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Six Things We Learned At South By Southwest EDU

NPR Ed's Cory Turner chats with teacher Sarah Hagan at SXSWedu in Austin, Texas. LA Johnson/NPR hide caption

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NPR Ed's Cory Turner chats with teacher Sarah Hagan at SXSWedu in Austin, Texas.

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The NPR Ed team is back from Austin, where we connected with hundreds of educators and people excited about education at the annual South By Southwest Edu Conference. As with many conferences, there's just as much to be gained from conversations in the hallways and chance encounters as from the official sessions. Here's what we learned from both.

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1) For many teachers, the most important tech tools are free.

We didn't plan it this way, but all three of the panelists featured on our Insights From Great Teachers panel are bloggers and avid users of Twitter. Sarah Hagan, an inspiring young math teacher from Oklahoma, said that most of what she knows about teaching math, she learned by connecting and sharing information with other teachers online. That's true even though she uses almost no gadgets in her classroom.

Sandy Merz blogs at the Center for Teaching Quality and is active on Facebook. And Shelly Sanchez is one of the founders of #edchat, the original education "hashtag chat" on Twitter. She said thousands of teachers are engaging in these weekly online conversations on a vast variety of topics — special education, English language learners, teaching with technology and many more — and their voices are being heard by millions.

Simply by using the pound sign, she told the crowd, anyone becomes a coder by contributing to a conversation that is searchable and viewable online.

2) Students are speaking up and asserting their rights.

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Zak Malamed is the 21-year-old founder of Student Voice. Elissa Nadworny/NPR hide caption

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Zak Malamed is the 21-year-old founder of Student Voice.

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Zak Malamed is a junior at the University of Maryland and the founder of Student Voice, which organized a summit at the event bringing students in on every panel. "The ideal is that students are a part of every single conversation that influences their experience," he says. The nonpartisan organization has launched a bill of rights for all students, which includes the rights to freedom of expression, to meaningful participation in decisionmaking and to diversity and inclusion. The bill is now viewable online, open to voting, amendment and comments. And Student Voice has introduced a data tool that will track information about how many people participate in the process. "The trick here is making sure that when you're bringing students to the table, you're not just cherry-picking students," he says. "Not just tapping into the voices that you tend to hear."

3) The "Moneyball" system may be coming to higher ed.

Efforts to harness "big data" to improve student learning, completion rates and allow professors and counselors to better target interventions are gaining steam. Civitas Learning, one of the fastest-growing ed-tech companies out there, is partnering with universities, colleges and community colleges to help teachers, counselors and administrators better predict success, target students who need help and aid students who want to track and map progress and their path toward graduation. Other companies doing similar work in what's known as "learning analytics" include Starfish Retention Solutions and EAB.

University administrators for too long have been obsessed with 'autopsy data' on student dropout rates and other metrics, Civitas co-founder Mark Milliron said. Milliron was formerly with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the nonprofit online college Western Governors University.

The data has been there for years, but it was all over the place and too often wasn't blended and analyzed in one place or in a timely fashion. And Milliron says that, moreover, administrators were rarely getting the data "to the front lines" – to professors, counselors and students – to help craft robust interventions. He likens this to hospital administrators using data to critique a doctor after a patient dies instead of feeding him information that can help the patient get well.

4) Student data and privacy will only grow as a bone of contention.

The capture and use of student data from prekindergarten through college is increasing with the adoption of software platforms where every homework problem a student does can be recorded in bits and bytes.

The flipside of the power of analytics and prediction is concerns about privacy. Who owns this data? Who should have access to it? What can be done with it? The federal government is struggling to update guidelines.

Elana Zeide, a research fellow at the Information Law Institute at New York University, told us that student privacy currently stands at the forefront of privacy law. The issues that affect us as students also affect us as borrowers, consumers, patients and citizens, to name a few; but because kids are especially vulnerable, concern is focused here.

RiShawn Biddle, editor of Dropout Nation, at SXSWedu. LA Johnson/NPR hide caption

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RiShawn Biddle, editor of Dropout Nation, at SXSWedu.

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RiShawn Biddle, editor of the education magazine Dropout Nation, focuses on parents' access to relevant data about schools. "Right now education data is a black box," he said. "When parents have both comprehensive and yet easy to understand data, they can start making better decisions." And not just state test scores. "If you're a black parent, you need access to suspension and expulsion rates."

5) Entrepreneurship isn't just a class or a discipline; it can be the foundation of a school.

Sujata Bhatt is the founder of Incubator School, a "startup school" in more ways than one. It's one of 49 "pilot schools": regular public schools in the LA Unified School District given some of the freedoms to innovate that charter schools enjoy. The school is designed to equip every student with the ability to run his or her own enterprise — addressing a real world problem — by high school graduation. "The average age of entrepreneurs is moving down, and kids are checking out of school because it doesn't feel relevant," Bhatt says. In its second year, the Incubator School is one of the most economically and ethnically diverse in the entire district, and its model is continuing to update and evolve even as they are hosting interested visitors from all over the country.

6) Kids have always, will always, love shooting stuff across the room.

Whether you call it "making," "tinkering," "project-based learning," "hands-on-learning" or "STEAM" (an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), it's super, super hot right now. Rosanne Somerson, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, was at the conference with her new book titled The Art of Critical Making. She told me she thinks of making as a complex process that literally embodies critical thinking—and also requires emotional intelligence and empathy.

Jackie Bastardi is a 25-year-old instructor at Curious on Hudson, an enrichment program in upstate New York designed to expose kids to science, engineering and creativity in a fun, low-pressure atmosphere. Elissa Nadworny/NPR hide caption

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Jackie Bastardi is a 25-year-old instructor at Curious on Hudson, an enrichment program in upstate New York designed to expose kids to science, engineering and creativity in a fun, low-pressure atmosphere.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Jackie Bastardi is a 25-year-old instructor at Curious on Hudson, an enrichment program in upstate New York designed to expose kids to science, engineering and creativity in a fun, low-pressure atmosphere.

"We let the kids kind of have a free-for-all," she says. One week they were studying Leonardo da Vinci and they built a trebuchet — a catapult launched by a string. "The kids were all, 'Can we make a bigger one?' "