SXSWedu 2017_Equity, Microschool, Credentials, and Edtech

South By South West Education 2017 has finally kicked off. I’m still in awe of the sheer outpouring of new information, ideas, and people from the past 4 days. Although I’m not exactly sure of how many people have attended the event, there were over 7,500 people from 38 countries at SXSWedu 2016 — which is supposed to be a smaller number than this year’s.

On the first day, I participated in the following sessions:

  1. We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, Keynote

I wrote down 100+ thoughts and ideas, sentence by sentence throughout the day. After reviewing them, I found a few themes, under which I continued writing with more details.

Christopher Emdin: We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

Chris Emdin’s keynote was hands-down the most powerful session out of this year’s SXSWedu. If you have one hour to fill yourself with authentic inspiration, check out his keynote below.

Distinction between friends and enemies

  • Dr. Emdin started his keynote by a bold distinction among 3,000 people in the building. He referred some of the audience as his “friends”. Friends are the ones who understand that education is the civil rights issue of our time. For those friends, being a teacher is not just about teaching, but understanding cultural dynamics among young people, along with “psychology and sociology, all melted in a perfect gumbo” that exists in every classroom.


  • The Dinka tribe in the Sudan has a tradition of extracting the permanent front teeth of their children — as many as six bottom teeth and two top teeth. During a period of time in which lock jaw(tetanus) was common, children’s jaws were slamming shut, preventing them from eating and drinking. The teeth were painfully removed with a fishhook. By pulling out up to eight permanent front teeth, the children could drink through the resulting hole that was left. The tetanus epidemic has long passed, but the the Dinka tribe is still pulling permeant teeth from their children’s jaws, as a cultural norm.
A Dinka woman with traditional scars of her her tribe. PC: Tom McShane
  • Dr. Emdin then had us imagine what kind of trauma a child would undergo by partaking in this ceremony and have their teeth taken out. He associated this trauma with today’s children undergoing something just because they are told so, but they know it isn’t necessary.


  • He brought up hip-hop a lot in his talk. In fact, his entire talk sounded a bit like a hip-hop performance. He attributed his messages to his interesting juxtaposition between brilliant young people conveying REAL insight of reality through hip-hop on the street and bored kids in formalized classrooms.
Dr. Emdin was doing hip-hop himself while preaching hip-hop. PC: SXSWedu


  • The title of his keynote, “We Got It From Here… Thanks 4 For Your Service” can be translated to something like “You’ve done a lot. What you think you know how to do is not good enough for us.” OR “you’re fired”. Dr. Emdin got this from the album title of A Tribe Called Quest, a New York based Hip Hop group. Throughout the songs in this album, ATCQ conveys how hip-hop industry has been commercialized and reconstructed, being maladjusted to the norm, as Mr. Luther King has once said.


It wasn’t until I got to travel for work for HGI’s Communitas Project to know what equity means in the context of human rights and social justice, besides in the financial context. To my pleasant surprise, the word equity came up every single day. I’ll go into more details about ubiquitous confusion around buzzwords later, but it was interesting how people didn’t perceive “equity” as a buzzword in spite of its frequent usage. I think that it’s because people perceive equity as a bedrock for every part of education — going back to Dr. Emdin’s ideas of being “friends”.

In contrast, my experiences of working in the Korea education space aren’t quite familiar with the word equity. Sure, South Korea is a vastly homogenous country with relatively smaller difference in race, culture or religion. The United States was founded upon a set of values to establish justice and therefore “encompasses” people with a wider array of racial, cultural, and religious differences — being the melting pot as it is. But does South Korea’s homogeneity then nullify the necessity for such foundation? If we were truly homogenous, why would we ever go through so much political, economic, and social conflicts on both micro and macro scale? Such homogeneity may be conducive to us, Koreans, thinking that we are the same people. But once you think twice, you realize how untrue that is. All types of differences — background, family environment, traditions, income level, sexuality — still exist within our country and yet we’re not talking about it. This yields a great amount of violence, ignorance, and conflicts. It’s a vicious cycle — hurt people hurt people. This really fosters the importance of Social and Emotional Learning(SEL) in places like Korea.

Interestingly, the South Korea president’s impeachment was upheld on the last day of SXSWedu. It’s joyous to say that we’re getting closer to echoing this really important value of “equity”. Having said that, I’d like to quote Dr. Christopher Emdin to those who are currently on the anti-impeachment movement.

“Thank you for your service. We got it from here.”


I attended a penal around the topic of “new schools” with panelists from Unlearn Education, 4.0 Schools, the Hechinger Report, and Blyth-Templeton Academy. As I was listening, I noticed that most of the talk was about the concept of “microschool”. I then realized that this accounts for how characteristics of microschool are aligned with where the future of school is.

So, what is microschool?

a) It’s small (duh)

150 seems to be the magic number. There are usually no more than 150 students enrolled in a micro school, with fewer than 15 kids in a class. Once with a larger demand, the school will expand its network with more tiny schools, rather than raising the cap on the class size or adding classes.

b) It’s lean

Lean start-up mindset can not only applied to businesses, but it’s also relevant to building schools of future. Traditionally, building a schools is very much anti-lean — being very capital intensive, let alone legal procedures on top of more procedures. For microschools, there are only two crucial variables — labor and building — as the foremost elements to consider. They pivot as they go.

c)It’s student-to-student teaching

Microschool isn’t just about being “student-centric”. Microschools aim to accomplish operation without adults, meaning that students to student teaching process becomes natural.

How do they teach?

I remember how active kids looked when I visited AltSchool and Khan Lab School in San Francisco, but I was curious about how that last part above plays out. Accordingly, students are often asked to answer what they want to do each day. This leads to organic experiential learning, not to mention the learning process is catered to the individual’s interest and preference. Also, the classes are broken down into blocks of deep dive, rather than 45 minutes of class. Often times, microschools will allot separate time for their own projects.

Blyth-Templeton Academy is an academically rigorous 9–12th grade high school in the heart of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. PC: Blyth-Templeton


“How scalable is it?” is the question that we often hear in the business world — sometimes way too much. There’s a big room for inevitable uncertainty — often times businesses don’t get to the scale-up stage. Plus, who would like to pitch/pursue a business idea that isn’t scalable for sure?

The panelists had interesting answers to this question, by answering that it’s a “dangerous question” to ask.

The argument is that when one considers scalability prior to even coming up of an idea or pursuing it, that person won’t even reach to the action part. For example, a lot of movies that made their ways to Hollywood were born without any consideration/hesitation of “will this make it to Hollywood?” On the other hand, if such phenomenon — catering your creations to already existing standards — was the norm, Hollywood would be filled with only the blockbusters with homogenous themes and concepts.

(I was recommended to read the book “Long Tale” by Chris Anderson)

A panelist ended his answer by saying “yes it’s scalable, but I hate to say it.” This counterintuitive insight suggests that we should start a school without thinking too much about scalability, since such questioning will hinder people from taking initiatives, hence making it a dangerous question.


“How do you measure it?” is interestingly similar to the scalability question in the sense that we have to think twice about what we’re really curious about. Although there are some objective elements such as microschool students accomplishing a certain amount of learning in a year that would normally take about 2.9 years. However, as personalization is key in microschool, objective and “average” data may not apply to microschool. In fact, microschool is very much against the yardstick of averages, judged according to how closely students come to it or how far they deviate from it. This puts personalized education in a difficult position for measuring, since we automatically associate the average with measurement. This actually makes sense.

Todd Rose argues against average-based yardsticks like GPAs, personality tests and annual performance reviews.


This seems to be the biggest challenges among microschools. Temp Keller from Templeton Academy, a microschool in D.C, charges $15,000 a year and said that they continuously aim to decrease the tuition. As a way of keeping the cost down, most microschools sometimes have as many adjunct staff, teaching for as short as 10 weeks.

What I learned

From this panel, I realized that a significant part of microschool staff and members are also involved in public school system. Naturally, those stakeholders strive to bring about this marriage between microschool and public education space. I’m not certain about the term microschool, but its characteristics are strongly associated with how/where schools are headed in the future, particularly how populations are changing in accordance with the information age. I learned that innovation in education space isn’t happening fast because there’s not enough consumption. A majority of the population is consuming education from traditional routes, and we need more R&D, ideation, prototyping, failures, and iterations to speed up this entire game. Why? Because we all agree that it’s the right way.

Credentials: Completion to Mastery

One of the common themes of future in learning is the shift from completion to mastery in regards to credentials. Below is how there are changes happening in representations of credentials. It’s becoming more specific and accessible.

Although things like nano-degrees from Udacity or digital badges from Open Badges platform definitely broaden access to education for people around the globe, the assessment part of such credential is still questionable. If someone earned a badge in MLA mastering, how do you know if the person actually mastered it or not?

Udacity offers various nano-degrees from web development to data science.

This is related to how 36% of U.S employers cannot find the skills they need, whereas 36% have jobs for which they feel overqualified.

This brings us to the current dispute which is about creating and valuing credentials based on the level of mastery. I personally think that this coincides with formal education being focused on project-based learning. The best way to prove that you can do something is by showing what you’ve done, rather than telling what you have.

Edtech and Asia

Albeit a bit unclear, it was interesting to hear about some trends and predictions about the hype, education technology. I had two thoughts in my mind prior to attending all the EdTech sessions: a)technology is and always will be a tool, not an answer and b)there is a huge untapped space for technology to be utilized for better education.

Here are a few things I learned that are not too far from my premises:

  • There’s not enough investment in edtech market. To give you a perspective, gross investment that goes into edtech market is estimated to be $8B, which is the same as total gaming investment. However, total global education market is whopping $5.2 trillion, while global gaming market is as big as $91B. There is a same amount of investment into edtech and gaming, while global education market is 57 times larger than global gaming market. The fact that the actual edtech investment amounts of 0.15% of global education market makes edtech not a bubble, but effervescence.

This culminates to the conclusion of edtechx, who hosted an edtech session: “digital education is the oil of knowledge economy”

In the next blog about the second day of 2017 SXSWedu, I’ll be writing about social emotional learning & gaming, neuroplasticity, Salesforce, and computational thinking.

I feel blessed for such an amazing learning journey. I’d like to thank Babson College’s Lewis Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College for this great opportunity.

Alex Lim | Co-Founder, Awesome School / Class of ‘18, Babson College

Social impact | Biz Dev | Digital | I drive the expansion of tech ventures to APAC. Featured writer under The Startup, Medium’s largest active publication.