From AI integration to equity: reflections on SXSW EDU 2024

South by Southwest Annual meeting banner, showing SXSW with a building in the background.

Andy Walker and Tom French share five key learnings from the education conference in Texas, including recommended audio highlights so that you don’t miss out

We were selected out of thousands of applications to present a panel on ‘A Journey Through Time: Rehearsing Challenging Emotions in XR’ with our partner, Telford College, at the South by Southwest education conference and festival (SXSW EDU 2024).

We delivered our panel and talking to the many fantastic educators attending the conference, spent a week pounding the sunny sidewalks of Austin, Texas and it’s now reflection time and these are our five key takeaways.

AI is here to stay

The discussion was inescapable. Whether in elementary, high school or continuing education – this was the big topic of 2024. From the numerous panels, keynotes and workshops, the consensus seemed to be that educators and institutions cannot afford to sit on the side lines.

Education is about preparing people for the now, and the future, and AI is going to play a big part of that. Students of all ages and the workforce of tomorrow (and today) are already getting stuck in with large language models and image generation, so educators and employers have little option but to engage, experiment and embrace the new reality.

In the past, every technological revolution has led to an exacerbation of inequity. There’s still every chance, say the optimists, that AI offers the opportunity to reduce that inequality. But the fear is that it’ll do the opposite – and what every technological revolution has pretty much done to date. We can’t afford to not get involved.

Highlights – audio on the SXSW EDU website:

Stay human

The advent of AI means we need to value creativity and critical thinking more than ever, say the folks at SXSW EDU. AI spectacularly amalgamates, re-renders and offers glorious facsimiles of that which already exists. However, it still requires purpose, intention, and input to generate material.

Then, once produced, human discernment and judgement are still required to assess the relevancy of what’s been generated – we must doubly value both how we put in and how we take out. That’s why we talk an awful lot about the need for human ‘take-off and landings’. We might not mind using the autopilot once we know where we’re going, but we still need to be in control of where we’re headed and how we get there.

Highlights – audio on the SXSW EDU website:

Action speaks louder

As well as the need to act on AI (and not just sit back and see what happens), actively tackling illiteracy was also a big theme. According to one keynote, the polarised debate on how to teach reading best had been a factor in pulling those affected out of their reading rut.

However, a remarkable grassroots campaign is bypassing the debate to empower parents (who are often illiterate themselves), challenge stigmas, improve self-esteem and get kids engaged to smash reading targets in every district where it’s been taken up.

Concerns about ‘doing it the right way’ risks nothing being done at all, but empathy, understanding and empowering those who needed help has helped spark something truly incredible.

Highlights – audio on the SXSW EDU website:

Virtual tools, real emotions

Along with the proliferation of VR tools bringing to life historical periods and buildings, far-away places, and extreme landscapes, they’re beginning to be used for more than just skills-based learning.

In our own panel session “A Journey Through Time: Rehearsing Challenging Emotions in XR” we took the audience through our recent partnership with Telford College. Over the last two years, we developed three scenarios that placed trainee Healthcare Assistants into moments of emotional duress they’re likely to experience in their future careers – encountering death first-hand, the pressures of A&E and receiving psychological and physical abuse first-hand.

The early signs suggest our VR tool is already beginning to impact student retention. It’s helping educators witness how students respond to real-life settings and measure qualities of students that we’ve not been able to before. By helping pre-experience difficult moments before they even happen and unpack them in a safe, shared space, VR is already beginning to change how the college approaches vocational and frontline training. It’s a win-win, saving money and time and helping people better prepare for their careers.

Highlights – audio on the SXSW EDU website:

‘Keep Austin Weird’

Though a slogan thought up by local independent businesses, K.A.W. has become something larger, more meaningful, and captures the open-mindedness, joy of idiosyncrasy and sheer friendliness that Austin has come to represent. In an age of notable conflict overseas and political division at home, to be here – an educational conference festival located within such a place of such genuine warmth has been truly special. Whether with or without tech, through direct action or through listening better, staying open to difference never felt more important. So, I don’t know about you, but I wholeheartedly intend to keep things wonderfully, deliciously ‘weird’.

Highlights – audio on the SXSW EDU website:

As above in the links, most sessions from SXSW EDU are now online as audio recordings, so dive in. I’d recommend watching them for yourself and learning about the innovation and fresh thinking pushing for more effective and progressive education.

Andy Walker is Senior Creative at Inizio Engage XD

Tom French is Digital Planner at Inizio Engage XD

Andy Walker and Tom French

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