Designing Education Hackathons

Many thanks, I should start here, to Edshelf’s Mike Lee and Teacher Square’s Jessie Arora for organizing RemixEd K12 this past weekend in Mountain View. The weekend long hackathon aimed to bring together educators, students, entrepreneurs, and developers to work on tech projects, tech problems, tech ideas, and “hacks.”  

I realize, of course, that “hack” and “hackathon” remain fairly loaded words in education, as in the culture at large. “Hacker” still has a fairly negative connotation; those are the rogue individuals who release computer viruses and who steal your personal data – or so say the headlines. That’s not what I think “hacker” means; when I think of “hacking,” I think less about breaking than I do building. And while some folks want to shy away from using “hack” and “hackathon,” when they hold events around building and making and coding, I’d argue that it’s actually worth hanging on to the term. I’ve got a horse in the race, no doubt, with a blog called Hack Education. But as I have written in my description of this site and of the recent Hacking Schooling project, I like the term “hack” a lot, in no small part because of the variety of meanings it implies:

To break in and break down. To cut to the core. To chop roughly. To subvert.

A hack is a quick and dirty fix. It might not be beautiful. But it works. And it’s something that you can do, even if you’re not an engineer by trade. You can engineer, you can control the technology in your world – or you should be able to.

But some of the concerns and caution surrounding hackathons’ role in education aren’t simply issues surrounding how we describe or brand these events. There are lots of questions about how these (generally) engineering-heavy and (sometimes) entrepreneur-oriented work – or not – with educators and work – or not – for education.

Some of the problems as I see them:

What’s the goal of a hackathon? Building? Learning? Launching startups? I think organizers need to think carefully about this. Not every problem in education requires a business solution; not every problem requires a tech solution. What are we fixing, and what are we hacking? And why? And how? And who are the hackers?

How do we bridge the gulf between educators and engineers and entrepreneurs? Is the hackathon environment the right one to do this? Does building something in a team-oriented environment help bridge the divide? Does it get to the heart of some of the communication and cultural differences?

How do we welcome non-hackers to hackathons? I have been to plenty of these sorts of events where you can count the number of women on one hand, where you can count the number of people over 40 on one hand. Is everyone welcome at a hackathon? If not, why not? What’s welcoming and unwelcoming factors are explicit? What are implicit?

Is everyone’s voice and skills honored at hackathons? Do some people just come hoping that “code monkeys” will build their dream tool? Do problem owners have a voice throughout the development process? Do coders listen to designers? Do designers listen to teachers? Is anyone listening to students? Are we worrying too much about what the business folks have to say? Or are we worrying too little?

How are we building on the knowledge (and specifically on the code) that’s built at hackathons? Do we expect participants to “start from scratch” each time, or can we give them a better starting point? That point could include code; it could include expertise; it could include background reading (particularly when the hackathon is focused on a particular sector like education); it could include a list of APIs to use (RemixEd did this well); it could include an understanding of what products and projects and hacks already exist. It definitely includes tips and tricks on getting broader community involvement.

How does the hackathon model – often running from Friday evening through Sunday evening, so in other words, a whole weekend – work for educators? And if it works during the summer months (maybe it works then), what do we do during the 9 months (or so) of the academic year? Hold no education hackathons? Hold them at schools? Invite the community? Shorten the hours?

Is a competition the right model? (Often there’s some judging round at the end of these events.) Do prizes for products reward a “thing” other than the learning that happens at these events?

How do we empower teachers and students to be hackers? I’m not necessarily talking here about the “everyone needs to learn to program” mantra. I’m talking about hacking together your own solutions that needn’t be written in beautiful code but that work for you.



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