ETS at SXSW EDU: What We Learned

Hundreds of people exit the darkened Austin Convention Center hall illuminated by the bluish glow of the SXSW EDU signage on stage. Having watched the opening keynote featuring four captivating teachers tell their stories of overcoming challenges, many are inspired and conversing energetically, ready to soak in all the conference has to offer. Andreas Oranje, however, can only think to himself, “What did I get myself into?”

Oranje is scheduled to give a solo presentation later that day. As a research director at Educational Testing Service (ETS) focused on education technology, he’s confident that SXSW is the right place to showcase his predictions on how technology will interrupt the assessment industry. Oranje, however, just can’t shake the nervousness building within as he ruminates on whether he can compete with some of the best presenters out there, teachers.

A few hours later, Oranje is wrapping up his remarks and taking questions from a stand-room-only crowd. “After I saw that there was an interest in what I had to say, I really started to enjoy myself,” Oranje said. “Having a chance to present my thoughts to this community of front-line educators was great, but having the chance to go deeper during discussions with people afterwards, that’s what was really rewarding.”

Bringing people together who are motivated to solve tough challenges is what SXSW EDU is all about. “It was affirming knowing that we’re doing good work because all these different people from different walks of life share the same key values when it comes to improving the teacher profession,” said Travis Rodgers, a strategic advisor at ETS working to address the lack of racial diversity in the teaching profession.

Rodgers and ETS Research Scientist Geoffrey Phelps were both panelists during a discussion on how to elevate the practice of teaching and diversify the teaching pipeline. Phelps, previously an elementary school teacher and college professor, found it personally rewarding to speak to fellow teachers about the work ETS does aside from making assessments. “It was very satisfying to see a light bulb go on in the eyes of the practitioners that we [ETS] are very much in the business of understanding professional competency and what teachers need to know and be able to do,” Phelps said.

Joann Gorin, ETS’s VP of Research, viewed her and her colleagues’ experiences at SXSW EDU as a way to show another side of ETS that many in the education community may not be aware of. “I’m excited about the direction we’re going in,” Gorin said. “We’re more willing to go outside of our comfort zone…and that’s something we need to continue to do to be a positive contributor to education.”

All the ETSers who participated in SXSW EDU witnessed a welcoming community where ideas, practices, technology, research and camaraderie were shared freely, all with the purpose of strengthening education for all.