NCAN at SXSWedu, Day Two

March 11, 2015

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst


Hello from South by Southwest Education (SXSWedu)! This four day festival/conference/get-together takes place annually in Austin, Texas and brings together individuals from across the education industry to meet, mingle, debate, and discuss critical issues in our field. I’m fortunate enough to be able to attend on NCAN’s behalf this year, and I want to share some of the lessons learned from the sessions that I attend. Look for my dispatches every day this week. If you have any questions you want me to explore, be sure to let me know on Twitter at either @2collegenetwork or @billdebaun.


It was another action-packed day on Tuesday here in Austin at SXSWedu. If you haven’t been to SXSWedu before (and this is my first one as well), let me try to explain three things that make the days seem more dense than your standard conference. First, sessions are only roughly organized into “blocks.” Yesterday there were sessions that started at 8:30, 9:00, 9:20, 9:30, 9:40, 10:00, 10:10, 10:20, 10:30, 10:40, 11:00...you get the picture. There is always something starting, which means you’re also always likely missing something interesting. Second, there aren’t really “breaks” between session blocks, so it’s a continuous migration from session to session. Finally, the last official activity on the SXSWedu calendar last night started at 8:30pm. It makes for a long (but fulfilling) and info-dense day.


The day kicked off with a panel titled “Redesigning Higher Education for Student Success.” Panelists proposed, and the audience agreed with, changes that would make higher education better for students. These included increasing information transfer and transparency between students, families, administrations, and faculties. Additionally, there were calls for better financial aid literacy/college knowledge for students (be certain I applauded loudly for that one). But the point I was particularly fond of at this panel was that IHEs who are doing well by low-income, first-generation students, particularly those of color, need to share their “secret sauce” with other institutions. Serving students well shouldn’t be something proprietary. More IHEs collaborating and sharing best practice could be a boon for students and higher education overall.


At the tail end of this panel, Dr. Jill Biden took the stage with Christopher Thomas, a student from Houston Community College. During her speech, Dr. Biden asserted that all students should have the opportunity to dream big and have access to the higher education resources that would help them succeed. She recounted that during her time as a community college professor she saw “heroes making better lives for their families,” including veterans returning from tours of duty, parents working and going to school at night, and professionals returning to earn a new set of skills. The success of these students, however, isn’t just their responsibility, according to Dr. Biden; given the importance of increasing the number of postsecondary degrees in the United States, it is important to ensure that institutions and policies are coordinated in ensuring student success. To that end, she is touring a number of community colleges who are achieving good student outcomes and “meeting students where they are and guiding them where they need to go” with education technology best practices. The speech concluded with a call to make higher education “accessible, affordable, and attainable” for all students given the benefits to a society when students are educated.


From Dr. Biden’s speech, I moved to another panel titled “Innovate Tools and Strategies to Access Higher Ed.” This featured Ted Mitchell, Undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education; Eric Waldo, Executive Director of the First Lady’s Reach Higher Initiative; and Laura Owen, an assistant professor at San Diego State University. The panel was moderated by Liz Willen, the editor-in-chief at The Hechinger Report


Undersecretary Mitchell stressed that the U.S. will not meet the Obama administration’s 2020 goal for postsecondary degrees unless we open up higher education to whole swaths of people without access to it now. Unfortunately, that access is hampered because too much of higher education is stuck with mindsets, practices, and policies better suited to 20 years ago. He called for innovations to get all students the right information at the right time. 


In light of this lack of innovation, Eric Waldo pointed out that college knowledge gaps persist, especially among first-generation students, and cited the overstretched school counseling field as a challenge to getting students the information that they need. He did highlight the success of new strategies like near-peer mentoring to close these knowledge gaps. Laura Owen said that school counselors face a challenge because they too often are not getting the college readiness information they need to pass on to students as part of their preparatory curriculum for counseling. She also called for more collaboration between those parties interested in college access, for example K-12 schools, IHEs, and community-based organizations, all of which are too often siloed from each other.


The afternoon was another whirlwind of sessions. There was a demo-filled session of different educational technology platforms. There were degree mapping platforms, early warning systems, and academic tracking modules, among others. You name it and it was there...for the right price. I then attended some short sessions, 15 minute blocks of time where presenters get to make a very specific case. In particular I was able to see Harold Levy, the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (an NCAN member!) discuss undermatching among high-performing low-income students. Levy implored the audience to “please send your high-performing low-income kids our way” because the JKCF’s grants and scholarships can help these students get to an institution that better match their academic prowess.


That’s all from Austin for Tuesday. Wednesday promises to be another full day. Check back tomorrow for more!



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