(This is a longer post that I wrote for the Edtech Handbook that I also wanted to share with my readers here.)
In an effort to engage educators in the edtech movement edShelf and TeacherSquare hosted RemixEd, an education focused hackathon, designed to bring together teachers, students, developers and designers to build tools for K12 schools. I have been thinking a lot about how to engage education practitioners in the education startup ecosystem and this was one of the events we piloted to see what this type of collective problem solving could actually look like. Mike Lee, co-founder of edShelf and I both shared our specific reflections on RemixEd on our respective blogs. Here I outline more general tips for anyone thinking about hosting a similar event in their community.
Set Clear Expectations
RemixEd was not about launching a startup. It was not even about building a full-fledged product. A hackathon is usually about identifying and building a shortcut or quick fix to a problem. Setting clear expectations about the focus, schedule and deliverable for the weekend before the event begins will help ensure you attract the right participants and set them up for success. For RemixEd we emphasized that the event was more about ideation and the collective creation process than about pitching a fully outlined product with business plan. For future events, we are also considering setting a theme for the projects, such as “Digging into Data” or “Supercharging Productivity & Operations.”
Share the schedule for the entire weekend and remind teams halfway through the event what the end goal, in this case the demos, should look like. Few suggestions for more structured knowledge sharing:
- Kick-off the event with a design-thinking workshop (~1 hr) to get everyone into brainstorming mode and set the tone for the weekend
- Have local edtech startups conduct mini-workshops (~20-30min) to share their expertise and approaches to their product development
Focus on Your Target Audience
For RemixEd we were optimizing for the teacher experience. Since most teachers have never even heard of a hackathon, the more resources and support you can share in advance, the better. We started with asking teachers to submit a potential idea or details around a problem they have been struggling with to begin the ideation process a few weeks before the event. (Future Tip: Ask teachers to submit a ~1min video of them describing their problem/idea. This will help them practice articulating and give you some content to share with the group during and after the event.)
Then, the week before the event we shared general resources to begin introducing some of the technical elements, APIs, etc that will be part of the building process during the weekend. This scaffolding prepares first time attendees, especially who are non-technical, to begin thinking about their weekend hacks.
In keeping with our theme all of our judges were current or former educators with varying levels of experience using technology in the classroom. This helps create an authentic audience for presentations and feedback. Figure out what motivates your attendees and design prizes/incentives accordingly. Being so focused on teachers we could have done a better job with prizes and creating incentives for the designers and developers. Teachers love swag- collect stickers, t-shirts and other tchotchkes from sponsors and other known brands and create little bags for each team.
We ended up with quite a few student participants and could’ve done a better job providing support for them. For future events we are also planning on having students as coaches and judges.
We spent several weeks looking for the ideal space for this event, which was based on geography as well as the size and functionality of the room. 500 Startups was a wonderful space for collaboration and brainstorming and worked out very well for RemixEd. Many of the teachers and students were inspired by just being in the same space as other startups, making the technology world feel slightly less foreign and more accessible. Other highlights were the space is close to public transportation, between San Francisco and the South Bay with great natural light and modular furniture layout so teams could rearrange the space as needed. The only downside was that it was tricky to access the building on the weekends which made it difficult for people to freely leave and come back, which is important when you want to encourage them to take breaks.
Keep it Healthy
We were particularly focused on making this a healthy hackathon, with nutritious food/snacks, reasonable working hours and even a Zumba break on Saturday afternoon. Yet often times we assume we know when to take a break, grab a snack and re-energize. We learned that especially with students involved, you should set explicit times for everyone to take a break, get outside and walk around the building anything that engages the group and gives everyone a chance to recharge. This also creates more opportunities for the teams to mingle, share progress and let new ideas take shape. We also had a great rotation of general and technical coaches circulating throughout the weekend, supporting teams as they progressed.
Back to School
We have received great feedback and interest in hosting RemixEd events all over the country, as well as planning our next Bay Area event this fall. It is inspiring to see that others are also thinking about how to create opportunities like this to bring together educators, students, designers and developers to work on challenges in our K12 schools together. To truly make an impact, we realize this type of collective problem solving has to find its way to the traditional school environment. In thinking about how to integrate this into the school system here are a few suggestions:
- Introduce the event through a mini-workshop at a teacher in-service day to build awareness and buzz to attract more teachers
- Partner with a school district and have a set number of teachers and students from each school attend, then present back to others who ideally would attend next time
- Break the event into 3-4 hour chunks spread over a few days (ie. 2-3 consecutive Saturdays) so that those who can’t give up an entire weekend can still participate. Maybe start with a short three hour session during the first weekend could be used to brainstorm ideas. Then, the week could be spent conceptualizing and prototyping a first model. The second weekend could be an opportunity to present the model, get immediate critique that is then taken into account when the students (and their teacher guides on the side) work with hackers to build out a more sophisticated model or perhaps even the next version of the prototype.
Taking it to the Next Level
Ideally we’d like to keep the conversation and the hacking going, but that really depends on each individual team and participant. Mike outlined some “After RemixEd” resources to support those folks who want to build off some of the momentum for the weekend. If you are thinking about hosting a similar event in your community, I’d love to hear from you and offer some support. You can connect with me on Twitter @TeacherSquare.