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MIT student blogger Yuliya K. '18

MIT Festival of Learning by Yuliya K. '18

a hackathon for students and instructors connecting technology with education

“It’s not just a working tool. It’s a thinking tool!” pronounced the award-winning makers of Snipmap, a Google Chrome extension made during the Festival of Learning Hackathon. Snipmap’s slogan can also apply to the Festival itself. FoL was organized by the MIT Office of Digital Learning around the idea that we need to bring technology and pedagogy together for effective learning. We are already using technology in the classroom, but it is not always interactive nor designed with educators and learners in mind. Videos, for example, are helpful, but researchers have determined them to not be conducive to learning. In order to help teachers, we need to make technology “think.”

MIT is an excellent place to do this, as it is on the forefront of the ed tech movement. As early as 2001, at the suggestion of the faculty, MIT pioneered OpenCourseWare, an online platform that allowed students all over the world to access Institute course materials. Now MIT is trying to implement technology in a way that works best for students in on-campus courses (and you can follow along with MIT students using the open edX platform here!). The Festival of Learning was sponsored by the Office of Digital Learning to highlight and address these emerging challenges.

Beyond the higher-level idea of bringing technology and pedagogy together, there are tractable issues to solve in existing online platforms: How can we present content in the most intriguing way? How do we code different kinds of problems (that is, not multiple-choice) and automatically score them? How can we organize and visualize data in a way that works best for students and instructors? How can we prevent “cheating” on edX problems sets and exams? And my personal favorite as a student: how do we search for concepts within video materials? The latter would be an extremely helpful question to answer, as most of the online content for my classes is in video form, which is difficult to review before exams or during problem-solving.

Those are just a few of the questions that FoL organizers shared with the hackathon participants, who were then encouraged to generate their own ideas based on personal experiences. Everyone with some coding experience and a passion for solving problems and inspiring other learners was welcome to participate. It was a hackathon of a familiar format but novel topic—education. Based on what I learned about the Festival, I would have loved to participate myself. Alas, I can’t code yet, so I hope MIT continues to support higher education hackathons in the future.

The hackathon participants began the day with several inspirational events by industry leaders and instructors (videos of all events linked). There were talks by Satya Nitta of IBM Watson Education and Andrew Sutherland of (fun fact: Sutherland started Quizlet for his high school French class, and then dropped out of MIT his junior year to build the platform full-time). There were Teaching @ MIT Lightning Round talks with beloved MIT faculty Peter Dourmashkin (Course 8 – Physics), Dennis Freeman (6 – Electrical Engineering & Computer Science), Lorna Gibson (3 – Materials Science and Engineering), Michael Cuthbert (21M – Music), and Ely Sachs (2 – Mechanical Engineering). Then there was a Learning Expo highlighting educational initiatives and projects throughout MIT. These events were well-attended by members of the MIT community.

After the long and inspirational day of learning, hackathon participants split into teams to work until the next morning (with a break for sleep). The next day, they presented some truly incredible products, especially considering that they’d only met twelve hours (excluding sleep) prior!

The Audience Choice Award went to Snipmap, a browser extension and desktop application for writing papers. It was a fascinating project, and, if I were an investor, I would not hesitate to fund its further development. Snipmap allows the user to easily organize online research. Imagine: when you find an article of interest, you can snip the relevant quotes, tag them in relationship to your thesis (e.g. supporting or contradicting it), and then visualize all the quotes in a beautiful knowledge map on the desktop Snipmap app. Then you can write your paper right in the desktop app, with your knowledge map and quotes list right by your side. An added bonus: Snipmap automatically saves the citation and link for the article you highlight! I highly recommend watching the full Snipmap team’s presentation here. The amount of creative energy the team put into designing the app is truly impressive. Snipmap looks so well-made after only half a day of work that, watching the video, I couldn’t help dreaming about how I would use the tool, and how much easier it would make my final weeks of the semester (for papers like this one).

The Implementation & Viability Award went to the creators of Retainer, a browser extension with the catchy slogan, “Practice makes permanent.” Retainer is a tool for automatically creating online quizzes. The version of Retainer created after only twelve work-hours can convert any Wikipedia page into a quiz by turning keywords into blanks with dropdown multiple-choice selections. All you need to do is to click the Retainer button in the corner. Future versions of Retainer would hopefully allow users to transform any page into a quiz with relevant multiple-choice options. I cannot wait to see that! And if you want to see Retainer in action right now, check out the video here. If you want to see other winning projects, continue watching!

Visiting the Festival of Learning and talking with the organizers and mentors was truly a blast, and I hope that taking 6.00 Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python this semester will allow me to be part of an FoL Hackathon team another time (note: you can take 6.00 on edX with me here). Who wouldn’t want to spend a day solving problems of higher education with passionate people, industry leaders, and good food? I look forward to seeing how this year’s FoL Hackathon winners continue to develop their products. And, as to the FoL mentors, they were able to solve an edX issue on the very first day of the FoL themselves! I am grateful to MIT for supporting events like the Festival of Learning and look forward to attending more.

What problem would your team solve at the Festival of Learning? Share your ideas in the comments below!