Hacking Education Frameworks

Why the “Hackathon Framework” might ignite a revolution in education.

Information is excessively accessible nowadays: blogs, news, social networks, videos, articles, advertisements, games, and more, permeate the internet. We can now take college-level courses online, for free. We can get certificates from top universities verifying we took a course or completed a specialization. Massive Open Online Courseware is bringing college level instruction to the public. Is this the next revolution for education? Students now have reason to compare the high cost of university with free online courses. But online education or college are not the only options now. Hackathons are taking the world by storm.

College certificates serve as proof that you received formal education in a topic, but sometimes that proof is not indicative of how well you can apply that knowledge.

What you know is not nearly as important as what you do with what you know.

Steve Jobs studied Calligraphy. And he managed to make Apple and popularize computers, with a range of beautiful fonts.

Because of the Internet, memorization is becoming increasingly obsolete. No one needs to know specific dates or facts off the top of their heads; people can now pick up their phones and search for themselves. Far more important is learning how to apply knowledge to create and innovate. Before we see how hackathons provide an education framework that emphasizes creation, we’ll consider why we must learn from them.

Before college, there were only books. Since ancient times, humans have written their thoughts in caves, stones, and paper. People would read books before universities existed. There was a greater emphasis on self-learning and experimentation. I’m not claiming doing experiments contributes more to learning than listening to a lecture, but I know it’s more fun to build a contraption than sit in a classroom for two hours.

Colleges were built to bring people together and focus on certain kinds of learning. Unfortunately, college has diminished the emphasis on experimentation and self-learning, partly because of its hierarchical structure and its stress on the idea that failing is bad. The hierarchical structure in colleges of teachers and students creates a strict line of distinction between those who know and those who don’t know. The fear of doing something wrong discourages students to try completely new things and experiment with innovative solutions. At school we’re taught that there is a correct way of doing things and a path we have to follow, and while sometimes this can help us avoid past mistakes, it also discourages us from trying new solutions to problems because of the fear that they’re wrong.

However, traditional colleges still have many advantages that online courses lack. Being around other people instills collaboration, different perspectives, and a combination of ideas. Humans will always naturally converge to communities. Being with other humans in the same room can’t be replaced by online learning. While online courses do provide a framework for self-learning at your own pace and an environment where it’s okay to make errors, the community component is still crucial and missing.

The core problem is finding the best framework that combines the good characteristics from colleges and online self-learning. Some people currently use both structures, but maybe the focus will shift more towards one side, or it could be that online education takes over colleges, or vice versa.

However, a new framework is rising. The next wave of education might very well come from somewhere else. The tide is flowing to Hackathons. Hackathons take the self-learning and experimentation advantages from online courses and couples them with the power of community from colleges but without the fear of being wrong nor the strict hierarchical structures. Hackathons provide a new model of competitive yet collaborative learning where skill sharing is encouraged.

The hackathon framework for learning is gaining a lot of popularity. More and more universities and organizations are throwing these community based events known as Hackathons, where “hack” is used in the sense of exploratory programming, not computer crime. In a Hackathon, computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software or hardware projects. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week. Some hackathons are intended simply to create usable software, although in most cases the goal is social and educational.

Hackathons are communities based on learning, teaching, and creating. The process involves meeting people, pondering ideas, seeking help, building a team, learning something new, struggling for five hours, helping others, having fun, never giving up, and ultimately, making something you thought you couldn’t do before the hackathon. It’s a new take on education focused on what you can do with what you can learn.

Hack@Brown teddy bears

There are also rewards for what you build. There’s usually a selection process where the best-performing groups receive prizes ranging from iPad minis, to travel expenses for hackathons in other countries, to $10,000, to Zero-Gravity flights. Or even teddy bears for everyone.

But the value gained from a hackathon is much more than just the prizes: it’s the people you meet, what you learn, and what you build.

People currently use hackathons as a supplement to other forms of education. A group of college students get excited for an idea, go to a hackathon for a weekend, and come back without sleep but with their idea realized. Hackathons could become the biggest impact on education since the internet.

For Hack@Brown, 350 students representing 62 colleges and nine high schools came together to Brown to learn and make things. Participants travelled from as far as California, Canada, and Mexico. Nearly 70% of participants were first-time hackers. Hack@Brown is especially focused on creating a welcoming, inclusive environment. There are workshops ranging from iOS apps to Arduino to “what am I doing here”. There was also a six to one mentor ratio; engineers from Facebook, Google, Uber, and more worked alongside with students. The result is a focus on learning — instead of prizes — as students gain experience working side-by-side with professionals.

Competition is just one small part — and not the main focus — of the hackathon experience; many hackers attend to meet new people, network with potential employees, and learn more programming or hardware technologies. Feedback from Hack@Brown William Wu, a high school student that attended Hack@Brown included that “[he] almost jumped out of [his] chair in joy”; Taylor DeRosa, another hacker, wrote that “it was really fun and challenging to conceptualize and implement a project within such a short time frame”. There was a winning team composed all of freshmen that “had no real experience with Python before, especially with hosting it as a server. [they] found out about the Flask framework and somehow figured out how to combine it with the Javascript in less than 24 hours!”.

Teams created projects ranging from a system to request health records electronically, to a location-based borrowing platform, to a multiplayer game where the whole crowd at the demo presentation joined, to a program that reads stock data that looks for positive and negative performance and generates a song, to a data-visualization interface that lets you traverse information as nodes in a graph in a 3D environment with your hands.

Students came out of the event feeling that there is no limit to what they can learn together as a community. And build things they thought they couldn’t do.

A record 1,500 hackathons around the world are planned for this year, 2015, up from just a few dozen in 2010, and their focus is broadening from developing lucrative apps to solving problems for an array of industries including dental, fashion, immigration, transgender and social justice. Right now, most hackathons are focused on programming and technology, but I hope this framework of collaborative, experimental, and project-based learning spreads to all other disciplines. Imagine a bunch of psychologists coming together for weekend to experiment and create new theories, or a group of writers to craft poems and essays, or historians to research unsolved mysteries, or political majors to fix social justice. Hackathons are fun, creative machines that receive people with ideas and produce projects.

And although hackathons probably won’t replace universities and online education altogether, it may be time for institutions to create new curriculums and education systems that mimic the hackathon framework.