What teams of educators and developers can create in 30 hours

A couple of days ago I wrote about my team’s efforts to better connect teachers and developers in order to catalyze better learning applications. In the post, I mentioned last weekend’s SLC Camp app challenge and promised to post something about the winners.

Last year the SLC ran focus groups with 800 teachers from several states and distilled those conversations into 10 scenarios that teachers say are important to them. (You can find them here by clicking “key scenarios.”) SLC camp has run in a number of cities over the last several months, and each time the teams of educators and developers are asked to focus on 2 of the 10 scenarios. At the Silicon Valley camp last weekend, teams were encouraged to create prototype apps that address:

1. Interventions, flagging action, and measurement

2. Communication, collaboration, and sharing

Multiple teams formed around each  scenario. After a 30 hour codeathon and winnowing process, 7 finalists told their stories and showed their prototypes. Here’s a summary of what the three winners came up with in the 30 hour window:

1st place: 3R radar helps teachers communicate with parents about a student’s area of weakness, suggest strategies and activities for assisting, and report back on results. Prize = $5,000 cash plus $1,000 in Amazon Web Services and 4 hours with an AWS Solution Architect.

2nd place: NOTE-e-FI (from CaseNex) helps teachers track and communicate about student performance, attendance and notes. It is designed to facilitate both parent contact and collaboration among staff. Prize = $3,000 cash plus $500 in Amazon Web Services and 1 hour with a Solution Architect.

3rd place: Rapid RtL uses cohorts and smart goals to help teachers design, deliver, monitor, and assess group interventions for students with common needs. Prize = 1,000 cash plus $500 in Amazon Web Services.

You can read descriptions of all seven great ideas here.

Connecting teachers and developers

I often say that when it comes to K-12 learning technologies, we need lots of innovators working in different ways on the same opportunities. My team and I believe this can help speed up the innovation cycle for lots of great, affordable solutions aimed at tough instructional challenges.

Grant-makers, including my team at Gates, often strive to fund the “best” intervention with hopes it will produce results and be able to “go to scale.” But this needle in a haystack approach can be ineffective when it comes to early stage learning technologies. New applications and tools are rarely “right” from the beginning. They need time for testing with users and room for shifts in functionality and business model. Philanthropy can have the unintended consequence of buffering entrepreneurs from the natural give and take between product developers and customers that makes solutions better.

That’s why we’re trying to spend more of our time and capital on increasing the number of needles in the haystack so they are easier to find. I’m not sure this haystack analogy works, though I promised myself I’m not going to edit these posts much. But you get the picture. Rather than always looking for THE solution, we’re trying to figure out ways to strengthen incentives for lots of players to tackle tough problems, trusting that in the long-run customers will pick the winners based on what works. I talked with edsurge about this a few months ago and will share more of what we’re thinking and doing on this front on this blog over the next few months.

One of the projects we’ve been working on with partners for a couple of years is the Shared Learning Collaborative.  We’re funders and I chair the board.  The project is complicated, but one of my favorite descriptions shows how the SLC tech services help Mr. Thompson, a fake middle school math teacher, personalize learning for his students.

Though good ol’ Mr Thompson is fake, the scenario he represents is very real. By working with partners to solve key pain points at the infrastructure level, the SLC aims to create more incentives for innovation in applications that help personalize and accelerate learning for students. At this point we’ve talked with around 1000 educators about what they need from instructional technologies. One thing we heard loud and clear is that many applications don’t take into account the reality of the classroom — which problems are most important, how kids and teachers interact, what resources they have available.

So, we are working to link teachers more closely with developers & entrepreneurs who want to put their creativity and talent to work on solutions that matter most for kids and teachers. In that spirit, over the weekend I was in Silicon Valley at  SLC Camp with 300 educators and developers who formed teams to generate ideas and translate them into prototype apps over about 30 hours.  Here’s a team of teachers and developers at work on their idea:

SLC camp

At the end of the weekend, seven teams of educators and developers pitched their ideas and demo-ed their prototypes. Three won cash prizes. I’ll do a short post later in the week with brief descriptions of the winners. In the meantime, let me know what you think about our intention to spend more time on strengthening incentives for lots of innovators and creating better connections between teachers and product developers.