Education Hack Day

Photos and words by Jess Gartner

Saturday, November 12

7:30 am – The alarm trills a tune too happy for this hour on a Saturday morning, but I’m oddly eager to jump out of bed. Nerd that I am, I have been anticipating Education Hack Day for months. Girl that I am, I wonder what one wears to a hackathon?

8:40 am – With something like first-day-of-school butterflies, I head over to Digital Harbor High School where organizers Mike Brenner, Scott Messinger, Andrew Coy, and Mark Head are busy setting up wi-fi servers and snacks. Brenner, a Baltimore based developer, conceived the idea for Baltimore’s EdHack Day during conversations with his girlfriend, Heather Mills, who teaches first-grade in Baltimore County. Surely, Brenner thought, technological solutions could be imagined to alleviate some of the massive paper/time sinks that come with the teaching occupation. Messinger is a former Baltimore City first-grade math teacher, himself. He left the classroom two years ago to work on his own education technology venture, Common Curriculum – a web-based platform for curriculum publishing and collaborating. Coy teaches technology at Digital Harbor, in addition to serving as the technology specialist for the school. Coy collaborated with Digital Harbor’s administration to secure the space for the weekend hackathon. Head trekked down from Delaware to help provide the programmers with open-source web APIs for the weekend, courtesy of his sponsoring company, Tropo.

9:30 am – Over bagels and coffee, the teachers, developers, and designers mingle and casually exchange some of the ideas they would like to bring to life over the weekend.

10:00 am – After a brief welcoming address from Brenner, the educators in attendance are invited to the front of the room to propose their ideas for the hack. Prior to the event, educators from all over the world were encouraged to post ideas on a Wish List on the Education Hack Day Website. In all, there were over 50 proposals to consider, ranging from behavior monitoring devices to student e-portfolio platforms. Just minutes after finishing the proposals, Brenner posted the link to a site where everyone in attendance was allotted three votes to narrow down the proposal options. The ten highest-voted ideas were posted around the room. Participants browsed the options and gravitated to projects that intrigued them.

12:00 pm -12:00 am

brainstorming + delegating + designing + programming = hacking

Sunday, November 13

8:00 am – Refreshed from a brief respite, the teams reconvene to finish building their projects, testing them out, and preparing their presentations. Traditionally, a hackathon would conclude with business proposals to potential investors, complete with market viability and prospective consumers, but the business component was intentionally omitted from this hack, since the primary goal was to focus on solving specific problems for teachers.

4:00 pm The judges arrive and survey the scene as teams put finishing touches on their projects. Judges included venture capitalists Frank Bonsal and Tom Kuegler, former chief of the Achievement and Accountability office of City Schools Matthew Van Itallie, Digital Harbor Principal Brian Eyer, founder of Moodlerooms Tom Murdock, State Senator Bill Ferguson, and Common Curriculum founder and Hack Day Organizer Scott Messinger. The judges evaluated pitches on a rubric that rated the quality of the problem (does it solve an authentic problem?), functionality (does it work?), design (does it look elegant?), and the holistic “wow-factor.”

8:00 pm – Winners are announced:

1st Place: Digital Harbor allows teachers to create a safe, hassle-free web-browsing for students on iPads by pushing pre-approved web URLs to this iOS app and restricting access to the Safari web-browser on student devices. Students may freely navigate between the URLs in the application.

2nd Place: Pluck is a web-curating tool with which users can “pluck” the multimedia they want to use from a webpage and eliminate unwanted surrounding content. The product is similar in concept to other media-grabbing tools like Evernote or Gimme Bar, but allows the “plucker” the freedom to edit the content.

3rd Place: Pedante (full-disclosure: this was the project on which I worked) is a web-site where teachers can upload videos of their lessons and tag specific points in the video to mark points on the Baltimore City Teacher Evaluation Rubric or write comments. The site is intended to improve the quality of conversations between teachers and principals around teacher observations and serve as a professional development tool for teachers around the city.

4th Place: Parent Connect is a web and phone integrated scheduling tool that was originally designed for the purpose of scheduling parent conferences, but its use could later be expanded for use with granting permission for field trips through digital confirmation. Teachers give students a slip of paper with a phone number and access code, parents call the number and follow a menu of options (i.e. Press 1 for Monday) to schedule a meeting based on the teacher’s availability. The scheduled conference automatically syncs with the teacher’s web-based calendar.

Reflections

The public education system primarily functions with a top-down approach to management, curriculum, instruction, and evaluation. It’s not working. Students aren’t learning the communication, technology, and problem-solving skills required by the 21st century global economy and teachers are leaving the classroom at an alarming rate, with two-thirds of new hires leaving the system by their fifth year. The political pundits would have you believe that we should be recruiting our best and brightest to the field of education. Those people might be best suited for educating the next generation of global citizens, but if we want them to stay, we must create a professional environment that draws on their expertise and thoughtfulness as educators, rather than drowns out their creativity and criticism with an unending series of low-level tasks. The educators I saw this weekend were energized, empowered, and excited about teaching and learning; my colleagues at the copy-machine on Monday morning were not. There’s no silver bullet that will fix the education system over night, but if we trust our teachers and employ the added expertise of a community of brilliant thinkers and doers, we will make progress.

Photos and words by Jess Gartner

Jess is a writer and photographer based in Baltimore. She covers education and politics and has a Masters in teaching from Johns Hopkins.

  • Peter

    My favorite line:

    “The educators I saw this weekend were energized, empowered, and excited
    about teaching and learning; my colleagues at the copy-machine on Monday
    morning were not”