What Happens When You Release Your Inner Hacker?

Last Thursday, I participated in the Hack Education! Workshop offered during the University of Maryland’s Human Computer Interaction Lab’s (#HCIL) 31st Symposium. When Tammy Clegg (who co-facilitated the workshop with Jun Ahn and Beth Bonsignore) emailed me an invitation to partake in this opportunity to design technology that can transform the future of learning, I immediately responded, “Yes,I must release my inner hacker!”

So, what happens when one releases his or her inner hacker? Well, you win cool shades because you’re future is so bright! And apparently, you also become uber-reflective and write a blog post about your experience.

For some, the term, “hacking” might conjure up visions of illegal, virtual break-ins of private or proprietary systems to access information that will likely land you in some kind of trouble (e.g., prison, exile, or real-deal paranoia); only if caught, of course. And while orange might be the new black, freedom is my favorite word and unbounded living makes me oh-so-happy in my soul. So, let us quickly reimagine hacking as a tool for social change.

Over the past year or two, I have kept the hacking for social change movement in my periphery. In scrolling through Twitter feeds like #hackforchange, perusing blogposts like Jake Levitas’ Defining Civic Hacking, and welcoming inspiration from youth-centered STEM organizations like #YesWeCode, I have constructed my notions of hacking for the common good. I have to admit, I still have flashbacks to the computer science lab during finals (As Fresh Prince would say, “I’ll smell you later”), but mainly I envision scenes of smart, compassionate folks using their creativity, expertise, and endless energy to create something that changes how we understand and experience our world. Whether these hacked games, tools, or systems help families plan their way out of poverty or provide access to affordable healthcare, hackathons embody the audacious goals and cultivate the inspiring relationships that reminds us we have the power to make change. So, did my Hack Education! Workshop experience live up these notions? Of course, I’m blogging, ain’t I? Here’s what made the release of my inner hacker so noteworthy. The Hack Education! Workshop engaged hacker-folks in a series of activities that (a) integrated diverse perspectives and deep passions, (b) balanced the design process with product development, and (c) affirmed participants’ purpose and personhood. Here’s how:

Integrated Diverse Perspectives and Deep Passions: First, a round of introductions revealed the wide-ranging expertise and enthusiasm in the room — professors who study MOOCs and the social networks of Ancient Greece, students in pursuit of knowledge in the fields of machine learning and STEM education, and professionals who support education at National Geographic and at a high school as a programming teacher. Much more telling of the talent in the room were the participants’ named spirit animals. Who knew so many folks’ souls resonated with otters, lemurs, and pigs? Next, every participant generated multiple questions that shaped our exploratory problem spaces related to learning with technology. As we inked our questions to sticky notes, our facilitators feverishly posted and affinitized (<— yes, this is a word in design/hacker world and I might use it various forms throughout this blog because I can). Again, the emergent categories (e.g., new pedagogies, learning analytics, and social learning) were a nod to the variety of worldviews and research frames that participants contributed to this workshop. After some review and reflection of the proposed problem spaces, we self-selected into teams. Our facilitators advised us to follow our passions or explore a new problem space. Whatever the premise for team membership, all participants exemplified their commitment to the mindful design of technologies as part of a social solution that enables learning for all.

Balanced Design Process with Product Development: Within our small group, we collaborated to construct a problem statement. I mean, can a solution really exist without a problem or does a problem only exist when there is no solution? Hmm. Anyway, we quickly reached consensus that our education system (a) failed to link classroom learning with the meaningful, everyday experiences of learners and (b) often missed opportunities to leverage the lifelong learning that occurs throughout communities — at churches, in community centers, and around the dinner table.

Affinitizers |əˈfinitīzərs| (noun) – a group of hackers who categorize brainstormed ideas likely to change the world.

As we transitioned into the design phase, our facilitators kept us attuned to the process and suggested several brainstorming techniques to foster ideation. My favorite? Contra Logic! First, you list all that is accepted as the status quo: school must occur in between walls and under ceilings (i.e., a building), administrators are prioritized as decision-makers, or learning progressions are linear rather than networked or spontaneous. Then, you generate solutions that counter these assumptions: mobile classrooms; decision-making via crowdsourcing among students, teachers, parents, and businesses; and families co-learning as they conduct scientific investigations in their community.

Finally, we designed! Note, we did not create a viable prototype (If that happened, we would be on Shark Tank negotiating like CHAMPS!). However, we did outline a roadmap that illustrated the learning possibilities when people (e.g., aunt and niece spending Saturday together) meet places (e.g., fresh food market) and technology enables guided exploration of local communities to (a) gather multimedia evidence, (b) engage residents as experts, and (c) connect social groups to experiment and enjoy earth’s bounties. Yes, our product description is somewhat vague and underspecified (<— we did receive this feedback to attest to the rigor of the competition). And while I won’t share our shade-winning idea (a girl must have some secrets), I will admit, I learned plenty about adventure games, geocaching, avatars, and of course — learning.

Affirmed Participants’ Purpose and Personhood: Clearly, hackathons are intellectual pursuits. These ultimate problem solving sessions promise new ideas and prompt alternate ways of thinking. And for me, these out-of-the-box events provide a more social, and even soulful experience. When we hack, we are imbued with a sense of purpose. For some, the problem statement serves as a goal and offers team members direction as they mash up their expertise and skills. And for others like myself, it is the opportunity to pause and create the space to ask versions of these questions: How will we change our community? How will we help people live better? How will edify each other? As we seek answers, we immediately position ourselves as agents of change and commit to give our gifts, our perspectives, and simply ourselves to each other. It is these occasions that underscore our need for connectedness and shared purpose, and empower us to design a more humane world. —— So, what’s next? Duh, more hackathons! Is there a traveling team that will have me? Until I get recruited or more likely recruit an all-star #bluHack team, I promise to release just a little bit of my #InnerHacker each day.