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Prototyping Teaching at Education Hack Day

Co-organizers of Baltimore Education Hack Day - Photo © Arianne Teeple
Co-organizers of Baltimore Education Hack Day - Photo © Arianne Teeple
On November 12 and 13, Mike Brenner, Mark Headd, and Scott Messinger will open the doors of Baltimore City’s Digital Harbor High School to host an Education Hack Day, a 36-hour sprint collaboration between developers, designers, and educators to create usable applications in Baltimore City’s school system. Hack days occur worldwide and are one-to-two day events that take big ideas and turn them into useful technology.

This isn’t Baltimore’s first hack day. In February, Brenner, an entrepreneur and technologist, and Headd, a developer evangelist for Voxeo, helped organize Baltimore’s Civic Hack Day in response to the city’s announcement of OpenBaltimore, an online portal that allows the public to view and interact with city data, including parking, taxes, and crime. OpenBaltimore turned the city’s data into “a bunch of Legos,” according to Brenner, allowing developers to create a variety of applications. Without incentives from the city, Brenner and Headd pulled together Civic Hack Day in a week with a turnout of more than 30 attendees.

“[Civic Hack Day] raised awareness both inside and outside of Baltimore City’s government to the potential for open government data to create real value for the city and residents,” Headd notes. “Since governments don't compete directly with one another and face similar problems, they can share solutions. If something works for one city, it can be used in another.”

For Education Hack Day, Digital Harbor High School will serve as the teachers’ and developers’ incubator for the weekend. Digital Harbor is a traditional public school that has been endowed with technology from the Gates Foundation. Brenner was inspired by the months that he spent months working with a client based in a private school, designing and building a state-of-the art educational technology program—the kind of program that Baltimore City schools can’t afford. Brenner, Headd, and Messenger wanted to bring that level of technology to the lacking school system.

“I see Education Hack Day as an opportunity to showcase what can happen if governments leverage local talent to help resolve pressing civic issues and are open to creative uses of technology in helping solve problems,” Headd says.

Brenner and Headd teamed up with Scott Messinger to launch this hack day. Messinger, a former Baltimore City teacher with Teach for America, now develops educational software.

“[Messinger] told me that too many software developers think they can solve problems in education without first going to teachers and schools and listening to what they want,” Brenner notes. He, Messinger, and Headd wanted to focus on the needs of educators.

Education Hack Day includes an Educators’ Wish List, where teachers and education professionals can request applications. Requests include applications to create science animation in HTML5, share work with parents and other teachers, and find regional literary arts sources. Developers can view the list and add their own ideas to the Developers’ Discussion. Developer ideas include student to-do lists populated by teachers, a cloud-based registrar, and a parent-teacher conference scheduling app.

“I see Education Hack Day as an opportunity to showcase what can happen if governments leverage local talent to help solve pressing civic issues and are open to creative uses of technology in helping solve problems,” Headd adds.

Anyone can visit the Educators’ Wish List and Developers’ Discussion to vote on submitted ideas. On Saturday morning, the highest-voted ideas will be shared. Designers and developers will vote for their top three choices. A small group of Baltimore City educators and students have also been invited to join to ensure that the applications remain focused on the schools’ educational needs.

On Sunday, all registrants can attend the presentations starting at 4pm. Brenner understands that many apps won’t be completed at that time.

“We’re offering enough time and resources to prototype ideas and demonstrate how they might work. We're going to request that a functional demo is created by Sunday, even if it's minimal and ugly,” Brenner adds.

Judges will choose winners, and prizes will be awarded, based on concept, execution (at that point), and application to the educator’s problems.

“Instead of giving away iPads and Kindles, I wanted to make sure these teams could continue [with development],” Brenner says.

He and his team have asked lawyers to donate time for incorporation and worked out branding and marketing packages and office space for developers. An unnamed grand prize will also be awarded.

“Sustainability of projects coming out of hack days is really important and can sometimes be a challenge. I think this event has some very nicely structured prizes that will help encourage sustainability of the projects,” Headd notes.

With registration numbers hovering near 100, Education Hack Day promises to be a packed house. Brenner anticipates a possible cap of registrants to ensure a fairly equal number of developers and designers to educators.

“I've been blown away by the interest within the community,” Brenner enthuses. “Not just for the event but for the underlying need of reinventing education. It's been fascinating. I think this event might spur some related initiatives.”

The Education Hack Day team hopes to solve as many educator-submitted problems as possible while activating an entrepreneurial gene and encouraging participants to consider creating new things in Baltimore.

“We're at a time in our history where it's more important than ever to create new jobs and new business and this event, albeit a weekend, has all the right ingredients to push people in that direction,” Brenner concludes.


Renee Libby Beck (www.reneebeck.com) is a freelance writer and public relations coordinator for Medifast, Inc. (www.medifast1.com). Renee is the Baltimore Food Examiner for Examiner.com and writes for other blogs and publications. She wanted to be a teacher when she was 10.
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