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Sober and Practical SXSWedu 2017 Puts AI, AR, VR on Stage

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Sober and Practical SXSWedu 2017 Puts AI, AR, VR on Stage

By: -
13 Mar 2017

Larger than ever with almost 8,000 attendees from 47 countries this year, Austin, TX’s South by Southwest Edu (SXSWedu) “felt” different this year.  The vibe?  Let’s roll up our sleeves and be a bit more realistic about Ed Tech.  Though in recent years venture capital and its interest in Ed Tech has been a dominant element of SXSWedu, and complaints from educators were frequent that the conference had been taken over by the moneyed, this year saw a moderate, more methodical tone.  At least that’s what I felt.

This doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of venture money “out there.”  One of my favorite talks related to Ed Tech funding came from Charles McIntyre and Ben Vedrenne-Cloquet, Co-founders of EdTechXGlobal. The gist?  The Ed Tech market is not in a bubble, just “effervescent.”  Their talk focused on why education has been so slow to digitize and personalize – particularly in comparison to the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify.  And they believe unicorns indeed are likely to emerge to transform education.  While reminding us of Martin Ford’s (Rise of the Robots) prediction that within the next 20 years about 45% of all common jobs will be replaced by AI or robots,  the pair make the optimistic argument that instead of fretting about AI, machine learning, and lost jobs, we should be racing against “obsolescence” by considering where there are shortages, i.e., teachers.  (There are 2.7 million teachers globally and yet a shortage is at play, so to some extent tech is going to have to pick up the slack.) 

Where will the Ed Tech growth come from?  Not here. The West and developed nations are so “yesterday’s news.”  This duo sees emerging markets as the digital opportunity.  Factoid I just grabbed: the median age worldwide is 30.1.  And where will you find 60% of the global population with youth supreme, young people very open to fast digital adoption?  Yep: emerging markets.  Think of the example of how developing nations recently adopted high-speed cellular networks far faster than developed nations because they didn’t have legacy landlines. Similarly, there will be less inertia and resistance from emerging market institutions in coming years.  So, expect to find many unicorns arising out of China and the rest of Asia. 

When McIntyre and Vedrenne-Cloquet polled the room to ask how many people believe there is an Ed Tech investment bubble, only two hands were raised out of perhaps 70 attendees. I guarantee that two-to-three years ago, half the room would have been raising their hands.  As these guys pointed out, “We invest 30 times less in digital Ed than we do in renewable energy.”  One thing McIntyre and Vedrenne-Cloquet don’t know: they can’t predict where will the dollars come from on the buy side.  At least in the developed nations, my concern is that we are likely to get fouled up by policy makers and politicians who don’t see the forest for the trees and who shouldn’t be involved in educational policy anyway.

Meantime, the other big topics of interest to our readers were virtual reality / augmented reality (VR/AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).  And like all that effervescent Ed Tech market talk, VR and AR seem to have hit a refreshing reality checkpoint.  Evan Schiff, Pearson’s UK-based Head of Digital, Higher Nationals gave a great talk on the business of VR and how vendors can best approach the education market.  The caution?  VR could fall into the same adoption trough faced in the past (but eventually overcome, of course) by computers, whiteboards, video conferencing, and so many other forms of Ed Tech.  He polled the room and while roughly 60% of the attendees own VR headsets, nobody uses them on a regular basis.  What will pull VR/AR out of the threat of a slump in education?  Teachers.  Schiff’s was not the only session in which I heard a new appreciation for the fact that to drive adoption, you need educators involved up front, not just in casual focus groups or beta testing, but in actual product formulation. Then on top of that, for VR/AR to become mainstreamed in education, look for content out of those folks.  With content will come applications and real usage.  One of my favorite charts of all time is the one below that Schiff showed representing how much more quickly technologies spread today than in the past (compare the telephone or radio with the cellphone or microwave as examples).

Source: Michael Felton, NYTimes / HBR.Org / Evan Schiff presentation, SXSWedu

In keeping with the “let’s keep a sane attitude” tone, Herb Coleman, Director of Campus Technology Services at Austin Community College and an adjunct professor of psychology, had a wonderfully titled talk: VR Will NOT Save Education; VR Might Destroy It.  While it was apparent he’s a fan of VR, he’s a realist: as long as there’s a lack of instructional intent and limited understanding of desired outcomes, VR will remain fringe – or even could become dangerous if abused.  (Too little is understood about the physiological effects of VR, as well as the potential impact of shared VR experiences in which users are co-located in the same physical space.)

Over to AI: Carnegie Mellon’s Mark Stehlik, assistant dean for outreach and teaching professor at CMU’s School of Computer Science gave a terrific talk about what AI might mean for education.  Using examples garnered from the likes of kidney exchanges and barter markets (AI algorithms are now being used by 2/3 of kidney transplant centers to better match donors and recipients) and the gaming industry (in ten years machines will beat all of us at poker), Stehlik suggests that the real frontier will be human-AI interaction – and that we better begin to prepare learners for the extent to which AI will be an essential element of their lives in future decades. (Note: as I was publishing this post I also heard a great NPR piece on the mixed reception AI is getting at the main SXSW Conference event this week -- a post-SXSWEdu blowout even bigger and more tech-oriented.  A year ago AI and robots were the rage; this year sobriety is hitting the main stage as well.)

Northeastern University was part of a panel presented by Pearson on the topic of AI in Education.  Everyone agrees that AI is here, even if it comes and goes as a popular topic, and that learning will need to shift away from knowledge acquisition and over to creativity and adaptability.  In theory, the ability to update systems based on learner activities and make recommendations based on those activities will lead to that creativity and adaptability (instead of making learners lazy).  Based on the audience polling in this session, it’s clear to some of us there’s a fear of the future – a sense that future tech may be getting a bit creepy.  Northeastern’s attitude (I did not get the speaker’s name and the panel was assembled late so don’t have his bio) was like Carnegie Mellon’s Stehlik’s: we will need to teach AI as a concept to learners if we want to prepare learners for an entirely different workplace.

Any conference about the convergence of Ed Tech and Ed policy needs to push the envelope, and such a talk was delivered by Elaine Raybourn, a Sandia National Laboratories social scientist who spoke about Next Generation Transmedia Learning Ecosystems.  Huh, you might ask?  Well, it’s easy to think that the solutions to digital learning are standalone, but Raybourn thinks in terms of the ecosystem of tools, media types, methods of storytelling (content), and methods of personalization. Transmedia is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies.  In her ecosystem, transmedia storytelling and transmedia learning trump traditional multimedia or traditional blended learning.  This means all you product developers out there need to be thinking big picture about where your Ed Tech will be fitting into the ecosystem – don’t just think you can build a point solution in the education environment of the future.  And in one of the more refreshing points made at SXSWedu that I heard, Raybourn calls for people figuring out how to create the “dopamine bump” from learning.  Think about the “aha” moments we all get when we “get” something.  Ed Tech needs to consider where it can add that to the experience. Elaine gave a TedTalk a few years ago that describes what she means by transmedia learning.

These are my greatest hits.  You just never get to every session at an event like this.  While I give the organizers kudos for putting together a compelling program, I wonder how influential SXSWedu can be when so many other educational technology, policy, and pedagogy events exist. (Off the top of my head: ISTE, Educause, COSN, BETT, EDEN in Europe, regional conferences, communities of practice – OLC, SITE, etc.)  Perhaps SXSWedu needs to narrow its focus to fewer areas and fewer presenters, with more audience interactivity.  Some of these sessions were twenty minutes long, leaving no time for all cylinders to kick in.  

End of suggestion/gripe, and I’ll wrap on a positive note: The Whether powered by Better Weekdays won the SXSWedu Launch Competition.  This operation helps employers attract, engage, and hire college graduates by keeping relevant internships and jobs on a student's radar. Think of it as the first inbound recruiting platform that powers brand-driven campus hiring. Its application matches top talent with personalized career pathways.  The Whether app provides the ideal conditions for students to interact with career services and brands in a whole new way.  We’ve published a bit in the past on how much better higher education could do in using technology to grease the skids for learners entering the workforce…nice to see this particular tech coming to the rescue.

The Whether powered by Better Weekdays – Source: Photo by Diego Donamaria / SXSWedu