ILM goes SXSW!

Late post! Lots of things have been changing at VCU ALT Lab, leaving little time to pause and reflect on the past few weeks. I’m going to wrack my memory here because our team’s trip to wonderfully weird Austin, Texas happened almost 2 months ago. That said, the impact of our time at SXSWedu is still being felt, fresh as ever, and is worth delving into. Let’s go!
Temple Grandin delivered the first day’s keynote and spoke eloquently to the idea of diversity in learnership. . What an incredible mind.

We weren’t entirely sure what to expect from SXSWedu. No, we weren’t going because our 3-piece punk band had finally made it out of touring the toilet circuit (though we hold out hope for next year)… but when you say “I’m going to South By,” most people think of the carnival-on-steroids that is the yearly music and film festival. Would the educator’s conference similar: lots and lots of lovely, distracting flash and not-so-much substance? After going to Adobe MAX in October, we were anticipating at least a little sales-pitchy-ness and sparkle… but it turned out that wouldn’t be the case (in the best of ways).

SXSWedu is made up of educators, researchers, and administrators from all levels of education looking to improve their practices – in teaching, in choosing content, in employing practices in the classroom and beyond — in ways that are new, innovative, and inspiring. Had enough buzz words yet? I wish I could say it ends there, but it doesn’t, because the buzz words are all true. All the speakers and panelists we had the pleasure of seeing fit the bill to a T, and we were happy to see the conference deliver on its promise of “fostering innovation in learning by hosting a diverse and energetic community of stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds in education.”

As similar as our jobs are, the ILM team has distinct areas of concentration and interest – so Molly, Max and I each got something different out of the conference. Speaking for myself, I loved seeing so many panels that explored the moral and ethical side of education. As educational media becomes more and more prevalent in classrooms, media makers are forced to start questioning the implications of your work. Am I presenting the subject matter in a truthful way? Am I omitting details or presenting a biased view? Am I sacrificing something important for flash and view counts? I am I making something for someone else’s agenda? The line between “educational media” and “persuasive argument” can sometimes blur quite easily. As people consume media more and more frequently (often without conducting their own research on what they’ve just watched/listened/experienced) the responsibility falls on the content creator to make sure their product and chosen medium doesn’t feed negative emotions like sensationalism, escapism, unchecked reactivity, laziness, et cetera.


I really liked a presentation by Common Sense Media about new tools they’ve made accessible to families and educators to explore topics of morality and character-building through popular media. Martin Atkins provided a fucking funny 15-minute power talk about getting shit done. Lizzie Velasquez shared her story and reminded us all to be sensitive to the seen and unseen struggles of students. Lizzie Edwards shared the virtual reality practices happening at the British Museum and made me kick myself in the face for missing it when I visited last year. Dan Ryder and Ellen Deutscher hosted a fun session in improv and adaptability. Our team sat in a panel where several educators from varying grade levels spoke to their experiences in using video for students’ self-expression and social activism.

Between designing ed tech products in workshops, hearing personal stories of educators working specifically with video and educational media, animating with iPads, programming Lego robotics, and more… there was a lot. I could go on and on. The problem that so often happens at cool, smallish conferences like SXSWedu is that that there’s just too much awesome stuff to see and not enough time. It was really difficult to choose panels – they all seemed to inform each other in different ways, which is actually really awesome – that cohesion is what shapes your takeaway from an event like this. However, when you miss a few things for lack of time, it creates a sense of not getting the “whole picture” …maybe that’s #FOMO? Wouldn’t it be so cool if conferences happened twice? Like, you have one week to see your priority sessions, you get ’em all in, you’re golden to report back to your own work. But wait! Then the whole thing repeats itself the next week so you can have your second go-round for all the cool extra dealies that are just purely interesting. #ifemmaruledtheworld

VR EdTech Product Development! Fun brainstorming and a little public speaking practice, to boot.

Reflecting on it now, my biggest takeaway from SXSWedu was the notion of productivity and how to optimize it. At the end of the day, what struck me most was exactly what I described above: the raw amount of content.

The number of designers and educators and content-creators and people who are thoroughly invested in this work. is. HUGE. There is so much happening across borders and in so many different fields; it made me hopeful that some of the obstacles described by speakers at DML might be overcome through sheer force of will. As the number educators implementing new, more thoughtful practices grows and grows, it changes the landscape of education as a whole. Can we collectively learn about which practices are working best and which are not — and therefore make a more concentrated effort to change the landscape as a community of innovator-educators? Maybe my impression of the scale of this community is skewed because I spent a week surrounded by its members… but it doesn’t lessen my impression of the impact an individual person can have on the classroom. By the looks of it, a handful of personalities are doing work that has an incredible ripple effect – and when more people decide they want to cause ripples, the growth can become exponential.

So. Platitudes time: Work together. Work with your heart. Be productive. Be motivated. Be humble. Be open to change. And when you’re feeling down, do as Martin Atkins so very eloquently says: “Stop being shit – start being awesome!


And you know, since we WERE in Texas… Avocado Maragritas from Curra’s definitely helped us prep to absorb the knowledge. Science, folks.




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