By guest blogger Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
Bill Gates was speaking to the choir when he closed out the South by Southwest education conference (SXSWedu) in Austin, Texas, today by declaring, "This is a special time for technology in education." The Microsoft founder and tech visionary admitted to being optimistic on this front, as most people as this tech conference probably are. Given the growing accessibility and affordability of tech devices, and the flood of innovative applications for the K-12 marketplace, he argued, "we're on the verge of making a big difference for lots of students."
Despite the optimism, Gates also acknowledged the difficulty many educators face in identifying products and services that will work in their schools. Quality, integration, and technical support have been among the challenges educators and vendors discussed throughout the conference this week.
Gates says in time he hopes there will be easy and reliable tools to help educators sort through the expanding and increasingly chaotic marketplace to find solutions for their schools. Gates said his foundation plans to play a role in that arena, and will launch a new initiative, called Graphite, soon.
"With the availability and price of technology coming down, it should mean that technology is not a significant barrier" to using innovative tools and strategies in the classroom, he said. And, "while one-on-one learning can be fantastic...there are a set of teachers that are absolutely phenomenal at doing this in their class of 30 students."
Gates hopes that more teachers will tap into digital resources to demonstrate and share best practices beyond their classroom and school. Videos chronicling good instructional strategies, he said, "will raise the quality of the profession as a whole, when you have teachers learning from each other."
The Teaching Channel, an Education Week Teacher content partner, are already trying to support the sharing of that kind of information. The online video archive of high-quality classroom practice was on display this week when The Teaching Channel was chosen as a finalist in the LAUNCHedu contest at SXSWedu, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and MyEdu. (The foundation provides funding support for Edweek's coverage of K-12 industry and innovation.)
Whether the SXSWedu event, on its own, carried new tech ideas to classroom teachers is an open question. Some attendees noted on Twitter that educators were a small minority of the 4,000 attendees at the conference, a costly endeavor given registration and travel costs. For several teachers who did make it, from the Prosper Independent School District near Fort Worth, Texas, the event was worth the investment, offering access to some of the top entrepreneurs, developers, and practitioners in ed tech.