The Most Important Story of the Week: Hacking Education

I write week-in-review posts for several of my writing gigs, including one that was posted yesterday on Radar, one posted this morning on MindShift and one I've scheduled for tomorrow morning here. These posts tend to highlight some of the important news, reports, trends, legislation from the preceeding week.

But this week, that round-up of news and list of links didn't feel like it quite did justice to what was one of the most significant developments. No, not the higher education bubble hoopla. Rather, the opening of the DonorsChoose.org dataset.

I've written a lot here about how our access to more data will shape education -- something I find both thrilling and frightening. As we push for more "data-driven education," I worry that that's just code for "more tests." I mean, yes, that's data. But it isn't by itself a way to assess all that much about student or teacher performance or about what's happening at school.

There's lots of other data, of course. We look at demographics. We can look at budgets, expenditures, number of computers per child.

And now, thanks to DonorsChoose.org new initiative, we have access to another substantial and interesting dataset: over 300,000 projects from the crowdfunding site -- submissions from over 165,000 teachers in over 43,000 public schools, projects that have inspired over $80 million in charitable donations.

When I first heard about this, I was so happy I almost cried (and not because the contest happens to have a kickass name --Hacking Education). I'm thrilled because this is an incredible opportunity to learn about wants and needs and charitable giving. Yes, I believe strongly we need to hack education. So here we go. A contest, a challenge, an API, and data.

Here's how I described Hacking Education in my ReadWriteWeb story:
DonorsChoose.org is looking for developers to build either apps with its API or perform analysis on the datasets. The former is important as, despite the impact the organization has had, the team remains small. "There's only so much we can do," says Oliver Hurst-Hiller, DonorChoose.org's CTO, who says the organization would like to improve its UI and have a mobile app.

But the API and data are open to any number of projects as part of this hackathon. And the data is fascinating. It will include grade level and geodata, type of school (public or charter), and poverty level, for example. It will include information about the resources teachers are requesting - the amounts and prices for musical instruments, cameras, iPods, calculators, and the like. It will also include - all anonymized, I should add - the text from teachers' essays.

It isn't just information about what teachers need help funding. It's what donors are interested in supporting. Again, the data is anonymized, but there is information about donation sizes, topics, and preferences. And the data also includes search logs, so you can see for example, that most donors who go to the site search for projects related to Autism.
To this dataset and the contest, the educational social networking site Edmodo announced today it would also contribute data about social media usage in over 80,000 public schools. It also gave a nudge to teachers and students to enter the contest, whether it's to crunch data or build apps.

The contest's grand prize is a trophy, handed to you by Stephen Colbert (along with tickets to watch a taping of his show). There are tons of prizes here and some great judges involved, but the big winner here I think will be education.


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