The whiteboard displayed a hot mess of scribbles. Boxes, arrows, a few smiley faces, colors, and, thankfully, material design elements. Creativity in action was in full display.
Team two was animated. As students, they wrestled with an annual problem that frustrated them regularly. They believed they found a unique solution.
“Okay, so define the problem,” I said.
“Planning and scheduling,” said one of the young men. “Knowing what classes we should take and how we should register. The current method is…clunky.”
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing at a material design card on the whiteboard that featured a large letter “A”.
“Well, in theory, Abre holds most of the data points surrounding a student, right?”
I nodded, yes.
“So we figured that our app could look at a student with similar grade demographics, then predict what grade we would get in the class. This would help students make informed decisions when signing up for classes!”
Now as an innovator, I loved the idea and thought it rather clever. This was doable (indeed, to some extent, it’s a core idea of Value Added Student Growth). But as an administrator and teacher, the idea freaked me out. I could immediately see a number of bad scenarios emerging. Escalation of GPA wars. Parents and students angered over grade mismatches. An existential crisis of agency.
That said, I mostly felt proud and excited. These kids were having a blast throwing around code blocks, geeking out over GIT, and feeling empowered to make changes.
Our first appathon was a success.
Chris and I began our careers in the classroom. For me, teaching captured the simple joy of growing minds, seeing stories unfold, and getting lost in the laughter. That’s not to say there weren’t tears and challenges (there were many), but those difficulties were always in the context of a simple truth.
When the lightbulb went off, when learning mixed with creativity, you experienced an incredibly rewarding moment of wonder.
In leaving the classroom (but staying in education), those moments of wonder shifted and became sporadic. We loved writing and releasing good code. We loved solving real problems for teachers and students. We loved the creativity Abre unleashed.
But we also loved our roots. Our roots as teachers.
Growing Software as a Teacher
When we created Abre, we intentionally designed a platform for fiddling. Learning is an experience involving trial and error, just-right challenges, and concrete outcomes. Instead of creating restrictive software, we placed an open-source license on Abre and invited others to join in the fun.
Philosophically, this fits with who we are. We’re an education company (with roots in public education) dedicated to help students learn. Why not give them tools to improve their learning? Why not give them access to experiential learning opportunities and allow them to build a compelling digital profile?
Defining the Problem
Giving away the tools didn’t mean the community started magically building cool applications. With open-source, we sometimes fell into the fallacy of Field of Dreams thinking: “If you build it, they will come.” When starting small, it was challenging to stand out among the tens of thousands of Github projects.
That said, as an education platform we held a distinct advantage.
Students are really good at defining issues they face in school. Many of these students knew how to code. And many wanted a goldilocks experience of learning to code while solving problems they and their peers faced.
School provided structure for learning. We needed to provide a structure for coding. We decided to host a full day appathon and openly invite students from southwest Ohio.
A Day in Five Parts
Loaded with coffee, bagels, pop, and mexican food, we split the day into five parts.
Who are We and What is Abre?
I suspect we bombed a bit at the introduction part. From their perspective, we were old people with breakfast. But as good students, they nodded their heads through our introductions and then calmly acknowledge – through their own introductions – that yes, they were fellow geeks.
After introductions, we gave a tour of Abre and how it worked as a platform. Eyes started to perk up when they grasped that Abre was an open platform for creating education apps.
Define their Own Problems & Brainstorm Solutions
Forming three groups, we had students brainstorm problems they faced as students. What did they want to fix? What issues gave them headaches regularly?
From there, what solutions could they present to solve the headaches? What crazy idea would they maybe like to see in action?
Our appathon was an open invitation. We didn’t know what skill level our students might have. As such, we wanted to create an experience where novices could contribute and design solutions. Wireframing was an important part to the design process, so we introduced the students to MockFlow and had them begin designing boards to show how their app would work. Not only was wireframing a key first step, it was very approachable at all skill levels.
Git, Install, And Run
Nearly all the students knew how to use Git, so it took only a few moments to direct them to the Github repository for Abre core and a starter app we developed for the day. From there we hit our first major roadblock: Installing WAMP.
We wanted students to install Abre locally for development. This required Apache, MySQL, PHP, and a local environment to run such programs. We used MAMP on our Apple machines. However, the Window’s equivalent (WAMP) wigged out for a variety of reasons.
No worries though. Chris sprang to action and fired up 3 separate Abre installs in the cloud and gave access to the teams. Within a 10 minutes the students were digesting code, making tweaks, and working on the starter app.
After a crazy, exciting day of creating, the appathon students pitched their projects to the group. We originally intended to have students vote on their favorite project, but ended up so impressed (and somewhat distracted) by their incredible projects. Instead, every pitch involved supportive conversations and idea riffs.
First and foremost, the day was insanely fun and rewarding. All the students rated the experience high (with many asking us to challenge them with more technical aspects).
The groups tackled three distinct projects, each solving different problems. In brief:
- Intelligently suggest clubs to students based on a learner profile
- A way for student clubs to communicate with stakeholders
- Analyze potential scheduling conflicts between clubs and other school events.
Group Workload App
- Collaboratively record a lesson within a class
- Collaboratively develop notes within the class
- Share recordings and notes automatically with students enrolled in the same class
- Allows students to intelligently plan their course schedule
- Allows students to register for the class and gather required teacher recommendations electronically
- Presents historical analytics of the class – including a predictive grade
Given our success (and our company’s mission), we will schedule regular appathons with the hope of exporting our framework to other districts throughout the country (an Appathon in a Box!).
We are currently developing an Abre store. Ideally, we’d love to see students create Abre apps for their schools and contribute the apps to the store.
If you are interested in hosting an Appathon, please visit our appathon page on our website. We’re happy to support.