It sounds almost like the set-up for a bad joke: what do you get when you put dozens of computer hackers and elementary school teachers in a room and keep them there overnight? But, no, it’s no joke. It’s the game plan for an event in Baltimore next weekend that brings together two communities not ordinarily in frequent dialogue with one another: web developers and educators.
On the weekend of November 12th and 13th, an estimated 80 software designers and developers will gather at a Baltimore high school for a fast and furious session of building applications based on ideas crowd-sourced from local teachers and administrators. I stumbled across the event, billed as “Education Hack Day,” while researching an upcoming SOTRU episode in Baltimore. It’s the brain child of Mike Brenner, the founder of StartupBaltimore, a networking group for tech entrepreneurs, and Scott Messinger, a teacher-turned-web-developer. Scott’s background bridging education and technology informed the idea. “Software development is largely missing a teacher voice,” he told me. “A lot of the products we have to use as teachers aren’t always that useful for us, or that intuitive.” The solution to that problem, Scott and Mike thought, was just to get teachers and the developers together to generate solutions. “Why don’t we have the teachers tell about their problems and their ideas and have the developers and designers and teachers get together and create something?”
Now, for many “hacking” connotes something subversive or illicit—computer programmers sneaking into protected digital terrain, intent on sabotage. But the word has another definition, one that is more creative than destructive. In this case, Scott says, by “hacking,” they mean “improvising, creating from nothing something that solves a problem.” What kind of problems could hackers and teachers actually solve over the course of one weekend? They’re not attempting large-scale education reform, here. An end result might be something like an app that helps teachers and administrators keep in touch with students’ families and set up parent-teacher conferences. Or it could be a product based around a particular item on the teachers’ list of tools they’d live to have. A friend of Scott’s who is the principal of a Baltimore public school just purchased ipads for all the kids in his 5th grade classrooms. He’d like some sort of application that makes the ipad function as a reading manager. “So they’ll login to the app, they’ll find out their reading level, and they’ll read some of those books,” Scott says. “And they’ll answer some questions and if they answer the questions right, that’ll bump them up to the next reading level.”
The plan for Education Hack Day is modeled on the success of another event Mike organized, Civic Hack Day, which brought developers together to work projects for state and city government (an app that calculated the likelihood of getting a parking ticket came out of that). And, ultimately, one of the goals is developing a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem for tech start-ups in Baltimore. Who knows what kind of ideas for a new company might be seeded this weekend, perhaps in a burst of coding creativity at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning? And if that new company is also built around finding education solutions that benefit the Baltimore community as a whole, Scott and Mike think, well, that’s a win-win. That’s the kind of result that’d be very far from the punchline of a joke about mixing hackers and teachers.
Update: To learn how things went at Education Hack Day, check out Mike Brenner’s recap here.