Technology Integration

HACKtivate ED: A Model for Collaborative Problem Solving

September 26, 2013
Photo Credit: Chris Rico, Activate Ed
Participants at HACKtivate ED, June 2013

The morning of Saturday, June 15 marked the beginning of the 24-hour Activate-Ed educational hackathon. "HACKtivate ED" was the brainchild of four Analyst Fellows with Education Pioneers, seeking to connect educational luminaries from San Francisco Bay Area school districts with tech sector developers to tackle key issues affecting K-12 students. The event, organized by Chian Gong, Han Hong, Thu Cung and Roxanne Phen, invited developers, designers, educators and analysts to begin a much-needed conversation.

"From my first days in the education space, I have often felt that this sector has been neglected in the flurry of activity and transformation that has happened across other industries," explained Gong. "In my work at Aspire, I find I am often introducing existing tools/technologies to my educator colleagues, and I have found this disconnect to be a huge drain on time and resources. Roxanne brought up the idea of a hackathon, and I absolutely loved it. We felt that this was exactly the sort of venue through which we could connect the Bay Area education community with the thriving tech sector to brainstorm and build solutions that address real needs in our local schools."

9 Challenges

Members of the education community presented participants with nine problems facing San Francisco Bay Area schools and education companies. Developers then broke into teams based on their interests, and the hacking began. The education partners -- Activate-Ed, Aspire, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) -- brought the following challenges:

1. How can social media be better leveraged to promote events and collaborate with other education and ed-tech organizations?

Activate-Ed hoped to streamline the collaborative process through better integration of social media campaigns with events and other education organizations.

2. Develop a tool to facilitate the norming process, particularly around the pain point of reviewing quality and alignment of evidence collected during observations.

Aspire sought creative solutions to the problem of acquiring meaningful data from classroom observations in a time- and cost-effective manner.

3. How can the student referral process be streamlined for teachers to promptly address classroom behavioral issues?

Aspire also challenged the lengthy, cumbersome, paper-based referral process currently burdening OUSD teachers.

4. How can students better record and share their work-based learning experiences to better learn, collaborate with, and inspire others?

OUSD hoped to increase student engagement and sharing through career-based learning initiatives.

5. How can Oakland's community partnership data be better analyzed to identify trends in the quantity or type of services provided by external organizations at Oakland schools?

OUSD also asked developers for creative solutions to data analysis and interpretation, so that educators could quickly surmise levels of community partnerships and integration with schools.

6. Create a data collection tool for teachers and coordinators to capture key data points for evaluating and improving the restorative justice program.

Additionally, OUSD wanted tools to better monitor the successes and failures of its restorative justice program, which is seeking to change the disciplinary paradigm.

7. Help SFUSD better understand district enrollment trends.

SFUSD challenged technologists to help interpret district-wide enrollment trends, accounting for demographics, location and school quality.

8. How can we gain more insight from existing SFUSD student, family and staff surveys?

SFUSD also hoped to learn more from its survey data through trends based on demographics, location and grade levels, and further insight from other publicly available data.

9. Help improve SFUSD's school "Highlights."

Each year, SFUSD produces a report for public and private use. They wanted a less cumbersome, more interactive, web-based version with greater visualization.

Let the Hacking Begin!

Saturday morning, the education partners pitched each of the nine problems as a challenge to the participants. Each team had 24 hours to produce their hack. They began at 11 AM Saturday, and had until 11 AM Sunday to complete their projects, then pitching their solutions to the education partners and the panel of judges.

The 80 places reserved for open enrollment had filled quickly, and the remaining places were filled via an application process that ensured diversity of knowledge and experience. The roughly 100 participants broke into ten teams and created ten hacks. Some tackled overlapping challenges, adding a competitive edge. The teams were largely self-selected, as data analysts, developers, designers and educators chose to collaborate organically on the issues that most interested them and best matched their skills.

The event took place in the offices of Code For America, one of Hacktivate ED’s organizing sponsors, which remained open until 11 PM Saturday, and reopened 8 AM Sunday. However, many teams continued working elsewhere late Saturday night, spending almost all 24 hours engaged with their projects.

The judging criteria included a product's overall usefulness, originality and design, with an emphasis on the quality of the prototype rather than the business pitch. “We made it clear throughout the event that we weren’t looking for [the teams] to pitch us on a business plan; we were looking for [them] to pitch us on an actual prototype,” Han Hong explained. “There needed to be an actual product at the end of it.”

The Hacktivate ED organizing committee selected a panel of judges, augmented by the education partners, who provided important feedback throughout the event.

HacktivateED was funded by education philanthropic organizations like the Broad Foundation, ed-tech companies like Edmodo and ClassDojo, pure tech companies like Indiegogo, and large-scale education companies like Pearson.

The big winner was ReferrED, a diverse team of specialists -- from business and user interface design to software development and teaching -- that not only provided a potential solution to their chosen problem, but also built a mobile application within the span of the 24-hour event. “I think, amazingly -- and we kept remarking on this throughout -- we managed to randomly get all the right elements together: a business person, a teacher, a UI guy, a back-end developer, and a mobile developer in the same room,” said Jumal Qazi, CEO of Harvest Learning Group and member of the ReferrED team.

The Winners

  • ReferrED won Best Overall App for a mobile app that simplifies the student referral process. Teachers can use their phone to record a short voice memo, submit the referral directly to administration in real-time, and then return to teaching.
  • Oakland Community Partnerships created interactive dashboards to analyze equity of community partnerships across OUSD, pinpointing identifiable gaps. The team also built a database and web interface enabling OUSD's community managers to directly create, modify and view partnership data.
  • TripTagg created an app for experiential learning, connecting field trips, social media and curation for students and teachers.
  • Data Smurfs translated SFUSD's Excel and pdf-based "Highlights" reports to Tableau, where they created dashboards allowing users to drill down to a specific school, compare data over time, and see information in real-time.

The event was successful in terms of real results. Even better, it served as a key meeting for members of the diverse, often distinct, communities of education technology and classroom educators. Winners have continued dialogues with education partners, most notably ReferrED, which is in talks with OUSD.

"At this point, it looks like a lot of conversations are happening," said Hong. "We got what we wanted -- we created the event to start that dialogue between the two groups."

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