News & Perspectives

Making the most of SXSW EDU: 5 Tips from a conference veteran

12. February 2019 Tony Brown Education

By Tony Brown, Principal, Public Consulting Group

For education professionals seeking to stay current with the most important innovations in teaching and learning, no event rivals the annual SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas, coming up on March 4 through 7. As you’d expect from its name, SXSW EDU is jam-packed with a Texas-sized selection of learning, professional development, and networking opportunities for teachers, principals, school administrators, researchers, consultants, and innovators.

But with more than 450 sessions to choose from, 1,200 speakers, and 15,000 attendees, SXSW EDU can be a little overwhelming–especially if it’s your first time there. I know it was for me but I’ve learned a few things that could be helpful to others heading to Austin for SXSW EDU 2019.

Here are my top five pieces of advice for how to get the most out of this extraordinary event, based on four years of attending SXSW EDU and decades of visiting Austin. The past four of those years include my company, Public Consulting Group (PCG), sponsoring SXSW EDU sessions and helping 20 PCG professionals, clients, and friends of our firm through the rigorous PanelPicker public voting process, winning seven coveted speaking spots, two of those in 2019. I want to thank my colleague, Brian Riley, a senior consultant at PCG and savvy SXSW EDU veteran, for his input on this list.

  1. Plan—but do not over plan–every day of your attendance at SXSW EDU. For everyone who makes education their life’s work, this conference is a lot like visiting Disney World. There’s so much to do here, you could profitably take a whole year to sample everything SXSW EDU has packed into four days. It’s worth taking a few hours ahead of time to scour the agenda, search online for key words in event descriptions that correspond to your interests, and make an hour-by-hour plan for what you will do when. That said: Be sure to leave some free space in your schedule for networking and getting to know people who share your professional interests.

  2. Network, network, network. In my experience, every single conversation I have had with a fellow SXSW EDU attendee has been informative and useful and one way or another has rolled back to a project I am working on. Many of these conversations have helped me add important contacts to my personal network and connect my new friends to others who are great additions for their professional networks. As tempting as it may be, don’t go back-to-back-to-back-to-back with your event registrations. Leave a few half-hour slots in your morning and your afternoon for conversation and digesting all you’re learning with people you meet. SXSW EDU offers its own terrific advice on networking at https://www.SXSW

  3. Don’t get hung up on the different session types. When you go through the SXSW EDU program, you will learn a whole new language of different types of presentations: Campfire, Case Study, Featured, Future20, Hands On, Meet Up, Policy Forum, Show & Tell, Workshop, and many more. Each one is slightly different in terms of how many people present, for how long, and what the level of audience interaction is. In my experience, no session type is inherently better or worse than others. Also–maybe you shouldn’t tell the conference sponsors this!–many speakers don’t rigidly follow the prescribed format. Because of the competitive rigor of winning a speaking slot at SXSW EDU, whatever the session type is billed as, you know you’re going to get an extremely well-vetted and -honed presentation. One exception to this assessment my colleague Brian makes: he’s particularly fond of the “Future20” sessions, where presenters give a 20-minute presentation on something very forward-thinking; an issue, approach, or technology that’s likely to come to fruition years or even decades from now and is only beginning to get discussed.

  4. Remember to have fun. Everything you hear about what a lively, funky, colorful town Austin is, all of it’s true. The area around the Austin Convention Center and Hilton Austin Downtown is full of great places to eat, drink, and enjoy music and dancing. But I’d also encourage you to foray farther into Austin: Enjoy swimming in the year-round 70-degree waters of Barton Springs Pool at Zilker Park. Try the Texas Two Step at the Broken Spoke. Take in live roots, rock, country, blues, rockabilly, and more at the 64-years-young Continental Club Walk, bike, or jog around some of the 10-mile trail around Lady Bird Lake Cities do not get more fun than Austin–and if you’re escaping a Northern winter, the 70-degree highs you can expect in Texas’s capital city in March are heavenly.

  5. Start each day with a breakfast taco. They’re an Austin specialty and a treat that’s guaranteed to get your day off to a great start. As Austin Monthly said in their ranking of the 19 best breakfast tacos in Austin, a good breakfast taco feels as good as a warm hug.

I can’t wait to get to Austin for SXSW EDU 2019, four days of immersing myself in the best thinking and idea-sharing in education today, and making dozens of new connections with passionate leaders throughout the world of education. I hope you’ll have a productive, fulfilling, and fun time at SXSW EDU yourself!

Tony Brown, a Principal at Public Consulting Group (PCG) has worked in the cross-sector of education, health, human services, and technology for over 30 years. He is relentlessly committed to serving clients in the public sector and looking for synergies to elevate the quality and efficiency of the services PCG delivers to its clients. Bringing innovative solutions to clients in the U.S. and abroad continues to drive Tony’s work day-to-day 30 years later. Today, Tony’s focus areas range from using Amazing Web Services to better deliver services to our clients all the way to ensuring we have inter-agency communication and predictive metrics to better address School Safety concerns. At SXSW EDU, Tony aims to learn, engage in deep conversations, and be challenged on how to bring a holistic lens to the way we support and provide services of all kinds across all sectors.