South by Southwest's film, music and interactive conferences are star-studded events that draw a hip, technologically progressive crowd to Austin. Organizers of South by Southwest's education conference, SXSW-edu, hope to foster similar excitement about education as the event kicks off Tuesday.
SXSWedu, in its second year, is the newest conference in the SXSW lineup and is geared toward education professionals as well as business, industry and policy leaders.
Austin is fertile ground for education innovators, organizers say, thanks to easy access and proximity to researchers at the University of Texas, the policymakers at the Capitol and the booming tech sector.
Austin business leaders also say SXSWedu will help the area cultivate and woo "ed-tech" startups. The city is home to education software companies including Enspire Learning, CompassLearning and Thinkwell.
"We're trying to build a thought leaders conference," said Ron Reed, SXSWedu's executive producer.
As a university town and the seat of state government, Austin has long been considered a hub for people interested in education issues, Reed said. "That has blossomed as related to the education issue, both statewide and nationally."
The event, which runs through Thursday, includes big-picture sessions that address subjects such as the challenges of educating students from low income families, and nuts-and-bolts panels on how to use various technologies.
Speakers include U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan; LeVar Burton, of the children's television show "Reading Rainbow"; Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of the media and education company Pearson; and leaders from organizations such as Teach for America, Creative Commons and the Texas Education Agency.
Last year, 800 people attended SXSWedu. Reed said that number has more than doubled this year, and registration will continue throughout the conference. SXSW officials attribute the event's growth in part to this year's expanded focus. Last year, SXSWedu was primarily a Texas event that, with the Texas Education Agency, showcased Project Share, an online education resource-sharing initiative.
"Attending the conference and finding out how people are actually doing things, real teachers, real kids, was very rewarding," said Anita Givens, associate commissioner for standards and programs at the Texas Education Agency.
This year, the conference is embracing a national focus. The number of concurrent breakout sessions has doubled — from about 50 to about 100.
"It's really a chance for Texas to show off a little bit, to show the rest of the world what we're doing, education-wise," said Amanda Thomas, an advocacy associate with the Texas Charter Schools Association. "I'm (also) looking forward to hearing about things outside my world, to hear from a business perspective and other perspectives ... to seeing more what other people's thoughts and ideas are."
David Anderson, an education lobbyist and consultant with HillCo Partners, serves on the SXSWedu advisory board. "The combination as the state capital and as the incubator for a lot of tech startups that have a presence here ... the (testing) industry that exists in the Austin-San Antonio corridor, all of those things make Austin exactly the right place at the right time to have something like SXSWedu," he said.
Manor Superintendent Andrew Kim said the event is valuable in that it provides an opportunity to exchange ideas with people working within education but outside the classroom. "This conference is not your prototypical principals or teachers," Kim said. "It's a whole different cross-section of folks interested in education — from business to industry to educators — that creates a nice place for ideas to be bounced off each other."
The SXSW conferences are an economic boon for the city long after the last conference-goer frequents a final food truck.
Like SXSW Interactive, SXSWedu highlights the benefits of working in Austin for entrepreneurs considering a move, said Drew Scheberle, vice president of education at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
"Last year at Edu, I remember talking to a company (from) California who saw the ecosystem and the level of support that Austin is trying to provide," Scheberle said. "They said, ‘We're a long way behind you.' In software terms, that's killer. You have to be at the cutting edge of talent and technology."
The chamber will host a breakfast for companies interested in relocation opportunities, he said. "People at the conference will say: ‘Hey, I'm interested. Tell me why I should move here.' We showcase companies like CompassLearning, who say, ‘I moved here because of the cost-of-living advantage, the quality-of-life advantage.' "
A select group of entrepreneurs will showcase their work at LAUNCH- edu, during which companies from across the country will present their start-up education concepts to a panel of industry experts. Education software startup GYLO, which stands for GetYa Learn On, is the only Austin business represented among the finalists, many of which hail from Silicon Valley.
"Austin's seen a lot of growth, ... and technology has been a major, major driver in that growth," said Geoff Fletcher, deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. "Austin is looked upon as a leader across the country, along with Silicon Valley in California. There's some key pockets of innovation surrounding tech and innovation in this country, and Austin has a notion of tying that together with education."
"It's a young conference," said Fletcher, who will discuss how technology can improve the school assessment process. "It's also a conference that has a significant entrepreneurial side to it, which is exciting."
Contact Katie Glueck at 445-3702