Unlocking the Future of Education: Our Top 3 SXSW EDU Takeaways


Amanda Di Dio, Kat Ward, Shree Lakshmi (SL) Rao

Teachers, administrators, Education Technology (EdTech) researchers, developers, investors, and a slew of other educators and innovators descended upon Austin for SXSW EDU. We were amongst that group, and like all attendees, excited to see where we can take the future.

We also took the stage alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to discuss equity-centered design (ECD) and the importance of leveraging ECD in the development of EdTech products. Our experience leading sessions, and participating in as many as we physically could, left us eager to share our learnings.

SXSW EDU talks and workshops were organized across 11 compelling tracks. Our team immersed ourselves across all tracks with a focus on Equity & Justice, Arts & Storytelling, Accessibility & Inclusion, and Emerging Tech. Here are the top three learnings that we took away from our experience at SXSW EDU:

1. Equity <> EdTech—equity and EdTech go hand in hand

Across multiple panels, talks and workshops we heard the call to shift the paradigm of how the industry develops learning products and solutions for teachers, students, and their families. An exciting case study showcased at SXSW EDU is the online platform (called HBCUv) built with and for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) by the United Negro College Fund. The product considers the unique learning environment of HBCUs the assets of HBCU students to develop features that distinguish it from traditional online learning platforms. Shaping the future of the education conversation must include those who will be end-users of any product or service. Rather than designing for them, we must be designing with them.

At Optimistic Design, we take a Targeted Universalist lens to our work in addition to ensuring that lived experts guide the design of products and services. We work to meaningfully engage parents, students, and teachers from systematically marginalized communities and regions throughout our design and research processes. By centering the needs of and collaborating with Black, Indigenous, Latine, and People of Color we have, together, uncovered insights and opportunities that would have been otherwise missed.

2. Invest in antiracist approaches for education

By listening to and building on the assets of parents and educators from communities impacted by systemic racism, educators, school districts, and EdTech companies can create supportive environments for Black, Indigenous, Latine, and student of color in the classroom and beyond. Some highlights from panels and workshops that we are thinking deeply about -

  • The need for innovations designed specifically by Black parents to support, affirm and nurture Black children's talent, skills, and knowledge. These innovations focused on school environments that reinforced supportive structures for Black students. One concept that we learned about was the concept of micro-schooling. Micro-schooling ensures small class sizes and can be customized to the students' needs.

  • In a panel centering the voices of Latine parents, parents emphasized the value of having interpreters or cultural moderators available at parent-attended school events so that they could communicate more efficiently while advocating for their child’s needs.

  • Students from Harvest Collegiate High School ran educators through a Restorative Justice workshop to showcase how school disciplinary practices can be moved away from punitive practices to a more collaborative and restorative approach.

  • The Center for Black Educator Development ran an engaging and interactive workshop for teachers and school leaders with a focus on cultural proficiency to ensure that workshop participants can work to build more inclusive environments for BIPOC educators and students. The work of cultural proficiency works on a spectrum and requires individual and interpersonal reflection to ensure that individual cultural socialization does not cause toxic or harmful experiences for colleagues, students, and parents.

3. Partnerships and collaborations are the future of innovative thinking

Community is key—learning in community, developing a community of practice, and helping to push educators, researchers, product developers, and policymakers to think beyond current market constraints.

Partnerships are a two-way street—relationship building and finding ways to create value for each partner as well as for the communities we serve matters. Below is an example of a partnership case study showcased at SXSW EDU:

  • HBCUs like Tougaloo College form partnerships with companies to create workforce pipelines for students

If you’re interested in how to center equitable outcomes as part of your EdTech solution or product reach out to—we'd love to help!

SL (Shree Lakshmi) Rao

Research + Strategy Director

SL (Shree Lakshmi) Rao (she/they) is an equity-centered system change designer with experience across sectors (tech, philanthropy, global health, and government) and a background in Interaction Design. They have been (re)designing systems with a strong racial equity, inclusion, and social justice mindset. Their past experience includes end-to-end user experience expertise; including design strategy and research. They currently support Optimistic Design's equity-centered design work across higher ed and K12 as the VP of Design Research + Strategy. Their practice is grounded in trauma-informed design research, targeted universalism, co-design, and complex systems theory. They are a strong proponent of evolving the design practice to be anti-racist, decolonized, and systems-thinking oriented. They are South Asian, a chai brewing enthusiast and climber, constantly adding new outdoor adventures that scare them.

Amanda Di Dio

Director of Engagement

Amanda Di Dio is the VP of Partnerships + Operations at Optimistic Design, with over a decade of experience supporting clients with building complex programs and leading teams to deliver bar-raising work across product research, design, and technical implementation. She strives to create an environment of close collaboration, leveraging human-centered design frameworks to help clients push their thinking about how to solve problems with technology and understand their impact on those they wish to reach.

Kat Ward

Senior Design Strategist

Kat Ward is an Associate Principal Strategist at Optimistic Design. Her work involves unearthing strategic insights via design research and an equity-centered design practice. She is driven to continually discover mutualistic opportunities and develop realistic solutions that meet human needs.

Let’s Design the Future of Learning, Together