It’s South by Southwest (SXSW) season in Austin, Texas. SXSWedu, the education-focused portion of the now-famous music, film and interactive festival, led off with four days of sessions, keynotes, bake-offs and networking aimed at getting the education sector fired up for progress and innovation. 

Several things struck me about this year’s conference, all of which can accelerate progress toward the greater goal of every student achieving their educational aspirations.

First, the innovative, entrepreneurial energy abounds. This is definitely tied to the event’s explosive growth and to its draw as a matchmaking opportunity between venture capital reps and vendors with good ideas and leading-edge products. In 2011, the education track of SXSW was a one-day series of presentations and breakout sessions attended by a few hundred people. This week, thousands of attendees converged on Austin to engage in thoughtful discussions, witness ground-breaking announcements and experience innovative learning approaches. All this because of a common goal:  we want to improve teaching and learning and help all students achieve increasingly more. Harnessing that collective passion and focused investment bodes well for the sector’s ability to challenge conventional wisdom, explore new ways to improve educational impact and jump-start the educational marketplace.

Second, this year’s event included an even broader set of stakeholders. Vendors of all sizes and types discussed challenges and good ideas directly with the educators they seek to serve. An expanded number of state and federal policy makers shared points of view on a wide range of topics. Bringing people together sets the stage for meaningful discussions and new relationships – both of which can lead to breakthrough solutions. This broad range of representation mirrors the Alliance’s commitment to ensure that all voices are included and heard. It’s a necessary component of moving the sector forward to resolve important issues, bat down myths and misconceptions, and create important advances.

Finally, every major topic in education today received its share of attention. From the College Board’s changes to the SAT to online learning to achievement gaps to data privacy – all topics were ‘on the table’. This open dialogue with a range of stakeholders involved is exactly the kind of setting that can lead to new solutions and new support for existing solutions. It’s no surprise that the issue of student data privacy was first and foremost. In presentations and hallway conversations two themes stood out as critical to making more progress on privacy issues:

  • The need to ensure that changes in policy and practice more explicitly address effective data use and effective data privacy protections as two sides of the same coin. Mutually reinforcing policies and practices must equip parents, educators, policymakers and students with timely, meaningful data to chart student success—they must also address student data privacy needs.
  • The need for best practices on everything from models for state policymakers to educator training to security protocols and data governance. Stakeholders need and want more and better resources to guide quick but reasoned action.

SXSWedu is a unique forum, unlike the typical edu-conference because it gathers everyone from early stage application vendors to educators to a former US Secretary of Education and funders of various sorts. It may not be perfect (a disappointed attendee’s view is here), but it provides an opportunity for bridge-building between and among people who care about the future of education. I’d call that part of the recipe for progress and action.