The U.S. Isn’t the Only Place Rapidly Producing Digital Tools

Lessons from Abroad from Austin: International discussions at SXSWEdu

While I love visiting other countries for The Hechinger Report, this week I took advantage of the dozens of people who had crossed oceans to get to SXSWEdu, in Austin, Texas, to hear their thoughts on these questions and more. This year’s conference had sessions from every continent (except, obviously, Antarctica) on a wide range of topics. Here’s a glimpse at some of the conversations sparked.

The U.S. isn’t the only place rapidly producing digital tools. SXSWEdu featured a large contingent of European tech entrepreneurs. Danish company Labster presented their immersive learning platform, which is based on the idea that simulators have been proven to be low-cost and effective. The group has 16 virtual labs, including a CSI one, for students to explore, learn from and even accidentally blow things up in. Paris-based Cinetools also demonstrated their brand-new product – being piloted in a dozen French schools right now – which takes the age-old classroom time-waster of movie watching and turns it into an educational exercise. Movies are posted for free on the site and as students watch they can comment on any scene or segment. Teachers can also embed questions at specific points that will take students to a discussion page.

Australian students in their final year of high school take a break during a conference about what to do after graduation. The country is trying to boost its high school completion rates to 90 percent. Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz

Teachers in Australia are preparing for a national digital curriculum. Australia is in the midst of rolling out its first-ever national curriculum. While subjects like math and English have already been adopted by all states, the technologies curriculum is still being debated. Still, it’s prompting all schools to experiment with new ways to bring technology and design thinking into the classroom, and to stop considering Information and Communications Technology (or ICT) as an isolated subject. A group of teachers came to SXSWEdu to share examples from their classroom. One had purchased a green screen for her elementary schoolers to make movies, and had used Minecraft to recreate a pivotal day in Australia’s involvement in World War II. Another talked about giving her students several products, like squishy circuits, and allowing the students to explore and tinker on their own.

MOOCs matter for more than education in the Middle East. Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs, as they’re more commonly called) have been heralded as having the power to transform education across the world. Representatives from two Arabic MOOC platforms – Doroob and Edraak – think that the technology can also have huge economic and social impacts in the Middle East. Both organizations work closely with employers to find out what skills applicants are missing and create courses to address the gaps. It’s particularly important work in an area still feeling the repercussions of the Arab Spring and struggling to find a way to connect with large numbers of unemployed and disconnected youth. Similarly, they argued that MOOCs can play a crucial role in helping more women get jobs. For instance, in Jordan, where Edraak is based, women make up 56 percent of college enrollment, but just 10 percent of the workforce. Edraak hopes that its work can help eliminate that gap.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz received a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.