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Big Ideas, and Words of Caution, About Classrooms of the Future

Austin, Texas

Bigger data and better learning analytics. Flexible physical spaces that more closely resemble workplaces. More multimedia. Greater access to large content repositories for teachers, and customized instruction for students. Lower-stakes assessments that are embedded in learning activities rather than delivered at the end of the school year.
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Such is the future of K-12 classrooms, according to a group of high-profile panelists who addressed this morning's South by Southwest education conference here.

The driving force of all the potential change, of course, is the Internet, described as a "spectacular" engine for cheaply mining data and distributing content by said Jose Ferreira, the Founder and CEO of ed-tech company Knewton.

"There is no doubt that education is having its 'Internet moment,'" Ferreira said. "Nothing is going to stop that."

Not everyone in attendance was enthusiastic about the panelists' vision, however. During a lively question-and-answer session, Tim Reilly, the founder and CEO of new New York City-based ed-tech startup Quexter, was among those who questioned the benefits for students of the brave new educational world being described.

"One thing I worry about with adaptive learning and big data is that we're not necessarily doing anything to empower individual student learning," Reilly said. "Does this make learning more passive?"

Such seem to be the terms of one major debate shaping the world of educational technology.

Ferreira's fellow panelists Wednesday included Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system and the CEO of the non-profit advocacy group StudentsFirst, and Rob Lippincott, a former executive at PBS and current senior education advisor at i2 Capital.

Lippincott said the rising tide of educational data "is not scary" and "will liberate teachers" by providing them with better guidance on how to educate students. What currently wears teachers down, he said, "is bureaucracy and the tyranny of relatively useless testing."

Better assessments—think learning games—will help, he said. So will an bigger role for multimedia resources in the classroom—even though he acknowledged their impact beyond just engaging students remains unclear.

But private capital, particularly from philanthropy, is eager to get involved and support experimentation, Lippincott said. That might mean a lot of failures and silly investments, but ultimately the money will land on things that work, he suggested.

Ferreira of Knewton said the digital revolution in K-12 will make such experimentation easier and cheaper. Historically, he said, schools have been "big and expensive" to change, and the challenge of measuring the effectiveness of such changes, plus the high-stakes environment schools operate in, have made districts risk-averse.

Now, though, it is "cheap and relatively riskless to try something" new, he said.

For her part, Rhee, appearing on the panel from Sacramento, Calif. via Skype, was somewhat more muted. Ed-tech will undoubtedly help support greater differentiation of classroom instruction, Rhee said, but ultimately, her vision was "pretty basic."

"Teachers have the hardest job there is in the country. They have to have the tools and resources they need," she said. "When we think about what the ideal is, sometimes we forget about the foundation."

Follow @BenjaminBHerold for live updates from SXSWedu.

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