EDesign Labs Helps Teachers and Students Hack The Future Of Education

With partners like the Gates Foundation, Intel, and the U.S. Department of Education, a hackathon brings K-12 teachers and students into the innovation world.

EDesign Labs Helps Teachers and Students Hack The Future Of Education

This past weekend, EDesign Labs, a nonprofit dedicated to making sure K-12 innovation incorporates the insights of teachers and students, held a hackathon at the Center for Social Innovation in New York City, part of a National Day of Civic Hacking sponsored by Intel.


[Disclosure: Your correspondent was one of several judges of the hackathon, for which I received nothing except a cheese empanada.]

EDesign Labs was seeded by the Ford Foundation and is currently hosted at New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit (funded by the Gates Foundation and the NYC and federal departments of education) focused on launching new schools.

“We proposed a tough challenge,” said director Hsing Wei, whose computer science, art, and education background includes Harvard, MIT, Parsons, and Eyebeam. “‘How do we design learning for a future of computational thinkers, effective storytellers, and empathetic inventors?'”

The 100-plus hackathon attendees formed up to eight-person teams including designers, developers, local public and charter school teachers, and even a few high school students. “The teams were bigger than we expected, I think because education is a hard problem,” says Wei.

Over two days at the Center for Social Innovation, teams built or mocked up different apps to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and participation in classrooms. There was an ultra-simple, shareable video app called Off the Page; MiniStories, a comic-book like tool where students could create characters and produce short narratives; and DataCrunch and Data Hunt, tools meant to help students understand and visualize data.

The winner of the day was a science app called WavePool that turned the Microsoft Kinect interface into a tool for visualizing and manipulating soundwaves in real time. Do you know what a wave the width of your outstretched arms sounds like compared to one that’s seven centimeters wide? WavePool can show you. The team received a mentorship meeting with DreamIt Ventures, and just as important, an opportunity to pilot in two real-life classrooms.


Steven Hodas, executive director of Innovate NYC Schools, an NYC Department of Education innovation incubator project, was another judge of the EDesign Labs hackathon. He says that district involvement, like offering pilot classrooms, is key to ensuring educational apps are solving real problems, and to get them across the “valley of death” that is the bureaucratic procurement process at the district level. His own initiative, the iZone, just closed a successful app challenge for middle school math. “What drew over 200 entries was the chance to get this stuff into classrooms. Districts need to provide a testbed or a potential purchaser.”

The idea of hacking education is not new, but it’s never been more popular. There’s a growing consensus, from the Secretary of Education on down, that children need access to anywhere-anytime learning that builds the creative, computational, and collaborative skills they will need in tomorrow’s workplace.

There are many companies out there competing to grab a piece of the $600 billion a year we spend on K-12 education. Venture funding in the sector has exploded from $13 million in 2005 to $389 million in 2011.

Meanwhile, the National Education Technology Plan, commissioned by President Obama and published back in 2010, calls for all K-12 schools to be equipped with Wi-Fi for always-on learning; to drop the paper textbook in favor of multimedia video, games, and other content on mobile devices to engage students in and out of school; to apply data and analytics to customize learning for each student; to use social networking to enhance collaboration for teachers; and to focus on “21st century competencies” like coding, empathy, and design principles. These ideas, piloted at Silicon Valley charter schools like Rocketship and Summit, are catching on in regular public school districts as well.

On the device side, more than 8 million iPads have been sold to classrooms since the iPad’s launch–3.5 million of them in 2012. On the content side, the free K-12 math resources on the Khan Academy website, to pick one successful example, are accessed by 6 million users monthly and in use in 20,000 classrooms.

But amidst all this rapid growth, the people with immediate knowledge of what students and teachers need are not often the ones making design decisions. Sal Khan was never a classroom teacher. Few teachers and even fewer students were in sight at Austin’s big SXSWEDU conference in March. “There’s been a failure on the part of school districts to do their job and reach out and engage people who could help them solve their problems,” says Hodas. “You have this really almost funny disconnect with developers in ed-tech with pretty good problem-solving methodologies, energy, and tremendous goodwill, but they don’t know what the real problems are because they don’t have deep experience–sometimes no experience–in schools.”


At the EDesign hackathon, having students in the room where educational futures are being dreamed up made for a great reality check. I was seated next to one of the youth judges, Davon Pearsall-Evans, a senior at Flushing High School in Queens. “The WavePool was so cool,” he said. “And something like MiniStories–you could have so many uses for it from first grade all the way to high school.”

But he saw some of these ideas as unrealistic: A Kinect would be a target for “messing around” or theft by students. As for the technology nearly every student already has access to? “We’re not allowed to use our cellphones in class,” he said.

[Image: Flickr user woodleywonderworks]

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation.