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Guest Blog Post by: Eileen Rudden, Partner at LearnLaunch

I am back from Austin and SXSWedu, which I thought reflected the conversation going on in the education marketplace. I noticed five themes:

  1. SXSWedu has expanded its focus from predominantly K-12 to higher ed and lifelong learning/corporate training.
  2. Student data privacy and security continues to generate conversation.
  3. K-12 edtech startup businesses are maturing.
  4. There is more international interest.
  5. There is more interest in project-based learning and social emotional learning.

The conference expanded from its historical focus on K-12 to include higher ed and even some lifelong learning topics. This reflects the changes in the market, which the LearnLaunch Accelerator has seen in its applicant pool as more K-12 categories now have startup leaders. The Gates Foundation sponsored sessions on college completion and college pathways.

Last year, InBloom was in its death throes at SXSWedu, and there were only three panels on student data privacy and security. It was nine months after the Edward Snowden revelations. This year, the conversation has been robust and focused on what should be expected from edtech companies. There were 11 panels on student data privacy and security, which spanned the need for common standards to suggested policy changes.

Edtech businesses are maturing: the companies presenting during the LAUNCHedu competition were, for the most part, in well-established categories: language learning (LanguageZen), student assessment (PearDeck), and flipped classroom videos and assessment (Zaption, which won the competition). Lea(r) n, which offers a system for schools to evaluate technology offerings (a topic often raised by educators) didn’t make it to the final three. In past years there were innovative startups, such as RobotsLab.

At the same time, Curriculet announced a partnership with USA Today to do something similar to what Newsela is already doing. More startups seem to be entering each other’s “spaces.” Meanwhile, some investors continue to see edtech startups as “features” rather than complete products or solutions.

Meanwhile, LearnLaunch hosted a Boston in Austin meetup to showcase Boston’s robust edtech ecosystem. The Europeans and Canadians also held meetups and international investors were circulating. There was a new track in the conference called “International Models and Approaches.” OneBox, a complete solution for refugees and victims of natural disasters (also a top three finalist in the LAUNCHedu competition), is based in France. Sterio.me, another LAUNCHedu finalist, was from Chile. There was also panel that discussed education in Mozambique.

Interest in project-based learning (PBL) continues to grow as the Common Core state standards (and its descendants) encourage students to apply their knowledge and demonstrate their critical thinking and problem skills. The Buck Institute held PBL workshops at the JW Marriott, one of the new hotels, which along with many new apartment buildings, appear to be gobbling up the area between Congress and the convention center.  Local leader Chris Gabrieli was in Austin speaking about his group Transforming Ed, which is working on measuring SEL in CA. There were also tracks on SEL and digital citizenship. My favorite track focused on cognitive processes and virtual learning.

There were sessions of all sorts, from makers to games, allowing attendees to gorge on educational content. Many reported that the greatest value came from the connections forged both in the sessions and in the hallways. Such is the life of a conference!

I will be interested to hear what our panelists thought of the conference. Join us this Thursday for our March Meetup & SXSWedu Recap event.