By Barbara Grady
Technology is coming to some of the most intractable problems of education.
Teacher Nina Portugal, who teaches English to foreign-born English language learners, had just about despaired over finding a way to help some high school-age, long-term English learner students in East Oakland catch up with their classmates.
If only there was an app for this, she thought, and then went about dreaming up a prototype that would let students hear correct English, hear their own speaking and guide them toward improvement. She needed some software developers and coders and maybe some business marketers to help.
She found them last weekend at Startup Weekend Education, which took place right in Oakland at the former Cole Middle School.
She was one of 93 people – including about 50 teachers – who came to Startup Weekend Education with an idea for how to help students or teachers or engage parents.
Like the others with ideas to sell, Portugal spent five minutes pitching her idea to the other participants in a Friday night pitch fest, and then another hour talking to people individually to convince them to join her effort. By late Friday night she had a team of people – other teachers, coders, marketing people – willing to work with her.
Some 54 hours later – a weekend of working together – the team, which also included software engineer Nick Weinberg and business strategist Edaan Getzel, had produced a prototype of “RockYourVoice”, a web application “to help teachers provide real time feedback to long term English learners who often struggle using academic language,” they said. The mobile app uses a heuristic algorithm to identify positive and negative speech patterns in real life, according to the team, with the result of helping users correct their language as they speak.
By the time the team, which also included business strategist Edaan Getzel and software engineer Nick Weinberg, gave a more formalized pitch of a “minimum viable product” to some professional educators and venture capitalists on Sunday evening, the closing night of Startup Weekend Education, they had a pretty compelling product. They won.
But that was hardly the only stunning app to be created in the weekend to tackle education’s problems.
“Catch” is a mobile app whose team at Startup Weekend Education described as a way to engage parents in their children’s education. Parents and children log in to play fun games that reflect the academic content of the kids’ lessons at school. With the goading tag line “Are you smarter than your 8-year-old” the game brings parents into the worlds being explored by their children.
Startup Weekends are proliferating around the globe, where eager coders and entrepreneurs, or people just perplexed by a problem, gather in one place for a weekend, drum up business or product ideas, furiously code until they have a Web-based prototype, and pitch them to a panel of judges to see if the idea could be a viable product.
This one, organized by the non-profit Startup Weekend and sponsored by the Kapor Center for Social Impact and by theOakland Unified School District, focused on education. And the Oakland Unified School District issued a challenge to participants: “How can we increase parent and community engagement in our public schools?”
“Catch” aimed to hit at the sweet spot of that problem.
Still another Oakland teacher came up with the idea of “FunBox,” a business proposal to help teachers teach science in engaging ways. It is a box filled with tools for hands-on science projects. The idea of the business is that elementary school teachers – stretched to come up with exciting science projects in the midst of also planning English, social studies, art, and math lessons – could subscribe to a series of FunBoxes of ready made hands-on science projects. A teacher – or an entire school – would receive 10 of these boxes a year for a subscription fee. Teachers in a school could rotate them around.
“DesignEd,” which won third place at Startup Weekend, is an app that would apply Design Theory to education, to help teach students about resilience and problem solving. It’s an app teachers can use in their classrooms to approach problems of engagement and learning methodically. “Imagine,” said its founder Chloe Wood, “a classroom where all the students are engaged and take ownership” of their ideas.
“Spellzite” is an app that its newly assembled creative team described as a fool proof and fun way to teach spelling. It is “how teachers spell success,” the team said.
Another group of Oakland teachers created “Reading with Relevance,” a mobile app with a feedback tool that lets teachers know how their students are progressing through content of a lesson.
The Kapor Center for Social Impact, based in Oakland, was another main sponsor of this Startup Weekend Education, as were the organizations New Schools Venture Fund, SXSWedu, and the Rogers Family Foundation. Some big tech companies including Google and Amazon supported it with prizes, while some small tech companies like Revolution Foods in Oakland supported it with food.
Some other apps developed include “Pathfinder,” to help students find mentors among young professionals, and “GameOn,” another education gaming app.
But as to student engagement, “Talking Points,” an app that teachers can use to quickly email parents one or two ideas a day of things they can talk to their kids about from school, was the weekend challenge prize winner.