January 10, 2023

How SXSW EDU Pursues Innovation at the Intersection of Technology & Education with Ron Reed

Episode 192 of The Innovation Engine podcast.

Education is a field that touches everyone, especially throughout our most formative years. Given its huge impact on a person’s future and the deleterious influence the pandemic had on learning, it’s more necessary than ever to consider ways to introduce innovation into our education system. That’s the goal of Ron Reed. Ron is the Founder and Executive Producer of SXSW EDU, an annual event that fosters innovation and learning within the education industry. The 2023 installment will take place from March 6-9 in Austin, Texas.

While SXSW is largely known for its tech conference and music festival, SXSW EDU has been growing rapidly since Ron kicked it off in 2011. He and his team have built on the foundation of SXSW and how the event has always excelled at building community and bringing everyone within an industry to the table.

Giving Everyone a Seat at the Table

Starting with its music roots, SXSW has brought together industry experts from all over the world, highlighting roles that don’t always get a voice — from performers, marketing, record label executives, booking agents, audio technicians, and more. As a long-time education industry entrepreneur, Ron noticed that the conversations happening in high school were deeply disconnected from what happens in college and beyond. He knew that if we could break down the silos between different sectors and bring everyone together, incredible conversations that lead to real-world impact would emerge.

Ron has spent the last 13 years examining who still doesn’t have a seat at the education table, how to get them there, and ways to keep broadening the conversation around teaching and learning. The role convergence plays in innovation can’t be underestimated — it’s something Ron takes very seriously.

As SXSW EDU grows, they hope to continue approaching policy, technology, and pedagogy intentionally, with the goal of growing the most diverse community and building the largest learning festival possible.

The Future of SXSW

Ron and his business partner, Greg Rosenbaum, approach the convention with an entrepreneurial energy — treating SXSW EDU as a product itself. Being under the SXSW umbrella gives them the organizational structure and proficiency to take advantage of every growth opportunity available to them. The conference is already on a steep trajectory of growth, nearly doubling registrants year over year.

As they approach this rapid growth, however, Ron recognized that growth did not necessarily need to occur unilaterally. While there is always a lot happening at a SXSW EDU conference and a rich experience for everyone attending, the goal now is to approach events and offerings with intentionality and cohesion rather than an overabundance of choice. As he says, “More is not always better.”

Tune in to the full conversation to hear our discussion with Ron on the role of technology in education, the conversations that are being had ahead of SXSW EDU 2023, and what the future is going to bring to both education and SXSW EDU specifically.

Episode Highlights:

  • [01:22] What SXSW EDU is and what it strives to achieve
  • [06:01] The origin story of SXSW EDU and how it has continued to grow and evolve
  • [13:19] How Ron and his partners decide to make alterations and improvements to the event as it grows
  • [22:38] The rise of education technology and how it has continued to evolve since Ron’s days selling educational material on laser video discs
  • [27:21] What’s coming up at SXSW EDU 2023
  • [35:00] Opening up the discussion around mental health in education


About The Innovation Engine

Since 2014, 3Pillar has published The Innovation Engine, a podcast that sees a wide range of innovation experts come on to discuss topics that include technology, leadership, and company culture. You can download and subscribe to The Innovation Engine on Apple Podcasts. You can also tune in via the podcast’s home on Spotify to listen online, via Android or iOS, or on any device supporting a mobile browser.


Intro: [00:00:04] This is the Innovation Engine podcast from 3Pillar Global, your Home for conversations with industry leaders on all things digital transformation and innovation.

Scott Varho: [00:00:17] All right. Welcome back to the Innovation Engine Podcast. I’m Scott Varho, chief evangelist for 3Pillar, your host.

And I’m pleased to be speaking today with Ron Reed. Ron is the founder and executive producer of South by Southwest Edu, an annual event that fosters innovation and learning within the education industry. The 2023 installment will take place from March 6th through 9th in Austin, Texas. We’re excited to hear more about the evolution of the event, where innovation is alive and well in the education space and what to expect coming out of March. So, Ron, thank you so much for being with me. I’m actually a little bit starstruck and excited to have you here.

Ron Reed: [00:00:55] You’re too kind, Scott. It’s great to be on. And I’m a fan of the Innovation Engine. I’ve been looking forward to the conversation a lot, so it’s good to be with you.

Scott Varho: [00:01:04] Fantastic. Thank you so much. Well, as we were talking about a little bit before we got started here, I have a long history in education technology, mostly trying to figure it out. And so, we have a lot of connections in common. So, I’m excited about the conversation.

So, let’s just dive right in and give our listeners an idea of what South By Southwest is. What’s its mission, purpose? It’s an event that I’ve heard about many times, but in terms of trying to understand its place in the world, how do you explain that?

Ron Reed: [00:01:37] Well, again, excited to be here and share a little bit with you. South By Southwest EDU, I’m super proud of. We launched the event about 13 years ago. In 2011 was our first year. Most folks are super familiar with South By Southwest, either from the big tech conference that we host, the music festival that are our roots. We also host one of the largest independent film festivals in the country at South By Film.

And so, you know, I’d been watching — I’m long time Austinite had spent a career in publishing, as will likely yak about it as we proceed through the conversation as well. But I’ve been really taken with South By Southwest in how they built community and if I think about their music audience for a moment, which was sort of the inception of the organization, they endeavor to put everybody around the table.

So, they had performers and they had bookers and they had record label execs and they had marketing folks and A&R types and the rest. And I thought it was really fascinating how they sort of leaned into that community, tried to offer everybody a seat at the table. And then, frankly, continued that model as they developed the film festival and the technology conference.

Is a guy who had spent my whole career in education. I was mostly based in the kindergarten through 12th grade, kind of L high sort of sector. And there was a real stark end of the conversation at high school that was disconnected completely from what happened in college and beyond. At that point, again, 2010, 2011, huge silos in education.

And so, as I looked at South By, I thought, man, if you put everybody around the table, you could probably generate some more honest conversations and greater impact with. So, that was really the aspiration of South By EDU. And the last 13 years have been a story about who’s not here, how do we get them here, how do we broaden the conversation about teaching and learning?

So, at a high level, we celebrate innovations and learning, everything from technology to strategies to goals and objectives. I think we reside at South By Southwest at this intersection of culture and learning, which after 13 years feels like it’s the right location for South By Southwest EDU. So, I’m super proud of the event and the community.

Probably helpful to just describe for you a little, Scott, the audience that we gather. Again, you know, you could close your eyes and imagine all the folks you’ve dealt with through your own education career. So, teachers and administrators, big businesses, and small that support the sector from startups to legacy organizations, K-12 and higher ed communities. We’ve been really taken to see the growth in nonprofits and foundations who have found a platform to talk about what they’re doing to sort of innovate in the sector.

So, I feel like we’ve built a very unique community that all have a shared goal and objective of improving teaching and learning, but maybe have different strategies and approaches to how they do so.

Scott Varho: [00:04:57] Well, it’s interesting. I studied economics for my master’s degree, which makes no sense at all, but one of the things that I learned about was economies of scale. And it kind of feels like the South By Southwest concept is to create an episodic economy of scale by having all the different players in one place. You can really break down some silos and have some real conversations about how to move the industry forward.

Ron Reed: [00:05:24] It’s really a great observation, Scott. I mean, convergence is really what South By Southwest is all about. And initially, maybe in our focus areas of music, tech, film, education, those are the four verticals we think of for South By Southwest as an organization. But yeah, very much a notion of the more diverse community, the richer the conversation. How do we host a convergence event and offer everybody voice and contribution opportunities for that?

Scott Varho: [00:05:57] Yeah. So, taking you back to when the first one took place, did you imagine it turning out this way? I’m kind of curious. What was your vision and how have things turned out differently from that?

Ron Reed: [00:06:09] Well, a little bit maybe. I mean, I joke and tell I co-founded the event with my colleague Greg Rosenbaum, who is doing a lot of the daily operations and continues to be the soul and spirit of South By EDU with me, and we have so much fun doing that. Again, I think that in 2010, we were taken with the merit of sort of creating a convergence conversation more broadly with that.

We actually partnered with the Texas Education Agency locally to launch the event. Again, for many years I’ve been involved in the textbook industry and curriculum development and so forth. The Texas Education Agency was launching an e-learning portal for half a million teachers in the state. And it was sort of a convenient excuse to say it’s the type of innovation we’d really like to highlight and celebrate.

And so, at that point we were very much a Texas K-12 event but had been really dedicated to growing to really an international convergence. So, like my colleagues and other sectors with it. So, it was with some intention. And we sort of looked at a Texas K-12 audience and we thought, well, South By Southwest, we’re really all about startups and innovation.

How do we get early-stage companies here? How do we invite and welcome business and education, business organizations into this conversation about that? How do we get policy folks involved and how do we look at sort of the ramifications of policy in the sector? So, it’s really a process of how do we now grow the most diverse community and the largest learning festival we’re able to do is our goal and objective.

Scott Varho: [00:07:53] Yeah. No, I mean, that’s an incredible story. And also, it seems to reflect an insight that I had no idea about until I joined, until I was working for Pearson Education in the K-12 Division and helping them with some of their licensing needs and found out how much Texas drives multiple states adoptions in terms of textbooks and curriculums. And I didn’t realize how many other Department of Education and other states look to Texas and California in particular as the two states that spend the most time vetting materials and so forth. It was mind blowing. It was like, if you don’t win Texas, you can’t sell into like half the country.

Ron Reed: [00:08:32] So fascinating. And Scott, I’ll share again, long career in education publishing, Ed tech curriculum development. The short story is I graduated from the University of Texas, liberal arts guy. I liked writing and editing. And I learned about a guy who they were having interviews on campus. He sold textbooks. He called on college campuses. He had an expense account and a company car. And for a guy like me who wasn’t quite ready for the real world, it sounded like heaven.

And then one thing led to another. So, I sent a bunch of resumes out and starting a conversation to see what the future might look like. And I learned about the richness of the K through 12 market in Texas, particularly textbooks. They spend several billion dollars every couple of years on this. And so to your point, it has an undue influence or maybe not an undue influence because of the size and strength of their market. But I found myself really at the crossroads of a lot of really fascinating business in terms of education, curriculum, et cetera.

I’ll share with you, Scott, one of my claim to fame that I’m still fond of and proud of today was I worked really hard to change the definition of a textbook so that technology tools could compete for those textbook dollars. That was back in the 1990s. And I was peddling a laser video disk for optical data, but we were ultimately successful kind of opening up textbook funds to be to be spent on technology. We had a nice win there in an elementary science adoption and really caught the attention of traditional publishers wondering what this technology thing was all about.

So, it was really at that moment that South By EDU was sort of coming into place. It felt like there was an opportunity for convergence. There was a real desire and drive for innovation and new thinking. And South By was just like the perfect brand to your point of convergence, to put all that together.

Scott Varho: [00:10:32] Well, I got to borrow some of that cool factor starting from the music scene, which had such a cache, but also for innovation for new. You can just imagine the, I don’t know, the cultural influence that that had on on it as well. So, you’ve got Austin, which is such an important hub for education and the direction that K-12 education is going across the country. You’ve got the South By and the cultural movement of the music scene there. And yeah, it’s a pretty interesting marriage, sort of a stroke of brilliance.

Ron Reed: [00:11:07] Well, you’re very, very kind and generous. I’ll share with you another story, and I’ll do so succinctly. Another chapter on this is while I was running around doing start-ups in curriculum development and so forth and so on, in publishing and education, my best friend is the guy that started South By Music. So, best man at my wedding and vice versa. Roland and I are godfather to each of our oldest children and so forth.

And so, it’s like, man, you’re having a lot of fun doing this. And I kind of see a need and an application beyond music, film and tech and education. So, it’s been a lot of fun on a number of levels. As I shared with you pre call, we have more fun than the law usually permits hosting talents.

Scott Varho: [00:11:51] But I do love that line. I want to steal that.

Ron Reed: [00:11:55] You’re welcome.

Scott Varho: [00:11:58] But it’s interesting to think about that because we — so our founder wrote a book on product mindset and some of the principles of the product mindset are solve for need, excel at change and minimize time to value. But the solve for need here is interesting to see, the solve for need plus a little bit of serendipity.

And I always find those stories really interesting, right? Like if you had not known your best friend and had that personal connection in South By Southwest, do you want to link in that way? How does that change the event if you had not been under the South By Southwest umbrella? Just kind of interesting to think about. I always find these — I mean your event is a product of sorts and so it’s kind of interesting to reflect on.

Ron Reed: [00:12:41] Yeah, agreed. And I think that again sort of the product differentiation was really trying to put everybody around the table is one observation to that. Again, a number of organizations that host gatherings and or membership organizations and they do great work, but they are focused as opposed to broad based the way South By is and EDU in particular.

Scott Varho: [00:13:06] Yep. Yep. Absolutely. So, on that note, and kind of switching to another principle of the product mindset is excelling at change. And I think you’ve already given us a couple of hints on how this has evolved, but what does it look like when you’re making a decision to make an alteration to the event itself?

Ron Reed: [00:13:23] Well, a couple of things. Maybe at a high level, I think Greg and I both come to this with a lot of energy and appetite for growth. We consider ourselves entrepreneurs. And my observation is, again, really proud of how South By Edu is grown. We had just under 8000 registrants last March as an example. The day after South By EDU wraps up, we’ll have 50 or 60,000 registrants for South By Southwest Music, Film and Conference.

And so, as an entrepreneur, I kind of feel like we should throw gasoline on this fire. Like I’ve got an organization whose proficiencies can help support that growth. And given sort of just my passion for teaching and learning and having spent a career there, I don’t know why an education community shouldn’t be larger than a tech or a music or entertainment or film it. Education touches us all.

And so, first of all, I think we kind of approach it with this notion that we have an aspiration and believe we have the organizational chops and proficiency to be the world’s largest learning festival. How do we do that? And so, I think, again, lots of enthusiasm. In the early years, we were on a very rapid growth. We expected a few hundred registrants. Year one, I think we had 800. Year two, we had 2000 registrants. Year three, I think we were somewhere between three and 4000. So, there was a really steep, steep trajectory of growth with that.

And so, as I alluded to earlier, initially there was a lot of conversation about who’s not here, how do we get them here, how do we engage them, how do we enrich and broaden this conversation? We feel like that’s what our special sauce is. I think today, maybe the pandemic has contributed to some reflection about this as well. Like I used to love as the compliment that there’s so much going on, we don’t know what to attend. There are too many sessions to select from. And it was sort of like, yeah, a cornucopia of goodness is kind of like what I’m about. That’s a compliment.

And I think coming through the pandemic, we’ve reflected a little bit about that and certainly we love that we are a conference and a festival, that we have sessions, and we have performances, and we have competitions and an expo, and we create a real rich experience for our community. But I think we’re trying to approach it through a lens of more intentionality, kind of greater cohesion between that and trying to support our community with the experience they arrive at the event and seek.

And so, I think we were throwing up lots of structures and programming options and focus areas. And the last few years, they’ve given a really talented team and an opportunity to think a little more intentionally about to what end are we doing this? How can we better help and support our community. More is not always better with this. And so, that’s been a reflection, I think, not only for South By EDU, but again for those 50, 60,000 registrants that show up and take over the city of Austin for music, film, and conference as well.

Scott Varho: [00:16:55] So, thinking about that. So, that’s really interesting and in a very different context. I’ve been thinking about some of the similar things, like once you can’t overwhelm humans, we know from studying psychology, they can be very overwhelmed by choice, and it can actually be paralyzing. And so, sometimes they need that kind of curated path through the noise so they can get to their signal. Is that sort of the kind of thinking that you’re doing?

Ron Reed: [00:17:21] Yes and no. I mean, I think so certainly more intentional. I think maybe where I wind up is, do we really need 500, 600 sessions? Can we accomplish that with 300 or 400 sessions? Can we again sort of help focus this a little bit? Our first or second year of the event as we are growing rapidly, we were at multiple venues which sort of diffused the energy, which worked against the goals that we were striving for, for the event, which is really just a kind of empower, a key and important community that we value and want to love on. The same way we do rock and rollers or new media inventors or the rest at South By.

And so, I think it is just being a little more reflective and a lot more attentive to the community’s input as to the conversations they are wanting and needing to have. And I think it is also shifted a little bit, at least in my thinking, Scott, I’m toying with a couple of different metaphors in my mind with us.

One is we have a great four days in Austin, but we look for something more enduring than four days of interactivity at Austin. We look for like impact to return to the communities that have joined us and help make a difference in that. And so, I think I’ve begun to think about it a little bit differently. It’s almost like four days in March is a little bit of a snapshot, but there is a year of engagement, a documentary of these conversations that is more compelling to me in some ways.

And so, I think we’re thinking a lot about how do we support our community, not only during March but throughout the year at South By and the rest of the org is reflecting on as well.

Scott Varho: [00:19:13] Yeah. And I’m sure you’ve already realized that there’s a number of events companies are trying to think about that same theme, right. Like how do we make — that has always been true. However, how do we make it more intentional part of the experience? You get the four days, but you also get connections to these kinds of people and these kinds of conversations throughout the year. The event in March should be it’s a moment, it’s an accelerator to what is taking place 361 days a year.

Ron Reed: [00:19:42] Very, very much so. And it’s a great opportunity for us to again convene a community we have such high regard for and celebrate them as sort of the kind of social rock stars that it’s too often or unheralded and unseen and unsupported. And I think if I reflect about one of the things coming out of the pandemic has helped a little bit drive an appreciation for the challenge our educators have via the K through 12 or in higher ed, I mean these are demanding environments and objectives. And so, I think that again, we highlighted maybe earlier in our talk, South By EDU is a fun place for educators, It’s a cool place for educators and they need fun, cool places. And so, we’re happy to be standing up one of them.

Scott Varho: [00:20:35] Well, especially because so many of those educators are doing micro innovation in their classrooms. And I thought just long enough to realize that one, I’m not very good at it. Two, I have a ton of respect for it. And three, I’d love to be better at it, and I’d love to finish my career doing it. I really have a thrill for that aha moment that when you see that in your students, it’s fantastic.

But I realized how much of the teaching experience is pretty lonely and you are in a position where you have to do a lot of innovating, what’s going to engage your class. Sometimes you’re pivoting on the spot. Sometimes you’ve got things that are tried and true and you can go back to, but I’ve been really impressed by just educators and what they’re able to do in a classroom setting with all the things they have to accomplish in a school year. It’s pretty —

Ron Reed: [00:21:26] I mean, I think a lot about teachers as artists and they are also scientists and psychologists as well. But I think, again, coming through the pandemic, great teaching is great teaching both virtually and online. There is an empathy. There is a connection to learners that is just really a sight to behold. We know it when we experience it. We want to encourage others to have that same opportunity and to support that. So again, it’s a real pleasure for us to love on educators the way we do so many other sectors at South By.

Scott Varho: [00:22:03] Yeah, yeah, totally. Well, and then thinking about the cold side of this, the technology side. So, technology was a big reason, I think correct me if I’m wrong, but the rise of education technology and technology in education is part of the reason why you started South By Southwest EDU. And so, talk a little bit about that, how you’ve seen technology evolve in the sector.

Ron Reed: [00:22:28] Yeah. It’s been, again, I consider myself an EdTech guy. I’ve enjoyed a couple of startups and flips. I mentioned optical data and laser video diffs. I share the story concludes We had a party that lasted a decade. We cratered the company, and we sold it to McGraw-Hill. And so, I’ve had some hard knocks and learnings along the way, but I think a couple of things.

One, I think the role of the teacher remains critical. Technology as a tool, and I think that’s maybe one of the shifts that’s occurred over the time was, there was this sort of blind attention to the power of technology and its efficacy and efficiency, all of which are important attributes to leverage. But I still think teaching is a highly interpersonal pursuit that technology can aid but that critical relationship remains really, really key for us.

So, I’ve been taken to see the growth of edtech. I mean, even during the pandemic, I think we were seeing that there were billions being invested from venture firms in the sector. I’ve always been taken that even with all the energy to drive change, how challenging it is to do effectively and to have change in a year with that.

So, 20 years ago, when we changed the definition of a textbook to include technology, I thought, son of a gun, here we are off to the races with cool stuff. And it’s 20 years later, we’re still making incremental steps with that. But I think you allude to it as well, the innovation of individual practitioners and teachers in the classroom. And I think that’s the theme that I reflect on most after ten plus years at South By EDU and longer in the field is there had been sort of this attention and focus on the institution and on the measures, on the standardization, the assessments, et cetera.

And I think in the last 10, 12 years, that conversation has really shifted away from sort of the institutional framing of the conversation to really want about the individual or the learner in that respect. And so, what I get most excited about, I think as it relates to edtech or leveraging that for those proficiencies that tech provides in terms of managing multiple tasks and tracking mastery of them. And so early on in our run at South By EDU, there was a lot of work going on, the Gates Foundation and others, with personalized adaptive learning.

And when we talk about the magic that teachers do in their classroom, I think it often is that it is that connecting with folks one on one that technology can help facilitate and support that is, I think, an exciting time for edtech. It would be my hope anyway.

Scott Varho: [00:25:26] Yeah. Yeah. No, the whole classroom concept and the idea that technology can help different learners with different learning styles, connect with material in different ways, and get targeted help where they need it has, as a technologist, I’m totally enamored with that. And yet I know as a teacher, that connection that the look on their face that you need sometimes it’s not just going to be in the assessment. Do they do they really understand the concept or are they still struggling, still have some doubts, and I need to try to find a different way to reach them? And obviously as a parent, I’m watching my own children as they navigate learning in school, out of school and otherwise. Very interesting.

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So, the upcoming South By Southwest due in March, is there something, some things that we should be listening out for or looking for before the event launches?

Ron Reed: [00:27:02] Yeah, I think so. I mean, again, I think there’s a real concentration of powerful conversations going on right now about teaching and learning. We’re, again, coming out of the pandemic. If I structure my world in a moment and thinking about early learning K through 12 and post-secondary are sort of different buckets of this. I think that a couple of things coming out of the pandemic, there’s certainly been a large attention to the wellness and health, social and emotional balance, not only, frankly, of our learners, not only our young learners, but our college age students as well. And not only our learners, but faculty and teachers.

So, I think, again, the pandemic has highlighted the stress in the system and in the organization in ways that I’m hopeful that South By is providing a platform to really explore and address those. I think beyond the sort of social and emotional, there’s a great attention and energy to let’s, I’ll use the phrase build back better. Like let’s not recreate an education system that was fundamentally flawed. Given the reset, given the amount of funding that is available for schools to accelerate learning, let’s do things that work.

And so, a focus on efficacy is something that I’m super excited to see. I think for the last several administrations in D.C., we’ve talked about and acknowledged the need for greater R&D in education to know what the heck we’re doing. I heard this great analogy, like in the transportation industry, everybody around the world knows that railroad tracks are X far apart, and you build trains to go on those, and that’s the standard. But there is none of that, that sort of alignment for education as a state funded, state process to a great degree. So, I think a keen attention at looking at what moves the needle is going to be super, super important this year at the event. And — oh, go ahead.

Scott Varho: [00:29:11] Oh, no. Just dig into that a little bit. Like why this year, because of the pandemic or the other factors that make this year particularly notable from that perspective?

Ron Reed: [00:29:19] I think the pandemic has certainly contributed to it. And I say that in part just because of all of the Esser funds that are now available in the marketplace that are chartered to help accelerate learning. So, I think all the time innovation is stymied because of funding and access to that, but that’s not the circumstance here. So, I think that is one of the differences.

I also think that there is such a broad, systemic, wide reflection of what’s working and what’s not is a different one than our science scores in middle school are down, what are we going to do about that? So, I think there is a broader conversation going on. I also think the edtech industry and supporters, even the Department of Education, are doing a lot to help encourage and support customers, making smart decisions over their investments in tools and tech, et cetera.

Under what circumstances does it work well? Are those the circumstances that that you’re experiencing? And how can you share that experience so you can inform others to make good and prudent decisions about this? And so, in any of that, I do think there are some structurally some different issues today than there may have been back when we were talking about textbooks and technology.

I also kind of think in the post-secondary world at higher ed, I think there’s a lot of challenge going on there, a lot of rich conversations this year at South By Edu. I think when we step back and think, Scott, about the attributes of great education systems, it’s the extent to which they meet all of our learners’ needs across that spectrum. I think the diversity, equity and inclusion conversation that really crystallized a lot during the pandemic remains very urgent in education.

How do we ensure all of our learners are having good access? How do we ensure our post-secondary colleges are indeed supportive of kids of color, which have taken a tremendous hit during the pandemic from a funding and access standpoint. So, I think there are a lot of really central, key conversations in this moment as we look at a go forward that is hopefully by design, intended to deliver better for learners than it has in the past.

Scott Varho: [00:31:46] Yeah. Yeah, that’s inspiring and intimidating at the same time. It’s quite there’s a lot of pressure on the system for sure. And I know first hand a lot of pressure on educators. Yeah, it’s challenging one. And we’re seeing the first closures of universities post-pandemic. And that’s long been foretold that there will be especially some of the for-profit enrollment dependent universities are at risk in the post pandemic or even pre-pandemic, we were talking about that. So, that will cause somewhat of a strategic shift in higher ed and how it uses its resources to deliver outcomes.

Ron Reed: [00:32:29] Well, I think one of the things we’re seeing a lot in higher ed and a catchphrase you probably heard as well, are skills the new degree in some ways. Like what are the skills that are necessary for these evolving jobs of the future in tech and in other sectors? And to what degree are schools providing that? I think that the student debt, student loan conversation is, again, really help drive a value proposition as to what I am studying, why, and with what clarity is to what its outcomes will afford me.

Scott Varho: [00:33:02] Well, as having I previously to being chief evangelist for 3Pillar, I was running all of product development, engineering, product UX, et ceteras, and my undergrad is in German studies and European studies. So, for all the liberal arts people out there, yourself as well, liberal arts is great for preparing you for these professional careers, but you do wind up then having these skills gaps that you have to fill.

And yeah, it’s a real challenge I think, even for students trying to figure out how they want to enter the marketplace. Am I looking for a pre-professional degree? Am I trying to learn how to analyze, think and write, and then I’ll figure the rest of that stuff out later? It’s intimidating for them as well in a different kind of world they’re entering.

Ron Reed: [00:33:49] Yeah, very, very much so. Again, a lot of future forward conversations on the program this year as to how education is supporting the learner objectives. And again, not only in the collegiate context but even at the high school level as we look at rich arrays of different pathways for dual credit. And I’m meeting kids in Austin who are graduating with a high school degree and also an associate degree and are moving into six figure jobs with a different path than I ever even imagined or considered for myself. So, I love the richness that’s available for learners now.

Scott Varho: [00:34:24] It’s great to see the options. Yeah. Well, and then you touched on mental health, which is another topic that is near and dear for me. We’ve been talking about it more inside our company and I was really excited. We’re in nine different countries, ten now, I think through acquisitions and speaking openly about mental health challenges has become okay. And it’s never an easy conversation, but I expected more especially cross-cultural, multinational, less comfort with that kind of conversation. But I was pleasantly surprised, we got in some pretty, pretty vulnerable places. And that’s with the adults with the toolkits that they have starting to talk about K-12 and even in higher ed, yeah, our educators have a real, real challenge on their hands.

Ron Reed: [00:35:14] Very much so, yeah.

Scott Varho: [00:35:15] And it seems like South By Southwest EDU is a is a great place for them to come and discuss some of that and hopefully get some good insights on how to address those going forward. So really —

Ron Reed: [00:35:27] We sure hope so. I mean, we endeavored to hold up lots of best practices to permit a community to connect with one another and a job that too often is very, very siloed, as we were talking earlier, very, very lonely at times. And so, I think best practices to catch a little inspiration and refill the cup a little bit, have some fun with your community and learn some new things that can make a difference when you return.

Scott Varho: [00:35:57] Real use of the home and the allies.

Ron Reed: [00:35:58] Yeah.

Scott Varho: [00:36:00] You’re not alone. You have a lot of allies.

Ron Reed: [00:36:02] That’s correct.

Scott Varho: [00:36:03] Well, just as a way to to close up, we like to do kind of a speed round of questions. Come at you fast and see what comes out. So, if you’re all right, I’m going to.

Ron Reed: [00:36:14] Of course.

Scott Varho: [00:36:15] All right. So what’s the best South By Southwest EDU talk you’ve ever heard?

Ron Reed: [00:36:20] Oh, man, that’s a real challenge because we’ve had just some great, great voices. So, there are many people I want to say, but I’ll share in a moment. So, Bill Gates came and spoke about edtech and startups in a way that was so powerful and prominent. I heard Temple Grandin talk about different ways of looking at the world, and I just love her and her worldview and perspective. Goldie Hawn was a speaker who I had a crush on most of my life. She was doing mindfulness before SEL was even a thing.

So, there’s lots of great voices to pick. But the one I think I would pick is a guy by the name of Christopher Emdin. Christopher, when he noted EDU, he was a professor at Teacher’s College Columbia. I think he’s now at USC. He brought a really powerful talk about — in fact, he had just written a book for all the white folks who teach in the hood and everybody else. And he brought like this culturally relevant conversation about friends, enemies, frenemies, and how to move the needle in education. And as much as I love Gates and Temple Grandin and Goldie and a hundred other great speakers, Chris is the one who continues to rock my world. And I think about his remarks often. I’m a big fan of yours, so Chris Emdin.

Scott Varho: [00:37:58] I’m definitely going to check that. Christopher Emdin?

Ron Reed: [00:38:01] E-M-D-I-N. And he’s also the guy behind #hiphoped is his thing. And again, just like reality-based pedagogy and keeping it real. So, I’m a big fan.

Scott Varho: [00:38:17] That’s fantastic. I definitely have to check that out. I’m a huge Lynn Random fan as well, and teaching history with a little bit of hip hop. So, I have a feeling that’ll be a fun read.

Ron Reed: [00:38:30] Enjoy.

Scott Varho: [00:38:30] Is there a 2023 talk on the books that you’re already excited about?

Ron Reed: [00:38:35] Yeah, indeed, a bunch of them. We’re actually doing a programming announcement shortly. I think we’ll drop the first couple of hundred sessions for this year’s program, which ultimately will have 350 or 400 sessions in total. So, there’s going to be a lot of goodness on there. A couple of things maybe come to mind. I think we’re trying to do some special things.

So, permit me to be non-disclosing for a moment, but International Women’s Day falls during South By EDU this year. And so, we’re thinking a lot about how to give voice to that very important community and topic, et cetera. And so, I’m excited for International Women’s Day. We have the good fortune of it following during our dates occasionally and this is one of those years. So that would be one thing that again, we’re working on and looking forward to.

I think the other thing, given some of our conversation, Scott, one of my favorite parts of South By EDU was something we started year two of the event to help invite early-stage companies. It’s called the Launch Startup Competition. This is for early stage edtech companies. We have certain requirements. I want to say it’s under five or eight million in funding that they’ve received.

And so, for us, we like to highlight innovation going on in these organizations. First of all, is just programming for our educator audience to understand folks are thinking about the future and hear examples of what they are doing about it. We also like driving this conversation between sort of the practitioner audience and the inventor audience to sort of drive alignment with that. The Launch Competition is something that I think is going to be especially high energy this year, given, again, the pandemic, the investments, all the energy that is out there.

We’ve had some great winners in the past. In fact, two co-hosts last year were the guys who pitched and launched EDU How Bad 2013 or something like that. Kahoot, and Clever, both of which have now merged. And they’re a dang billion-dollar operation.

Scott Varho: [00:40:52] Are they really?

Ron Reed: [00:40:53] Yeah.

Scott Varho: [00:40:53] I remember when there were four guys. I remember I talked to Clever many years ago.

Ron Reed: [00:40:57] Well, Tyler and Dan and all of them again.

Scott Varho: [00:41:02] Yeah. Oh my gosh.

Ron Reed: [00:41:03] Yeah. So, I love the launch component of the event and no shortage of great voices, talks, parties, socials and so forth, but lots of good stuff.

Scott Varho: [00:41:14] I mean, you’ve got Austin in the background. You can’t help it. I mean, it’s such a great time for something like this. Wow. Well, you’ve got me really excited. I want to come. Last one, keep Austin weird is well known catchphrase for Austin. So, how does South By Southwest EDU contribute to keeping Austin weird?

Ron Reed: [00:41:36] Oh, it’s a great question.

Scott Varho: [00:41:38] I feel like it’s easier to answer the other way around.

Ron Reed: [00:41:41] Well, actually, I think I’ve got one for you in that South By Southwest considers Austin the star of the show in a lot of ways. And I would say that if you think about South By Southwest Music, you can see South By Southwest in Austin. You’re going to go on the Red River Cultural District or on Sixth Street, through any one of these live music venue arenas and such, and you see the influence of South By Southwest Music and Entertainment and Film.

When you think about the tech contribution, gees man, just looking at the skyline is pretty much a reflection of South By and Austin in keeping it weird. Billion dollar announcements from Apple, Oracle, AMD, Samsung. City is on fire for a guy that’s lived here his whole life, it’s just amazing.

But I think the way South By EDU contributes to keeping Austin weird is putting a light on the fact that Austin is one of the great cities of learning in America. We’ve got spectacular public schools, one of the largest, most innovative community college networks in the country, tier one, public and private, liberal arts schools.

Austin is a city that loves learning and was always, I think, at least initially described as a college town. And I think that love of learning continues and is why I think Austin, in addition to being the live music capital of the world, ought to be learning capital of the world, that’s the work of South By EDU.

Scott Varho: [00:43:21] Well, that was a fantastic answer. Wow. Like I said, you’ve got me really excited. I want to come this year. I’ve often wanted to. And actually, to be honest, one of my motivations for coming to 3Pillar was to really learn how great digital product development is done and apply that to education, because that was where I was coming from. It just felt like there were better ways to do things than the way a lot of things were being done. And so, more effectively putting those funds. There’s a lot of money in this market. People don’t realize how much money we’re talking about.

Ron Reed: [00:43:53] Yeah.

Scott Varho: [00:43:54] And so, directing that money to outcomes that benefit society and learners. And so, it’s a real challenge.

Ron Reed: [00:44:01] Well, and Scott, I’m embarrassed as we do this podcast to realize I fail to mention that this will be the second year we’re hosting a podcast stage at South By EDU. And we’re hosting live podcast, many of which are recorded there. And so again, trying to have fun, keeping it real and bringing it.

Scott Varho: [00:44:23] That’s great. That’s great. Well, thank you, Ron. This has really been wonderful. Great to get some inside scoop on an event that I’ve been following for years, so.

Ron Reed: [00:44:32] Well, this is pleasure. Pleasure’s been all mine. Please come see us in March. We’d love for you to. I’ll share with you and your listeners that our registration rates increase as the event approaches. So, visit Southbysouthwestedu.com and feel free to buy a ticket and come join us. We’d love to see you and love to host you.

Scott Varho: [00:44:50] That’d be great. Well, thank you again.

Ron Reed: [00:44:53] Hey, listen, I appreciate it, Scott. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. You have a fantastic day.

Scott Varho: [00:44:56] Me, too. Thank you.

Ron Reed: [00:44:58] Thank you, sir.

Outro: [00:45:01] This has been an episode of The Innovation Engine, a podcast from 3Pillar Global. 3Pillar is a digital product development and innovation partner that helps companies compete and win in the digital economy. To learn more about 3Pillar Global and how we can help you, visit our website at 3PillarGlobal.com.

Lastly, remember to give us a rating and leave a review on your podcast player of choice. If you have any feedback or guest suggestions, send them over to info@3PillarGlobal.com. Thanks for listening and see you next time.