An industry insider’s edtech conference guide

The sign outside 2019’s ASU GSV conference in San Diego, with X marking ten years.

ASU GSV. SIIA. SXSW EDU.

No, these are not scattered arrangements of alphabet blocks from an especially precocious early learning classroom. They’re abbreviations for major conferences for companies in the education industry.

I’ve been attending, and occasionally speaking at, these events and their predecessors for more than two decades. What sets them apart from purely teacher-focused conferences is that industry players aren’t viewed mainly as vendors who pony up for a sponsorship or exhibit booth. Instead, in nearly every case, they’re primary conference attendees.

The last time I took a detailed look at the industry conference landscape for EdSurge was in 2014. That was early in the days of low-cost cloud computing enabling a multitude of new edtech startups, really fast internet beginning its spread to schools, and Chromebooks starting their climb to ascendance in U.S. K-12 classrooms as a 1:1 mobile device.

Five years later, these developments didn’t just upend the classroom. They have upended the industry and how it’s reflected in the events that cater to industry companies, investors, and executives at every level from preschool to workforce learning.

If you work inside, or are deeply interested in, the industry, here’s a new assessment of a handful of the most prominent U.S. events. Yes, ISTE, EDUCAUSE, CoSN and other educator-focused conferences remain vitally important to the industry, too, and have gone through some of their own changes (for example, the “F” in FETC no longer means “Florida” but “Future of” Education Technology Conference). There are also other highly specialized and invitation-only industry conferences. But the general, high-profile events that follow are where more industry deals are done and difficult business decisions are discussed.

Here’s how the alphabet blocks are currently stacked: who’s on top, who’s fallen off the pile, and why you might want to play. Or at least go to watch the players.

ASU GSV Summit

If there was any doubt, this year’s event put it to rest: ASU GSV Summit is the must-attend conference for education technology investment, with business deals and policy issues buttressing the financial focus. Held in early April, ASU GSV’s 10th annual event in 2019 drew an estimated 4,900 people to San Diego with celebrity and political headliners providing a star-studded umbrella under which rainmakers prospered.

Its growth has been stunning. From 240 attendees a decade ago when first held by Arizona State University and the investment firm GSV (Global Silicon Valley) Advisors, ASU GSV Summit blew past the 2,000 attendees figure in 2014, outgrew its Scottsdale home, and now is bursting at the seams in San Diego. The event tweeted that it was “sold out” a week before it began this year and started a waiting list. And it’s not exactly the lowest-priced conference option: Last-minute walk up registration was a few bucks under $3,200.

Even if you didn’t attend keynotes featuring Tony Blair, Common, and—yes—Sesame Street, the programming provided measured insights on the state of the industry, ranging from “preK to Gray.” Everyone from large company CEOs and major investors to startups and nonprofit institutions attend. I found that if you simply stood in a hallway, it was virtually impossible to not see someone you knew (or wanted to know) pass by within five minutes. It’s sessile serendipity.

Deborah Quazzo, co-founder and managing partner of the Summit and managing partner of the GSV AcceleraTE Fund, credits much of the event’s popularity to how it covers learning at every level, from early childhood up. “I do think the overall market has moved to a position of seeing the critical integration of education and talent/workforce innovation,” Quazzo said. “I believe ASU GSV was ahead of the curve on that position and we are thrilled with its embrace.”

Draw: Raw financial horsepower and speaker star power.

Difference: GSV’s deep understanding of the financial end of “preK-Gray” learning.

Go: If you want to do a deal, raise money, or simply understand the current investment-and-education landscape, this is the one conference to attend.

Next: ASU GSV Summit, San Diego, March 30 – April 1, 2020.

SXSW EDU

As part of a 30 year history of SXSW conferences, SXSW EDU is one of the younger siblings in the South by Southwest family. But it’s grown from its birth in 2011, and gotten a little, well, more festive, as befits its family ties.

Like longer-running SXSW conferences and festivals, SXSW EDU’s home is Austin, Texas and it’s held in March. It precedes the more famous interactive and music events and is a bit more sane, at least in terms of size and late-night public behavior. (In the past, the city didn’t start shrink-wrapping parking meters and telephone poles to protect them until EDU was well underway.)

Yet SXSW EDU has tilted more toward a global teaching and learning festival as it has grown, even though it still attracts a healthy number of industry and government attendees from K-12 up through higher ed: about half educators, based on a breakdown of 2018 stats, and a third business and industry. In 2019, there were 8,300 registered for the conference, slightly up from 2018 but significantly up from the 6,000 who attended in 2014.

As EDU has aligned itself more closely with other South-by events over the past few years, conference keynotes, panels and workshops have been joined by new programming such as a hands-on Playground, and a free one-day education expo that’s open to the public and adds thousands more beyond the conference total.

For the industry, it’s less a setting for business and more to see what educators are excited about without the us-them distinctions of an exhibit hall, mingling in an atmosphere that encourages different types of attendees to mix. Much networking gets done at the many meetups, receptions, and parties.

“SXSW EDU’s mission is to advance teaching and learning and we work to assemble as broad an array of stakeholders as possible, believing the more diverse the community the more impactful the conversations,” said Ron Reed, SXSW EDU’s founder and executive producer, and director of emerging events for South by Southwest. When EDU was launched, Reed told me, it was one of the few education events not tied to a specific association or membership group. He sees the event landscape continuing to evolve. “We believe it is a reflection of education becoming an increasingly interdisciplinary conversation,” he said.

Draw: Festival! And the SXSW reputation for informative and interesting events.

Difference: Educators, industry, entrepreneurs, nonprofits and wonks attend as equals in large number.

Go: To see what’s exciting educators without the restrictions of an exhibit hall, or feeling as though industry types are intruding into a sacred educator-reserved space.

Next: SXSW EDU, Austin, March 9-12, 2020.

SIIA Ed Tech Industry Conference

If anyone is playing the long game in edtech industry conferences, it’s the Software and Information Industry Association. The SIIA Ed Tech Industry Conference may be part of a larger “code and content” trade association, but it’s an organization in which the education division—technically, its Education Technology Industry Network—has traditionally been very strong.

SIIA’s long-running annual conference was once the only industry education conference with a technology emphasis. It’s undergone a few modest identity changes. The last time I wrote about it, the name had changed to “Education Industry Summit” from “Ed Tech Industry Summit.” But it’s generally been held in San Francisco, most recently every June. Attendance numbers more in the hundreds than the thousands, owing to SIIA’s tight focus on edtech industry companies.

What’s remained consistent—and is being emphasized even more this year—is that SIIA is a place where the industry, from K-12 through higher education, discusses the hard issues of building and maintaining an education technology business. It also has an established innovation showcase for startups, popular one-to-one business connection meetings, and the annual education CODiE Awards which are now in their 34th year.

Jill Abbott, the new senior vice president and managing director for SIIA’s ETIN, says she’s seen “a larger focus on start-ups in the event landscape” over the past five years, as well as a more thoughtful approach to programming. “Questions such as, ‘What are the educational trends?’ (and) ‘How can we help companies evolve their business model?’ are now being addressed,” she said.

As to where SIIA fits in, Abbott said: “SIIA views its role to focus on essential problems or questions that we need to address as an industry.” That includes making sure there’s a “call to action” in its conference programming, beyond exchanging ideas and networking. “Providing a call to action—whether it’s for diversity, equity, and inclusion, new marketing approaches, or how AI is impacting your business—brings the conversation outside of the event and into the organization,” she said.

Draw: Peer-to-peer conversations about the business of edtech, plus the CODiE Awards celebration marking the edtech industry’s highest honors.

Difference: Long-standing association event with a tight focus on industry and company needs.

Go: To discuss hard business issues, learn from what other companies have done, and connect.

Next: SIIA Ed Tech Industry Conference and CODiE Awards, San Francisco, June 10-12, 2019.
[UPDATE 6/17/19: The dates for the 2020 SIIA Ed Tech Industry Conference have been set, May 18-20, 2020, in San Francisco.]

EdNET, Content in Context and others

No industry-focused conference I highlighted five years ago survived completely unchanged. Some didn’t survive at all.

In 2014, Content in Context was a thriving conference for educational content publishers going digital, drawing hundreds to D.C. each June. Formerly called the Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) Summit, the event name changed to CiC and AEP was acquired by the Association of American Publishers. But its 2017 event, after a move to Philadelphia, was CiC’s last gasp.

I reached out to an AAP spokesperson who said the organization had recently hired a new leader for education, and anticipates future events that might be open to members and nonmembers alike.

Aging was somewhat kinder to EdNET: at least the event name survived. But both emphasis and length morphed. What had been the longest-running and broadest-based standalone K-12 industry conference—a fixture for three days each September that drew hundreds—also wrapped up in 2017. MDR, the marketing data and services company which ran it, moved to a new format in 2018. EdNET now is a set of three, smaller one-day regional events across the country, with a more narrow education marketing focus and fewer than 100 attendees each.

That cellular division and regeneration appears to have worked for MDR. Kristina James, who’s responsible for the EdNET events, said two of its three 2018 events had waitlists. Part of that success, she said, was in “minimizing the time and financial commitment necessary to attend and presenting content that was localized for attendees.” This year, EdNET plans to host similar one-day events in Boston, New York City and San Diego.

Industry reflected in a not-so-funhouse mirror

So you may now be thinking: What was it about 2017?

Here’s where it becomes clearer that the traditional edtech industry reached a Titanic tipping point of sorts: maybe not exactly in 2017 when certain high-profile events ended, but during the past five years. The conferences reflect that upending in three different ways (and it’s not simply that ASU GSV has sucked all the money people out of the industry conference room).

Consolidation. Not only is “edtech” no longer separate from “education,” but K-12, higher education, and workforce learning are less distinct and moving to more of a seamless continuum. (I keep returning to Deborah Quazzo’s delightful term “preK-Gray.”) Some individual industry-focused conferences may no longer make sense when companies are trying to cross boundaries and business models.

Delivery. The double-edged sword of better internet bandwidth enabling more education technology uptake is that people can now get the equivalent of live conference panels and keynotes in high-def, streamed remotely and sometimes in real time. As MDR’s Kristina James noted, “The education industry event landscape has really evolved over the past few years with more people connecting via webinars.” So the better conferences are evolving: fewer rote presentations and more face-to-face time, rapid-fire discussions, and unique experiences.

Generations. As an Exec of a Certain Age, this might ring more true to me than to others. But many startups that have flooded the industry over the past few years may prefer real-time remote over in-person interaction. That means attending fewer events, while making sure the ones they do attend have the most bang for the buck. In addition, the driving forces behind the longest-running edtech industry events are getting older; the analysts and organizers that put on the original-format EdNET for many years, for example, have retired. Newer blood has new approaches.

When you make plans to attend education technology industry events, remember that the conferences themselves can change as much as the industry does. As they say in the finance world—and perhaps more frequently at ASU GSV—past performance is no guarantee of future results. Or of edtech success.

This post originally appeared on EdSurge as, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? An Opinionated Guide to Changing Edtech Industry Conferences.”