PD, personalized learning, and daring classrooms: the big topics at SXSWedu® 2017

By Melissa Ripp, Director, PR & Communications

To give you a bit of insight into the general vibe of this year’s SXSWedu® conference, I’ll relay a story about what happened on Tuesday last week. The Renaissance team was enjoying coffee and breakfast at our hotel before joining 13,000+ educators, vendors, and students at the nearby Austin Convention Center when the clinking of silverware and the low chatter of conversation was drowned out by a man excitedly yelling and waving to a group of people that had passed him on their way to a much-needed cup of coffee.


They responded, “YESSSS!!!! SXSWEDU! WHOOHOO!!!!”

The man smiled at his tablemates. “See, this is what I love about this conference,” he said. “Complete strangers yelling to each other because we’re so excited to be here.”

Over my bowl of oatmeal, I smiled. This was going to be a great week.

It was my first time at SXSWedu—and Austin—and I had no idea what to expect. However, I did have one goal in mind, which was to learn about what was on the minds of educators and others in the education space. After attending sessions on everything from personalized learning and professional development to edtech research and the art (and science) of teaching, here’s what I found to be most important—and inspiring—to this year’s attendees.

Offering meaningful professional development

In a session hosted by EdWeek Market Brief, Education Week Senior Editor Sean Cavanagh and Christina Luke, Project Director for Marketplace Research at Digital Promise, an independent nonprofit research organization, focused on what edtech companies can do to create the specific professional development support that’s most needed. When the discussion was opened to the educators in the audience, three main needs were identified:

  • Personalized learning shouldn’t be for students only—educators need targeted, “personalized PD” tailored to their interests and levels of experience.

  • Modeling is important—many in the audience talked about the need for companies to clearly articulate how a product or solution can be used to improve classroom instruction.

  • Efficiency and effectiveness—from demonstrating the use of a product or solution in a way that isn’t overwhelming to showing educators the ways in which a solution saves them time or integrates with another product they’re already using, the focus was on saving educator time and resources.

Defining personalized learning

Many of the panel discussions at SXSWedu centered around personalized learning—specifically, what it means and how to do it. Our own Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns gave a great talk on ways to make personalized learning a reality for English language learners. Another panel on Thursday, “Personalized Learning and the EdTech to Make It Happen,” focused on how education technology and schools need to balance tools with the end goals of personalized learning. A few key takeaways here include the following:

  • With student agency being a large part of personalized learning, educators still have a very large role to play. Educators still need to be there to scaffold and offer guidance when needed.

  • With personalized learning, focus on the goal first. Whether you’re engaging in student-led or teacher-led learning, the why behind what you’re doing is most important.

  • Look at your current technology infrastructure before you look at what you want or need to do to improve. Be clear on what you already have before you bring something new into the fold.

Creating daring classrooms

Thursday afternoon was a session that I had personally been looking forward to for the duration of the conference: the closing keynote, “Daring Classrooms,” with research professor and author Brené Brown. Brown, whose studies on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy have translated into three #1 New York Times bestsellers and one TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” (it’s been viewed over 25 million times!), spoke on her platform of leadership development and culture change—and how to create a culture of courage to classrooms.

“In a classroom, you can create a culture of courage if you’re willing to be excrutiatingly vulnerable and uncomfortable,” Brown said in her keynote. “Your classroom might be the only place a child has to take off their armor.” She expanded on this and ways to cultivate empathy in classrooms and then ended her keynote with discussion of nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s Four Attributes of Empathy: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating emotion with people. Brown ended by saying, “The revolution will not be televised—it will be in your classrooms,” which brought everyone to their feet for a standing ovation.

Teaching: an art, a science, or both?

There were plenty of moments at SXSWedu that introduced a new perspective to me, but the most profound one was a panel I decided to attend at the last minute on Thursday called “Teaching: Art, Science, or Both?” The panel was made up solely of teachers and administrators who talked about how educational outcomes today can be shaped as much by research and science as by the individual talents of teachers and the cultures of schools.

With over 500 sessions to choose from, there were certainly times that I wished there were a few more of me so I could have attended all the sessions on my list. Still, the ones I did make it to prompted more than a few shifts in perspective and provided plenty of new learning. I’m already patiently waiting for information to come out about next year’s conference—and, if I’m being truthful, the opportunity to head to sunny Austin, Texas, as a respite from snowy and cold Wisconsin!

Are you interested in attending SXSWedu next year? What other conferences or events are you planning on attending? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!

Keep up with our SXSWedu plans and everything Renaissance by subscribing to the Renaissance newsletter.

Melissa Ripp, Education Enthusiast
Melissa Ripp, Education Enthusiast
Melissa is inspired every day by the stories she hears about amazing educators doing amazing things in their classrooms and schools. In her free time, she enjoys running, watching documentaries, and has a soft spot in her heart for old buildings, vintage signage, and street art.


  1. Andrea says:

    I love reading the part about classrooms being places for children to help one another and show empathy towards their peers. Teaching children life skills is so important, and the classroom may be the only place their learn this.

  2. Kimberly Bell says:

    This sounds like an amazing opportunity. I would love to be able to attend, and then share what I’ve learned with not only my school, but my district!

  3. Lisa Capon says:

    I would love to one day attend SXSWedu

  4. Rita Platt says:

    I love attending conferences. This would be a great one, I am sure. I attend ILA, WSRA, MELED, NABE, and others. I am pretty active when it comes to presenting and attending conferences.

  5. Lloyd says:

    This sounds really interesting.

  6. Kelly Barr says:

    I would love to attend this conference. I have attended SREB conferences, NCTM conferences (twice), state conferences in SC and WV, National Middle School Conference, Professional Learning Communities Conference, and Professional Development Schools Conference (WV). I have presented at many conferences as well. I love the opportunity to present and attend conferences and then share ideas with my staff.

  7. Mary says:

    I like the idea of children being able to read together. Then students are able to help each other and learn more themselves. Two brains are better than one to discuss learning.

  8. Fatima Peters says:

    So jealous!!!! Wish I could’ve made it this year!

  9. Katie says:

    I would LOVE to attend (& have never heard of the EDU variation of SXSW before this blog!) The closing keynote from Brene Brown sounds amazing and unbelievably aspiring. I would love to see sessions on the most current & best practices in reading instruction, sessions on student engagement & on the best way to implement PD so that it is seen as valuable, productive & worthwhile by the teacher participants.

  10. P R says:

    Personalized learning shouldn’t be for students only—educators need targeted, “personalized PD” tailored to their interests and levels of experience.

    I love this observation.

    • carol says:

      This also intrigued me the three needs for teachers one of them being personalized learning and modeling is so important. Would love to attend one of these conferences.

  11. Heidi says:

    I’d love to attend someday. I liked the part where it talks about kids being able to take off their armor in their classrooms. I love when my students feel comfortable enough to take a risk.

  12. Renee Graham says:

    Sounds like a conference I’d love to attend!

  13. Great article. We all need to jump out of our comfort zones and teach creatively. The kids love it and we have something to show for our energy!

  14. Ami Edwards says:

    This does seem very interesting.

  15. Nicole Erwin says:

    Sounds like a fantastic conference! I would love to attend. I have attended ISTE and am trying to get to AASL this year.

  16. Katie Williams says:

    Our school was just AdvancEd STEM accredited. One of the things that I love about STEM is that students are actively involved in their learning experience while building “life skills” like collaboration, compromise, sharing, improving themselves, learning resiliency, etc. I think that when we move away from more traditional teaching styles, that students are going to really benefit. Unfortunately technology has taken over our homes and with that, there is less of these types of skills being learned in the home the way they were learned 20 years ago.

  17. David Keech says:

    I would love to be able to attend a conference like SXSWedu. This sounds like an engaging conference that teachers come away from with an inspired vision.

  18. Melissa Robles says:

    Thanks for sharing this great information. I hope to attend SXSW EDU one day!

  19. Laura Quiroz says:

    We need more creativity in schools great article.

  20. Christina says:

    I would love to attend! Other conferences that are awesome are ISTE, MACUL, NCTE. I also love NerdCamp!!

  21. Cynthia Leija says:

    I wold to attend!!! I best it was an awesome conference.

  22. Dvawn Maza says:

    This sounds like a great conference. I liked the statement about personalized PD for teachers!

  23. Darrell Baty says:

    I want to go – really sounds engaging!

  24. Donna Nichols says:

    I would love to attend the SXSWedu some day! Great read.

  25. Darlene says:

    Sounds very exciting and inspiring!

  26. Laura says:

    Sounds like a great opportunity for some lucky teachers.