Skip to content

Barrier-Breaking Education: Lessons from SXSW EDU

Our round-up of key learnings from SXSW Edu 2022 conference. From topics on Assistive Technology (AT) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) you're sure to find some useful takeaways from this blog by Deena Kimmel, Social Media and Community Manager at Texthelp.

This year, I had the opportunity to attend the South by Southwest Education Conference (SXSW EDU) in Austin, Texas. At the Education portion of the conference, you’re less likely to see movie stars or rock ’n’ rollers strolling the city streets (I know, bummer, right? Well…).


Instead, we came across educators that tackled the ups and downs of teaching during a global pandemic. We heard from parents that made the tough decision to take their children out of traditional schools to continue their education. And we listened to students who, despite every hurdle thrown at them, found a way to stay motivated and achieve academic success - celebrities in their own right.

While the conference is designed to cover a wide range of themes and topics, I couldn’t help but notice a common thread weaving its way through almost all of the sessions I attended: a trend I’m calling ‘Barrier-Breaking Education’.

What exactly is it? It’s education that isn’t constricted by our location, institution, teacher, or traditional learning systems. It is solely dependent on what works best for the student.

Beyond the Classroom

Aaron Rasmussen, the Co-Founder of MasterClass and the Founder & CEO of Outlier.org, gave a talk about “The Golden Age of Education Design” - highlighting the many places students are learning. From TikTok to Discord, Khan Academy to video games, students are finding instructors in and out of the classroom.

And that’s okay.

The instructor of the future is the most effective for THAT student."

A student should be able to get their education from a diverse range of instructors and platforms, as long as it motivates that student to learn. This is an example of barrier-breaking education that isn’t limited to one teacher, one classroom, or one school.

A similar concept was discussed during the session on “Applying the Lessons Learned of Pandemic Education.” When the pandemic hit, parents, students and teachers were in desperate need to find new ways to teach and learn. For Justin Dent, Executive Director at Outschool, this was an opportunity to break down barriers that were preventing students from developing a passion for lifelong learning.

Outschool is a marketplace of live, online classes. For teachers, it is a place where they can focus on the curriculum that they are truly passionate about, teaching what they love, in the way they prefer. And for students, it’s a place where they can attend classes on subjects that truly interest them, no matter where the teacher is, or what school the student is affiliated with.

Using this model, teachers are able to deliver engaging lessons to students across the globe, and students can choose which lessons they want to explore. This is the type of learning experience we want all students to have - and now they can.

Beyond the Instructor

Barrier-breaking education doesn’t have to focus solely on how students engage with instructors. In a couple of the SXSW EDU sessions, speakers highlighted the importance of education that steps away from the traditional student-teacher relationship altogether. 

David Flink, the Founder and Chief Empowerment Officer of Eye to Eye and presenter of “Mentorship Matters: Empowering Those with Learning Differences”, discussed how students with learning differences often give in to the false narrative that they are stupid or feel the need to hide their differences. Flink believes that the best way to eliminate the stigma around learning differences is to: 

Create a community where students can feel safe, seen, heard and valued. When students don’t have to hide anymore, they can start to focus on developing the skills they need to achieve.”

That’s why he started Eye to Eye’s near-peer mentoring programs - an 18-week curriculum for middle school, high school and college students. The program focuses on building a community where mentors and mentees can open up about learning differently and develop important social and emotional skills like self-esteem. 

For the participants of the “Educating a Diverse, Inclusive Digital Workforce” roundtable, they also look to people outside of traditional instructors to provide barrier-breaking education for their students: tech organizations and employees. 

During the roundtable, Warren Morgan (Chief Academic Officer at Indianapolis Public Schools), Reuben Ogbonna (Co-Founder and Executive Director at The Marcy Lab School; and Melody Niere (Math Teacher at the NYC Department of Education), discussed ways to empower students from historically excluded and underrepresented backgrounds to pursue STEM. 

A key take-away from the discussion was the importance of building partnerships between schools and organizations. Through these experiences, students can understand what skills are actually needed for their career, which can keep them excited about what they’re learning. 

But, more importantly, they need to be able to see themselves within those organizations. Students need to connect with successful tech employees who look like them and come from similar backgrounds if we want them to pursue STEM and stay motivated

In the end, barrier-breaking education isn’t just from teachers and educators. It’s from anyone that can inspire your students to learn.

Beyond the Norm

So, if students can learn from anywhere and anyone, does this mean schools and colleges are obsolete? No. But, it does mean that they need to find their own ways of breaking down barriers.

For example, through the Remake Learning Moonshot Grants (presented at SXSW by Tyler Samstag, Director at Remake Learning), the California Area School District piloted a universal IEP program which eliminates grade levels and grade assessment for participating students. This is a great way to offer barrier-breaking education, which lets students learn the way they prefer - regardless of their official diagnosis or exam result.

Another great example is the work that Reuben Ogbonna is doing at The Marcy Lab School, mentioned above. He recognized that a lot of traditional colleges are “not good enough for our students”. 

So, he designed a new form of education that breaks down traditional barriers to further ed like cost, access and opportunity, systemic hurdles, and course requirements. In its place, he offered students an opportunity to focus on getting an education that will actually prepare them for today’s workforce and enable them to jump right in with the qualifications they need to succeed.

But, it’s important to remember that barrier-breaking doesn’t have to be large. In the Texthelp and CAST joint session, “Cheating, Or? Reading & Writing in the Digital Age”, Joni Degner, Luis Perez, and Tracey Hall highlighted small ways to break down barriers, including breaking down stereotypes of using assistive technology. 

For example, assistive technology is often seen as an aid that students should eventually grow out of. But, for the presenters, it’s not the job of educators to take tools away from students. It’s their job to show the learner how to transition their use of the tool from a scaffold to a strategy.

Now is the chance for a reset in education"

If the pandemic gave us anything positive, it’s the opportunity to learn in a way that finally works for everyone. 

So, how will you start implementing barrier-breaking education for your students?