Educators in Austin for SXSW rally to create two-day AltSXSWedu

SXSW

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When the city of Austin canceled South by Southwest (SXSW) on Friday, many educators were already in town or on their way for the start of SXSW EDU, the education conference that was supposed to start Monday.

But instead of going home, a group of organizers decided to go as big as they could regardless. AltSXSWedu was born over the weekend, an alternative two-day convention starting Tuesday for those who were coming already.

“What an opportunity,” said Carl Hooker, an Austin education consultant who started recruiting presenters hours after the cancellation. “We have all these great minds in Austin; let’s get together.”

It’ll be much smaller — the space the organizers got donated, the new Rainey Street bar Idle Hands, has a limit of about 200 people — but the spirit will be the same. “It’s going to be a lot more interactive, a lot more collaborative, a lot more problem-solving sessions that are taking place,” Hooker said.

‘Making the best of it’

At an informal meetup on Monday, about 10 people met to start discussing the next couple days of programming. From Pennsylvania to Alabama, Brazil to Hong Kong, the group was a microcosm of the festival’s attendance.

They exchanged business cards and talked about their experiences with education and technology. “Just making the best of it, really,” said Nathan Lord.

altsxswedu presentation
Nathan Lord, founder of the startup MathMoji, presents his product to an informal meetup of people attending AltSXSWedu on Monday, March 9, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Lord founded the startup MathMoji, a service that provides video explanations of how to solve math problems for elementary school students. Users can select from lists of interests, like animals or golf, “and then the practice problems are all related to those interests,” Lord explained to the group.

He lives in Austin now, and was counting on SXSW EDU to get the word out about his new product. “It’s like the best thing in the world that could help me right now in my own back yard,” he said. “I had, like, 30 meetings scheduled and a ton of sessions and happy hours and all that stuff to go to.”

Amber Merrill shows off the robot her company uses to teach kids to code with the programming language Python. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Amber Merrill, an education specialist at Firia Labs in Huntsville, Ala., ran into similar difficulties. The company teaches young kids to code small robots using the programming language Python, and had a number of people excited to meet them at the conference.

“We’re a small business and we already invested a lot of money that we couldn’t get back,” Merrill said. “So, the way we look at [AltSXSWedu] is it’s still an opportunity to connect with other educators.”

An international effort

Organizers wanted to make sure everyone already invested in coming to Austin had the same opportunity.

Hooker, who planned to present at SXSW EDU this year, teamed up with two people he’d never met, Krista Vaught from Florida and Tracy Mehoke, originally from Wisconsin but living in Abu Dhabi.

“Even though it’s obviously going to be extremely different from the normal SXSW EDU,” Mehoke said, “it’s still going to be a really amazing SXSW EDU.”

The group recruited presenters to fill two days of programming at Idle Hands, plus several virtual sessions available around the globe. Local companies donated food, coffee and water for the conference, and bands offered to play happy hour shows when the meetings wrap up.

Idle Hands, the new name of this Rainey Street bar, will host two days of sessions for AltSXSWedu. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

“I think a lot of people might have just canceled or just kind of given up, but we’re not letting that happen,” Vaught said.

It will be less formal this year and the venue will be considerably different from the convention center vibe attendees were expecting, but organizers say that will mean more chances to connect one-on-one.

The change in setting will also mean the people who show up will be the ones who really want to be there.

“When people come together in kind of a crisis,” Merrill said, “they’re more excited and more willing to make things work and to make the best out of a hard situation.”

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