainpop was chatting with attendees about games and assessment and highlighting the mybrainpop features that allow teachers to track student progress and provide feedback to students.  Students can share reflection through the snapshot tool where they essentially take a screen capture at any phase of the gameplay and can then reflect on the experience and share their entry with the teacher.  In terms of assessment,  Sortify is a playful assessment tool that allows the student to demonstrate their understanding through a sorting game that provides instant feedback to the student and the teacher. 

In addition to the many booths that were set up throughout the conference, the playground played host to a number of conference sessions and hands on workshops.  David Conover and Celia Alicata presented the session that stood out most to me.  Conover is a high school teacher who runs a career readiness course in Game Design and Development at Connally High School in Austin.  His students shared their experiences in his class.  The class operates like a Game Design studio where students explore real world problems through game design.  Within the class, students have unique roles including experienced students serving as project managers.  Other students work on different aspects of the design process based on their areas of skill and interest.  It was clear from the students that they are gaining real world experience in a thoroughly engaging manner.  I was able to connect with the students and we are in the planning stages of creating a mentor / mentee program between the Connally high school students and the middle school students that I teach.  I’m excited to collaborate with this fine group of students!

I’ll stop there for now.  SXSWEdu was fantastic.  As I digest more of the conference I will be sure to post more reflections.