Right for the Job: Teachers and Audiences at SXSW

After leaving the green room—abandoning water bottles and pastry crumbs in the commotion—the five panelists walked down winding grey hallways to Ballroom B. Setting notebooks in front of microphones, we situated ourselves on stage. An audience of slouching, intelligent-looking adults sat peering down at laptops in the spare half-hour between sessions. We were almost ready to start.

I wrote last week about the stun that followed speaking at SXSW Interactive. In Texas, fellow DN intern Alex and I compared notes (and suitcases) only to discover that we had each brought along our copies of Born Digital. Reference volume, or talisman against stuttering words? Hard to tell, but we kept the copies close.

Speaking as students, in front of a hundred teachers and technologists, was strange and fascinating. Our panel, Blackboards or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow, was loosely grouped with a few other education-related panels, and I wondered how teachers in the audience would react to having a panel on education devoid of any educators. Then again, though, as an audience member pointed out to me later, panels at education conferences are almost always devoid of students; conferences create environments where incongruities and synchronicities alike can occur.

“Reality” ended up being a theme of our panel, in surprising ways. Four out of the five panelists attend private colleges, where small classes at least exist; a few commenters advanced the proposition (for the most part, gently) that we might be living a bit outside of reality, ourselves. But reality worked both ways: when, in a panel supposedly on the “techno-induced classroom of tomorrow,” we all agreed that analog interactions between teachers and students were usually the best and most productive, we met some resistance, to our surprise. Audience members were eager to talk about tools and solutions; our expression of preference for teachers focusing on what they do best, and only introducing tools as they felt comfortable, seemed radically conservative.

And then I realized: we weren’t telling anyone what they expected or wanted to hear. The technologists seemed perfectly happy to poke away at their computers and engage politely, but the teachers were invested. By the time you’re a teacher—whether at college or in a K-12 environment—and you’ve made it to SXSW, you’ve either paid your own way, found a way to speak on a panel, or gotten your school to fund the trip. In all three cases, one condition holds: the teachers who make it to SXSW have already positioned themselves as ambassadors; have persuaded or, more likely, fought with their departments to convince them of the great potential of technology to improve learning inside and outside of school, often against tremendous odds and reluctance and a bevy of aggressively technophobic colleagues. So SXSW (or any conference) offers an opportunity to find inspiration and motivation, and to stash away enough optimism and energy to persevere in the face of another year of tremendous resistance, back at home base. If I were a teacher in that situation, having put myself on the line to convince myself or any higher-up that SXSW would be worth it, I would be looking for silver (or at least silver-plated) bullets, and the confidence to believe that technology in the classroom could be as wonderful as I thought it might be.

So my main conclusion during the panel was, probably, disheartening and familiar: technology won’t fix anything on its own. But what I meant, and meant to say, was a little more heartening: technology will only solve problems in the hands of teachers who see the potential in their students, and sense the potential of technology to help draw that out. When deciding which technologies to use in the classroom (Twitter? or Ning? or something on Facebook?), the first question for me, from a student’s perspective, is: Does my teacher understand and enjoy the tool? “Is the tool the right one for the job?” is almost secondary. Teachers are the right people for the job. Everything else is incidental.

These ideas are not new. But what I hoped during the panel, and still hope, is that hearing them coming from a student is novel enough to be thought-provoking. I often see teachers worrying that their students will “pass them by” with technology, and that in order to “keep up” they need to do something flashy. From a student’s perspective, that’s just not true. A cool piece of technology has never convinced me to care more about learning. Excellent teachers always have.

The more I’ve thought about classrooms, the more I’ve thought about audiences; the more I’ve thought about audiences, the more I keep coming back to the audience that sat in Ballroom B. The assumptions, hopes, and backgrounds they brought to the discussion are fascinating to me. I only wish I understood them better. If you have any thoughts about this panel at SXSW, SXSW overall, or, actually, education & technology conferences in general, I would love to continue the discussion in the comments—or, you can email me, at dkimball a t fas d o t harvard d o t edu. I look forward to thinking even more.