Music Meets Education in First-Ever Music Ed Hackathon

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“You have so much energy for people who have been awake for, like, a year!” cried Jean-Philip Grobler, leader of the Brooklyn band St. Lucia. He was addressing a crowd of developers and educators who had gathered at a Manhattan co-working space to create music education tools in a weekend hackathon. Many of the developers had skipped a night of sleep to work on their projects. But even the most exhausted rose to their feet and bopped to the music. They had a lot to celebrate: smart ideas, hard work and new connections.

The “Music Ed Hack” produced more than 40 music education tools in less than 24 hours (June 28-29). A joint effort of the music-streaming service Spotify and the New York City Department of Education, it also brought together three groups who rarely collaborate: educators, developers and the music industry. It was the NYCDOE’s first hackathon and appears to be the first-ever music education hackathon.

Spotify was the catalyst. “We’ve done a lot of hackathons and seen such creative things come out of them,” Kerry Steib, Spotify’s director of social responsibility told EdSurge. “We wanted to unleash that creativity onto something like music education and support the next generation of music makers and musicians.” The Swedish company’s U.S. operations are headquartered in Manhattan, making the New York City school system an obvious partner. (The event was co-sponsored by Spotify and InnovateNYC, an iZone initiative that, among other things, builds bridges to the entrepreneur and edtech communities.)

More than 300 people flowed in and out of co-working space Alley NYC over the course of the hackathon. About 170 were developers. The rest were designers or other helpers, business people and teachers. Some executives and teachers attended as mentors to give developers advice. Bob Lamont, who teaches performing arts at Manhattan’s Gramercy Arts High School, said his most frequent recommendation was to add assessment features. “I asked the developers, ‘How do we know the kids know it?’” he told EdSurge. “The apps should be fun, but also illustrate, ‘I know how to do xyz in terms of musical technique.’” Teachers also shared ideas during the hackathon’s open-mike session. Jamillah Seifullah, who teaches math at Brooklyn’s Pathways in Technology High School, a.k.a. P-TECH, used that time to request an app that would express math equations in sound waves.

The hackathon kicked off Friday night. Developers learned about available tools and formed teams. They could add functionality to their apps via 14 application programming interfaces, including APIs from the Echo Nest, Peachnote and Spotify. Projects were due late Saturday afternoon. The tight turnaround allowed little rest. Roger Li, a Stuyvesant high schooler who participated in the hackathon, said he slept for three hours in a chair inside Alley NYC.

Despite the rush, the resulting projects were relatively polished and incredibly diverse. There were apps that focused on analyzing music, teaching music and making music. Sometimes music served as a bridge to another subject. One developer took Seifullah’s suggestion and built an app that lets users graph trigonometric functions and listen to corresponding sounds. Another app, “Poke A Text,” leverages rap and hip-hop lyrics to teach spelling, grammar and listening comprehension. Users listen to audio clips then translate the lyrics into grammatically correct English. “Map That Music!” links music to geography. Students can click on a world map to listen to songs from a particular country or listen to a song and guess where it originated.

Several apps aimed to connect music students with instructors either real-time via webcam and computer mike or through recordings that could be emailed or uploaded to the cloud. There were a few games that tracked everything from keyboarding to drum beats and issued scores and feedback to improve music-playing. Connecting hardware and software to musical instruments to teach novices was another popular theme. Two projects used sensors and lights to show students where to place their fingers on a guitar.

Some projects were a better fit for music enthusiasts and amateur musicians than students. But a number of projects were explicitly designed for K-12 teaching and a few even included learning and content management systems. One app, MusEd, is geared toward flipped classrooms. It integrates teacher videos, supplemental content, multiple-choice quizzes and student comments in a social network-like interface. Another app, iGroove, incorporates LearnSprout’s APIs to collect student data from large music classes. The data is used to feed a class leaderboard and reward top students with discount codes for digital music purchases.

All the groups--30 teams total--presented their work on Saturday night. Seven judges, representing the worlds of music, education, technology and business, chose three winners. (All the hackathon projects can be viewed on Hacker League.) Scores were based on four criteria: Integration of music and education; level of innovation; depth of integration with partner APIs and user experience. The winners were:

  • First place: Exemplify software that makes it simple to create lesson plans around songs through search, annotation and sharing features.
  • Second place: MaKey MaKey Music Construction Kit, which employs a MaKey MaKey and MIT’s Scratch programming language to turn everyday materials like cardboard boxes into a range of musical instruments.
  • Third place: RosettaTone, a karaoke-like platform that enables students to learn languages through music by showing English translations for foreign songs and generating related quizzes.

Each winner received thousands of dollars of Amazon Web Service credits. The first-place prize also included $10,000 in cash. The second-place prize came with 25 hours of consulting and development work from NYC Dev Shop, a programming firm that helps start-ups refine their prototypes.

Though the hackathon was brief, participants seemed motivated to continue the conversation. An NYU music professor announced plans to start a monthly music tech educator Meetup. Lamont, the performing arts teacher, said he was interested in apps that would help him create portfolios for his students and monitor their progress. Seifullah, the math teacher, said she wants to use music apps in her classes. “Everyone can relate to music,” she noted. “I want students to see math isn’t a vacuum, that it’s related to many things.”

Other attendees were excited about business opportunities. Several developers, including Poke A Text, said they would bring their apps to mobile app stores. Spotify hacker advocate Andrew Mager said the company was happy to get more people building on its platform. Bill Campbell, a Universal Music Group senior vice president who helped judge projects, said he came to the hackathon as part of his work “evangelizing that the music industry wants to work with start-ups.”

InnovateNYC executive director Steven Hodas sees the hackathon as further proof the NYCDOE should expand its circle of partners. InnovateNYC has been testing this hypothesis for several months through open software challenges and developer tours of New York City schools. Calling the hackathon a “light-a-spark” event, Hodas said the NYCDOE is considering other collaborations with Spotify and Universal Music to bring music to schools. Like all of InnovateNYC’s initiatives, “The point is starting relationships and building bridges and seeing what comes out of it,” said Hodas.

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