For Ryan King, getting from Hong Kong to Austin, Texas was already a hassle.
He cancelled his original flight, which had a layover in Beijing. That would have subjected him to a 14-day quarantine upon his return, per rules enforced by Hong Kong officials for anyone who has traveled to mainland China, even if they were just passing through an airport terminal.
So he booked another one, which took him first to Houston. He arrived there last Thursday.
Then around 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon, organizers for SXSW and SXSW EDU, the event he came for, announced that the conferences were cancelled in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“I was angry,” King recalls feeling. As recently as March 5—two days before they called the event off—event organizers insisted the show would go on. “It seemed like they could have told us earlier. They gave us all these positive signals that it was still happening,” he adds. He stuck to his plan and boarded a plane to Austin, hoping to make the best of the situation.
He was not alone in his frustration. With less than 72 hours’ notice, people who had their bags packed and talks prepared for one of the education industry’s biggest lollapaloozas felt let down and disappointed. Some were already in town for sightseeing before the event started.
For others, like Krista Vaught, the sudden cancellation made it difficult to get refunds for airfare and accommodations.
She heard the news on Friday afternoon. Still, she decided to hop on the plane from Gainesville hoping she’d meet others. A doctoral student in the education technology program at the University of Florida, and a director of academic strategic initiatives there, Vaught also served on the advisory board of SXSW EDU, having been “inspired and walked away with a ton of ideas” from her previous two years at the conference.
Less than two hours after organizers called off SXSW EDU, Vaught connected with Elizabeth Hubing, who runs the Iowa Edtech Collaborative, about finding a way to connect with others who were going to be in town. That evening, they formed an ad hoc Slack group called “EdUnconference.”
Separately, around the same time, Carl Hooker, a former educator-turned-consultant based in Austin, was on his way downtown to meet with friends at a bar, Idle Hands. They were all bummed out at the news—“especially the service workers, the bartenders and waiters, who depend on this event for a lot of their income,” he recalls.
So he pitched the bar owners on a wild idea: Would you be willing to host an informal event in lieu of SXSW EDU?
“They said, ‘we’d just love to have people come here,” he says.
On Saturday afternoon, he put together a website and started a Twitter hashtag, #AltSXSWEDU. Then Hooker learned about the Slack group that Hubing and Vaught created, which they decided to use as the primary mode for communication and organization. With a venue secured, they had enough barebones pieces in place.
As word of mouth spread, people joined the Slack group, which now has more than 150 members. (Not all of them are in Austin.)
And that’s how a grassroots, ragtag “unconference” began.
The venue for AltSXSWEDU, at Idle Hands. (Photo credit: Carl Hooker)
An Ad Hoc Alternative
Taking place today and tomorrow, AltSXSWEDU will feature more than 30 sessions happening across four rooms at Idle Hands. More than 120 attendees have registered so far, according to Hooker. (The bar has a capacity of 200.) He says he’s connected with people from far-flung corners of the globe, including the United Arab Emirates and the U.K.
On the agenda are 45-minute talks from presenters who were originally scheduled to speak at the event, small-group roundtable discussions, hands-on workshops with specific tools, and 5-minute “flash talks” on a motley of subjects. Because “these are small rooms,” says Hooker, “the setup caters to very informal, interactive and hands-on sessions.”
Topics include personalized and social-emotional learning, coding, data privacy, as well as how to use tools like Tableau and Adobe Spark. Some presenters are bringing headsets to showcase their augmented and virtual reality education apps. (“I’ll have to make sure to wipe those down with disinfectant,” Hooker quips.) There’s even a live podcast taping about how people made their careers in education technology.
Vaught says that although she’ll miss the typical hubbub of SXSW EDU, she sees a silver lining to the slower-paced programming.
“At SXSW EDU, because there are so many sessions, I usually find myself running from one to the next. I’ll catch 15 minutes of one and dash to another. With this, it’s going to be a different feel. It’s nice that this will be more manageable.”
Attendees gather for AltSXSWEDU on Tuesday morning. (Photo credit: Claudio Zavala)
Putting together a crowdsourced agenda on short notice did not come without hiccups. Originally, organizers invited anyone who wanted to talk to add their event to a Google Calendar. “That created a bottleneck, as the organizers had to give every individual access to the calendar,” says King. Plus, they didn’t know all the people who wanted to speak at or host a session.
To resolve this issue, they created a public Google Doc to keep track of all the sessions. Hooker is in charge of the scheduling and updating the website.
Then there are logistics. Materials—from name badges to sharpies and sticky notes—needed to be procured. Chairs are in short supply, so many attendees will find themselves standing. Hooker says he’s paid out of pocket for things like extension cords.
“My wife is not too happy about this,” let alone the fact that he volunteered to organize the two-day event, Hooker acknowledges.
But he has some help. Representatives from education companies who are in town are offering free swag and stationery. ClassHook offered pens (branded, of course). Others, including BrainPOP, Bulb and Kahoot, have offered to pay for coffee and refreshments, according to Hooker.
Local organizers are volunteering to run morning coffee meetups and lead evening pub crawls. Hooker also wrangled a couple bands to perform after each day’s sessions end at 4 p.m.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the impromptu gathering, according to Hooker. He says that “for every nine people who are supportive of this, there’s one giving me grief on Twitter or LinkedIn about how I’m being irresponsible for putting together this gathering,” given warnings from city officials advising against holding large public events.
Hooker says he has also reached out to SXSW EDU organizers but has not heard back. He surmises that there could well be legal reasons for their hesitance to publicly sanction their unofficial makeup event.
Still, the fact that AltSXSWEDU has come together with little more than a weekend’s worth of planning is a testament to the spontaneous, scrappy entrepreneurial spirit—one that has often defined the ethos of the official conference, says Vaught. “It’s easy to give up and go, ‘Well, the conference is cancelled.’ But people here want to contribute and collaborate.”
“It’s incredible,” adds King, who says that maybe the flight from Hong Kong was worth it after all. “People have just come together and said we’re going to do it ourselves. It’s a very decentralized process … everyone’s chipping in and giving stuff. We feel like although the event and the city has let us down a bit, the community has really come together.”