This weekend, I participated in my first hackathon, where adults get to do their own project-based learning. A hackathon is an event where web developers and designers compete to create new products in a limited amount of time. Since I’m not a computer programmer, I normally wouldn’t participate in an event like this, but this hackathon was focused on my two favorite topics: travel and education! The organizer, LearnLaunch, invited teachers to join teams to help them make apps or websites that are most useful in real world classrooms. I was one of the only teachers, but I enjoyed getting a sneak peek into a different kind of learning environment.
I didn’t know what to expect. When I arrived Friday night, we had a BINGO mixer activity in order to meet new people. It was just like an activity we often use on the first day of school, where we had to find someone in the room who could initial each fact. I found myself asking around to see who had been to Mexico, or who could sing a U2 song. It was a good way to break the ice, and I met some new people. After playing that game and eating some pizza, people were invited up to give a one minute pitch if they had an idea for a travel / education app. After the speeches, we could approach people and form our teams. I partnered with two talented developers, Devin Dreszer and Diarmuid McGann, who seemed to have lots of good ideas about ways for classrooms around the world to collaborate.
Then, we started to brainstorm! We were a good team, because they knew about the technical stuff, and I knew about what’s already happening in classrooms. We eventually came up with a really solid idea, and I started getting excited. Basically, we wanted to make a Kickstarter type site where classes of students can pledge time instead of money. Classrooms would propose service ideas, and other classes around the world could pledge to take action along with them. I used some of the ideas that I had come up with in Japan, including the name “CollaborAction.” Since I know about making videos, I made a little demo video that we didn’t end up using:
I left Friday night and had no idea what the developers would end up being able to create. Since I don’t know how to code, it was really in their hands. On Saturday morning, I wrote up some content for them to use, and then I went to ArtBeat, a big festival in my neighborhood. When I arrived back at the office, I was amazed. My jaw really dropped. Devin and Diarmuid had created a beautiful working site! The homepage looked like this:
I loved the way it looked! I had given them all the photos and project titles from various service projects I’ve done or seen others do. For some of them, I made up details, trying to make examples that looked global, but they were all based on real projects. It looked great, but they needed more text to go into each page. I quickly added more to each write up, so that it fit into their structure:
It was really exciting to create something like this, all in less than 24 hours! It made me want to learn how to code. I knew then that even if we didn’t win, the weekend had been a success. The feeling in the room was really supportive, and all the teams were rooting each other on. After dinner, teams presented their projects. Other groups also came up with impressive results. These new “companies” were created:
- Curigo — When you’re traveling, this is an iPhone app that will help you meet locals or other travelers who want to meet up for language practice or socializing.
- teXchange — A collaborative language learning program that allows students to learn new words from native speakers and make their own flashcards
- CultureQuest — Students can upload photos that show aspects of their own culture. Then, they can play games with their own or classmates’ photos.
- TradeRoutes — Learn about important trade routes in history, and find out about what’s happening in those places today.
- ResearchR — A web plug-in for travelers who are doing academic research. It allows you to save websites for offline use later, when you are abroad with no wi-fi access. It also helps you organize your photos with notes so that you can use them later to share about your experience.
- GeoSolve — A map puzzle app with a lot of interesting features, including an option to send a text to mom and dad when the student completes the puzzle.
- Intrigue International — A spy game to help kids learn geography facts in the context of a fun adventure.
- Road Trips — Using images from Google Street View, this website allows you to experience what it would be like to drive through another city.
We didn’t win, but it was amazing to see what’s possible in such a short period of time. Lots of teams made apps and websites that really worked and would be really useful to different types of learners. It was also a great reminder about the power of this kind of learning. The model is simple:
- Step 1: Get people together.
- Step 2: Give them a goal to work towards.
- Step 3: Give them a deadline.
And then watch the magic happen. More often than not, people can inspire each other and create wonderful things together. What do you think? Where else could we have a hackathon?
Could Obama have a hackathon? What about the Ukrainians and Russians? Or the Israelis and Palestinians? Maybe this is the answer to lots of problems that need solving… or at least a way to have fun while learning and innovating.