Ed tech teams compete for modest prizes from Gates Foundation, Facebook

Every time you unlock your phone, you likely type in the same, boring old code. But imagine if, each time you wanted to use it, your phone prompted you translate a Facebook (s FB) friend’s status message into Spanish or French or another language of your choice. It might not make you fluent overnight, but it’s a clever way to get some educational value out of an otherwise mundane task.

That app, developed by a team from online learning company Quizlet, was one of three winners picked by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook at their HackEd 2.0 challenge Tuesday night. The two organizations hosted 24 teams of developers, educators and others for a day-long event and hackathon at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters focused on all things ed tech.

“[We wanted] to provide students with tools that are useful and actionable … and to get the best talent pointed at these big important problems in education,” said Emily Dalton Smith, a program officer at the Gates Foundation. Given Facebook’s popularity among young people and the social media giant’s connection to a technical crowd, partnering with them was a natural choice, she said.

An earlier hackathon hosted by the two organizations in September was a closed, invitation-only affair. But this week’s hackathon started in March with an open call for developers, educators and others around the country to submit app ideas related to college readiness, social learning and out-of-school learning. About half of the teams that applied were invited to attend and, at the event this week, they were given six hours to turn their ideas into a working prototype. Later this month in London, the organizations will host a smaller ed tech hackathon.

Participants were selected from around the country, including teams from Stanford, Berkeley, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a couple of high schools, Dalton Smith said. In addition to Quizlet’s team, other winners included:

  • Edumacation — Created by a team from Facebook, the app uses the social network’s open graph to help students create pathways to college and beyond by finding people with common characteristics or relevant experiences. For example, a high school student could use it to find graduates of her high school who are now enrolled at Harvard or a college student could use it to find a Facebook employee who went to her alma mater.
  • Outspoken — Created by a team that includes one teacher, it helps students build Common Core reading and listening skills by exchanging video and written content with peers on Facebook.

For winning the hackathon, the teams received $5,000 each — not a big sum compared to the millions upon millions that the Gates Foundation gives to education initiatives in the U.S. But the point of the hackathon was to spark and reward innovation among new groups of talent and to make social media — which young people already use for learning and figuring out the college process — more useful.

“First-generation college-going kids are using Facebook in particular to seek out role models,” Dalton Smith said. “[We want] to help with what they’re doing.”