3 Big Issues We Heard About at SXSWedu

Austin, Tex. — Student privacy, easier-to-use digital tools for instructors, and efforts to offer alternative credentials were some of the most-talked-about topics this week at the South by Southwest Edu conference, an offshoot of the popular South by Southwest music festival.

The event brings together a mix of participants from different parts of education — teachers, administrators, and publishers in elementary, secondary, and higher education. This year The Chronicle hosted a “special program” on “Understanding the New Landscape of Higher Ed,” about which we’ll share more details in the coming weeks.

As we look through our notebooks of other sessions at the event, here are some highlights:

Student Privacy

Big data is coming to education, if it’s not here already. But the rules and norms for handling digital information generated by students are far from clear.

Some 32 national organizations unveiled a statement of “Student Data Principles” during the conference, outlining a guiding philosophy that included a commitment to collecting only the minimum amount of information needed to help students succeed. The document was created primarily with secondary education in mind, but among its supporters are some higher-education groups, including the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Mitchell L. Stevens, an associate professor in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, said that a focus on privacy could be too limited and that a better approach would be to consider a broader set of issues he called “data policy.” Speaking at a separate session, he cited the increasing flows of data to which colleges have access, including from learning-management systems, student-success systems, and MOOCs.

“My colleagues in the learning sciences are just thrilled that these new waterfalls of data” will allow them new windows into pedagogy, he said. At the same time, he warned of an overreliance on predictive analytics in guiding students. “In the 20th century we called that tracking,” he said.

As schools and colleges continue to develop policies and approaches for data, Mr. Stevens said he also imagined that the rules were likely to be set not by laws or government regulations but by voluntary organizations. He said he wondered “what kinds of consortia and collective actors are we going to create” to govern this situation.

New Forms of Credentials

Several sessions focused on how alternative credentials, such as digital badges and new features of social-media platforms like LinkedIn, would become an important new currency for signaling personal achievement.

Matt Sigelman, chief executive of Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job advertisements, said digital data was making it easier to see the nuances of job markets — for example, that certain skills are more valued for a marketing major looking to work in Chicago than for one seeking a job in Silicon Valley. As college students grow to understand that, they may start doing more analysis on the makeup of particular college majors — he called it “titrating” — to ensure that they include the expertise that employers actually want.

During a session on “Socializing Credential Innovation,” Matthew Pittinsky, chief executive of Parchment, noted that many employers were looking for project managers, for instance. But a credential known as PMP, or Project Management Professional, is suffering the same problems as the college degree itself: Employers don’t know what it means. So the organization administering the credential is creating more-specific versions focused on certain industries.

But Jake Schwartz, a founder of General Assembly, warned that when credentials become too “granular,” they can lose their value. “It can make it trite,” he added.

Few were predicting, however, that new certifications or badges would eliminate the value of a college degree. “Absolutely not,” said Mr. Pittinsky. At least not in the immediate future.

Helping Instructors Build Learning Gadgets

Plenty of start-up companies made their pitches during the conference, and many of them offered products intended to make it easier for instructors to build their own high-tech teaching materials.

One of them, Zaption, won the start-up competition at the conference, called LaunchEdu. Zaption lets teachers make YouTube videos interactive by adding questions and annotation that overlay the video. “Instructors are using more video than ever before, but the problem is it’s a very passive learning experience,” said Chris Walsh, chief executive of Zaption, in an interview. He said his company’s product “takes video and turns it into an active learning experience.”

Of course, it’s hard for colleges to tell which new education products are effective in the classroom.

A new venture backed by University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, USA Funds, and some UVa alumni said it planned to help foster better ways for colleges to evaluate what companies are trying to sell them. It’s called the Jefferson Education Accelerator, and while its focus includes teaching, it also goes beyond that.

The accelerator will advise colleges on how to establish their own gauges of success “before a vendor talks them into it,” said Bart Epstein, the founding chief executive. It is also building a database of academic researchers with expertise in learning science and other fields so that companies and colleges in search of an expert can use it as a resource.

Colleges “are making a lot of purchasing decisions on incomplete data,” he said.

Some studies that the accelerator may facilitate will be proprietary. And they won’t necessarily be peer-reviewed. But Mr. Epstein said the goal of the accelerator was to create a climate where research on the efficacy of new products became more the norm.

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