Hackathon Series Aims to Build Support for ‘Learning Engineering’ Tools

Higher Education

Hackathon Series Aims to Build Support for ‘Learning Engineering’ Tools

By Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 3, 2019

Hackathon Series Aims to Build Support for ‘Learning Engineering’ Tools

When Carnegie Mellon University officials announced last week that they will open up the source code on their digital tools for improving college teaching, they admitted that the tough part will be getting professors and learning centers at other colleges to actually use and improve upon them.

Today, officials shared more details on how they hope to build a culture around developing and adopting the software tools. The university is working with a group called the Empirical Educator Project, run by the popular education blog e-Literate, which today announced it will run a series of hackathons over the next year at colleges that are part of its group.

The group is calling it the EDwhy initiative, in which the ED stands for educational design. That name is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to what comes after edX, the nonprofit group that was a champion of the MOOC craze that promised to revolutionize education with large-scale online courses that are now largely seen as failing to live up to their hype, says Michael Feldstein, co-founder of e-Literate and director of the Empirical Educator Project. “They tried something big, and everyone got the impression that the world was going to get a free MIT education from watching videos,” he said.

“We salute the audacity of edX and other projects that dared to aim high,” he added. “On the other hand, MOOCs and other ambitious projects that have caught the popular imagination have had the side effect of reinforcing the misimpression that education’s wicked problems can be addressed with simple solutions.”

That misunderstanding, he added, makes it harder for society to tackle really complex problems in education. “Rather than taking the risk that we would trigger the same old hype cycle, we thought it was important to launch our initiative by acknowledging that we in the education sector need to learn from our experiments,” Feldstein said.

It’s hard to know how effective such hackathons will be in building a community, especially since no colleges have yet signed on to run them. “We’ve had some early expression of interest,” said Feldstein. The group plans to talk with other members about the series at its upcoming meeting in early May.

Getting an open-source effort off the ground is difficult, in part because software that is free to license doesn’t necessarily mean that it is free to use (the joke is that open source-software is free like a free puppy—you’ll have to pay to feed it or take it to the vet when problems come up).

“There are rules of thumb in education about how much software costs and how much of that cost is the license versus the training and support,” said Bart Epstein, president and CEO of the Jefferson Education Exchange, a nonprofit working to help educators make better decisions about technology. “Those non-license components of software are very substantial.”

And it is still unclear how many colleges will step up, he added, given that many colleges are still not that invested in efforts to bring a ‘learning engineering’ approach to their teaching.

“When Tesla says that it’s making its battery patents available for free, you can be sure that all of the other car companies have incentives to invest time in reading and understanding those battery patents to read them and see if they can use them,” he said. “But when CMU opens up this software, it’s unclear who is out there that is saying, ‘Oh, there’s something in there that I want.’ We just don’t know how much impact it will have.”

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