NCAN at SXSWedu: Day 3 Recap

March 10, 2016

Hello from Austin, Texas, where I’m in attendance at SXSWedu for the second year in a row. SXSWedu is a hybrid of a conference and a festival that brings together all kinds of education stakeholders to network, learn, share, and experience. Topics covered run the full gamut from pre-K to adult education and from communications strategies to data analytics. All week, I’ll be sharing dispatches about what I’ve seen, heard, and learned that might be useful and/or interesting to NCAN members. Here are the posts from Day 1 and Day 2.

SXSWedu is, in many ways, unlike any other conference that I’ve been to. Indeed, it bills itself as both a conference and a “festival.” The biggest difference between it and its peers is really the size. Events are held at multiple proximate locations, including hotels and the Austin Convention Center, and these multiple sites are necessary because there are hundreds and hundreds of events across four days.

Since I have not yet mastered the ability to split myself into multiple copies to be in many places at once, nor have I acquired Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner, all of these sessions mean some really tough choices about where to be. For any given time slot, there are at least two, if not many more, sessions that I’ve flagged to attend, often across different locations.

All of this is to say that I picked my sessions well on the first two days, as evidenced by the interesting lessons I picked up Monday and Tuesday, but I hit some snags on day three. These largely came in the form of the “sales pitch” session. There are a lot of people at SXSWedu trying to sell something; products, services, platforms, you name it, someone, somewhere here is trying to sell it to you. It’s not uncommon for some of these sessions to appear at conferences (we even have some at our national conference, on occasion), but they tend to work best when it’s more of a soft sell that’s also providing other useful information or discussion than a pure infomercial.

Rather than go session by session as I did in my first two posts, instead here are some thoughts and observations from day three.

It should come as no surprise that there are many people and organizations here at SXSWedu who think that technology can go a long way to solving problems in education. Whether it’s tracking student outcomes or improving students’ academic skills in order to combat the need for remediation, there are a lot of platforms in the market today. Two years ago, NCAN published “Data Platforms for College Access and Success: Insights from the Field,” a white paper comparing and contrasting different kinds of data systems. Be on the lookout for another volume of this white paper that examines some of the new platforms to arrive on the scene. Particularly encouraging among these platforms is that they have an eye toward scaling to serve more students (which keeps cost per student down for programs) and to conducting evaluations on the outcomes served by these students. Those evaluations often include comparison groups of students, which is a rigorous, quasi-experimental path to take (which offers evidence about where these platforms do and don’t actually work).

While attending a number of sessions featuring university administrators like provosts, chancellors, and presidents, I have been pleased that there has been a consistent message that institutions are turning to focus on student success and understanding that their commitment to that success must extend beyond the admissions letter. As one panelist yesterday noted, “It’s not right to leave people in a lurch. There is a shift, in addition to the revenue implications, to doing business in this new way. If we enroll 3,000 freshmen and only retain 70%, is that a sustainable business model?” In a perfect world, institutions would be motivated by student success because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the profitable thing to do (although I suppose the two are not mutually exclusive), but if the end result is more students persisting and completing, especially when those students are low-income and/or first-generation (the students most in need of additional services to prevent stopping out), I’ll take it.

In the same vein, some pretty common messaging from these university administrators has been an admission that navigating the various offices on-campus (financial aid, registrar, academic advisor) and completing the various tasks (signing up for financial aid, course and major selection) is often clear as mud for students; similarly, front-line staff like advisors often do not have all of the data they need to best inform students. Administrators yesterday variously bemoaned the “paper flow” that results in too much paper, not enough data, and students taking duplicated classes that they did not need. These are all encouraging signs; steps taken that increase transparency and student buy-in and understanding of their best academic paths surely are welcome.

My final point is just a call for NCAN members to not take the strategic partnerships, coalitions, and networks that they are a part of for granted. In our field, which is often so collaborative and cooperative, it is easy to think that it is natural for organizations to come together for the benefit of students. My last session of the day yesterday, which discussed partnerships between K-12 school districts in Texas and nearby institutions of higher education, showed clearly that this is not the case. The two ISDs on the panel were, we were told, the only two K-12 and higher ed partnerships of their kind that the Texas Education Agency knew about in the state of Texas. (To be honest, this is an astounding claim, but I have no evidence to the contrary.) These partnerships either shared student teachers with school districts or set up programming on a college campus for graduating seniors, and in both cases the partnerships were benefiting the school districts of very small towns where resources otherwise would not have reached. In any event, whether you’re engaged in collective impact, a college access network, or some other beneficial arrangement, be sure to let your partners know how much you appreciate them at your next meeting.

Today is the last day of SXSWedu, so I’ll be boarding a plane back to Washington, D.C. this afternoon having learned some interesting lessons, found some valuable resources, and met some engaging individuals. Check back for my last dispatch tomorrow. 

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