It all starts with Literacy.

SXSWedu keynoters: Educational technology ‘has failed to keep its promises’


Educational technology is supposed to personalize the learning process. It’s supposed to democratize education. Make learning fun. Fix what’s broken about school systems.

Unfortunately, according to keynote speakers at this week’s SXSWedu Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas, technology is falling short.

“The sad truth,” said Vivienne Ming, “is we’re failing to keep these promises — noble as they are.”

Ming and her wife, Norma Ming, are co-founders of Socos LLD, a San Francisco-based educational technology company that ambitiously seeks to “construct individualized models of how people think” to “literally make people smarter.”

Vivienne Ming, a striking presence in high-heel shoes and Google Glass, said she was passionate about discovering and developing the hidden potential in students because of her own life story.

Born and raised as a man named Evan Smith, she was “a terrible student” in high school who blew off her homework and got kicked out of class. She flunked out of college, then spent 10 years doing almost nothing. “I dropped out of life.”

But with the support of family, she got a second chance “and a fourth, and a fifth,” and went back to college. This time, “things connected.”

A couple of degrees later, she’s now chief scientist at a company that mines big data to recruit untapped candidates for top programming jobs. She researches neuroprosthetics at UC Berkeley.

Inc. Magazine named her 10 Women To Watch in Tech in 2013.

“How many other students,” she asked, “didn’t get those second chances and opportunities? How many of them out there are there wondering, why am I even here? What am I adding?”

Now she is applying her professional training to the problem. Her company is trying to use algorithms to give teachers measurements of each student’s grasp of the material, more accurately than standardized tests, which often fail to spot the most creative or unconventional thinkers.

In their speech, the Mings cast a critical eye on some of the best-known ventures in Internet-based education.

MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), despite their great potential to democratize higher education, are mainly used by users who already have college degrees, they said.

Khan Academy, which offers free lessons in math and other subjects over YouTube, has teamed with Comcast, which is greatly expanding broadband service to poor households. The companies’ claim they’ll educate millions this way? Dubious, Vivienne Ming said.

“This sounds like a boon for Netflix,” she cracked.

“If you take a library and just make it bigger, will more students go to that library and read more books?” she asked. “I don’t believe that’s the problem that needs to be solved. The problem is one of engagement.”

Instead of these approaches, the Mings urged technologists to develop unobtrusive ways of gathering reams of finely-calibrated data about individual learners, to give teachers insight into what their students are actually thinking and absorbing. It can’t be a coincidence that this is the approach their own company pursues.

“Technology should support teachers and students. It shouldn’t be the obligation of the teacher to figure out how to get your technology to work in their classroom,” Vivienne Ming told the techies in the audience.

Nice to know that Innovations for Learning takes that very approach.

The Mings’ speech on Tuesday helped kick off SXSWedu,  a four-day conference infused with a spirit that seeks to sketch the future of education and the great challenges of extending opportunities to all.

It was the fourth year for the event — a prelude to the famed SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Festival, March 7-16 — and its quickly growing reputation drew hundreds of educators, entrepreneurs, experts and advocates.

“This is, by far, the most unique national education conference, primarily due to its wide variety of stakeholder/attendees — including K–12 and higher education professionals, business leaders, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and legislators — who all share a passion for education innovation,” said Michael Crosno and Eric Loeffe last year in the Austin American-Statesman.

For several days this week, the hashtag #SXSWedu was one of the biggest-trending in all of Twitter. By scanning it, you can sense the conference’s energy and diversity. Here’s a sampling:


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Story: Howard Goodman
Video: SXSWedu 2014 Keynote – Keeping the Promise of Educational Technology from SXSWedu on Vimeo.


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