Update: March 7. SXSW EDU, ASCD and other events have been canceled since this story published. Please check with event organizers for the latest information on specific events.
The recent U.S. spike in coronavirus cases, which currently numbers around 118 cases in 16 states, is leaving the edtech conference industry with an existential (if not quite Shakespearean) question at the start of its busy events season: to host or not to host?
Across the broader technology world, the coronavirus has taken a toll on what were once routine gatherings. Facebook, Google and Microsoft have pulled out of annual industry conferences, and called off events of their own. Others, including the Games Developer Conference and the massive World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, have opted to cancel.
Some in the edtech industry have followed suit: Educause pulled the plug on its ELI conference, scheduled for early March near Seattle. Docebo, the maker of a corporate learning management system, has postponed a London-based conference scheduled for April. And Ellucian, an enterprise software company for higher ed institutions, will move its Ellucian Live event, scheduled for April, completely online.
EdSurge is covering the latest updates and developments concerning the impact of coronavirus on education here.
No other major U.S. education or edtech event organizer has canceled or postponed their upcoming conferences. But they’ve all released statements to allay fears while keeping options open, perhaps in acknowledgement of the protean nature of the coronavirus spread.
“Any edtech conference absolutely must get out ahead of the news and talk about what they’re doing, even if it’s just to reinforce common sense procedures,” says Frank Catalano, an independent industry analyst who keeps tabs on edtech events. “Because if you don’t say anything at all, people wonder if the event itself has any clue what's going on.”
ASU GSV, which will host its annual summit starting March 30 in San Diego, issued a statement outlining some of the strongest precautions, calling them “substantial modifications.” In addition to outlining stringent cleaning and disinfection procedures, organizers are encouraging a “no handshake policy” and have already refunded attendees from China, Italy, Iran and South Korea (with “no exceptions,” they write).
There’s also mandatory temperature screening, including a system of “passive scanning,” which Catalano likens to the sci-fi film “Minority Report,” where a character played by Tom Cruise plunges into an ice bath to avoid body heat seeking robots. For his part, Catalano is still planning to attend, but will follow the recommended precautions by frequently washing his hands (and not shaking others’).
SXSW EDU, slated for March 9-12 in Austin, Texas, was cancelled on March 6 by the city of Austin. Before the cancellation, in an FAQ section of its website, organizers stated that “a handful” of participants from China and Japan decided not to come, but that overall cancellations were on par with previous years. It also acknowledges a Change.org petition that has gathered about 40,000 signatures at the time of publication, asking for a cancellation of the main SXSW event.
Some companies and organizations, including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (which provides grant support to EdSurge), had already elected to not send staff. Large companies such as Google and Amazon are limiting work travel. And speakers on several panels have notified session organizers that they would no longer be attending the event.
Twitter and Facebook had already pulled out of the main SXSW event before it was canceled.
The annual conferences for the Consortium for School Networking and ASCD, both scheduled for mid-March in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles respectively, issued statements to attendees that organizers were monitoring the situation but had no plans to change course. As with the other notices, they urged ample hand washing and use of hand sanitizer during the day.
ISTE, the parent organization of EdSurge, is still planning to hold its flagship conference in late June in Anaheim, Calif.—one of the largest in the education community. Organizers have added a new page to the event website with COVID-19 coronavirus updates from ISTE and the city of Anaheim.
Attendees can generally expect refunds for canceled conferences, but exhibitors and organizers can’t always count on the same—as those involved with Mobile World Congress recently discovered. According to one estimate, conference cancelations have already cost the tech sector $500 million.
Instead of scrapping an upcoming developer conference, Google recently moved its program online. Catalano acknowledges that it’s a possibility for edtech conferences. But he thinks there’s much less value in an online-only event.
“Part of the effectiveness of a conference is the chance encounters in the hallway with people you’ve been trying to find and the ability to have quick one-on-one meetings that aren’t scheduled,” Catalano says.
“No matter how many times you try it, you just cannot replicate that networking impact online. You can replicate the programming, you can replicate the structure, but you can’t replicate the serendipity.”
This article has been updated to add additional information about cancellations and updates from conference organizers.