Mike Isaac

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Facebook and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Hack Ed-Tech for Good

hackathon

“Hack” is not always a four-letter word.

It’s Facebook’s unofficial slogan, pasted all over the company’s campus walls. And, for a day at least, “hack” will have something of a charitable connotation.

That’s because on Tuesday, Facebook will play host to a hackathon at its Menlo Park, California headquarters, inviting more than 150 developers, nonprofit organizations and ed-tech specialists to create education-focused apps in a marathon coding session. The creators of the top apps across three categories (social learning, college-going and out-of-school study) will split $15,000 in cash prizes.

It’s the second leg of a project started with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, originally kicked off in September of last year, when more than 20 groups competed for cash prizes by building educational apps.

“We started looking at social apps and the social networking space after seeing how students used it specifically around college-going preparation and their schoolwork,” said Emily Dalton Smith, program officer for next-gen learning at the foundation.

Facebook plans to host another event at its London office this month, again where smaller groups will compete for a cash prize. And at its Menlo Park campus, a number of all-female teams from the HackBright academy — an organization that offers a 10-week training program for aspiring women developers — will also participate at the event.

The foundation has already awarded more than $5 million in prizes over the past year, including $2.5 million donated in the “College Knowledge” challenge last year.

To be sure, social apps aren’t the only type of educational initiatives the foundation is focused on. “There is a lot of support in our school-focused initiatives, looking to help provide structures inside of schools,” Dalton Smith said. The foundation also has separate teams focused on massive open online courses — or MOOCs — like those offered by increasingly larger numbers of universities and colleges in the U.S. (not to mention the many startups in the MOOC space).

The foundation, however, wanted to get in on the massive wave of teens using the social Web, offering an educational, productive outlet alongside all the cat memes and YouTube clips. One statistic the foundation was eager to tout: Of the 97 percent of American teens who are online today, approximately 93 percent of them are Facebook account holders, according to a study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

“For us, the focus is always on getting kids what they need, including peer-to-peer and outside-of-school learning,” Dalton Smith said. That apparently includes a healthy dose of hacked-together Facebook apps.


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