As education departments around Atlantic Canada try to find a solution for the snow day problem, they should consider asking geeks for help.
The pain is obvious. Our students are missing too much time due to the weather, and officials are considering making up the time on Saturdays or holidays.
They might ask tech communities to come up with an online solution that would allow teachers to work with students even when all of them are snowbound at home. It won’t solve things now, but it could be in place by next winter.
Coming up with such a solution is a golden opportunity to act on all the rhetoric we’ve heard about being bold in addressing our myriad problems.
What I’d do if I ran things is host a hackathon with the goal of developing technology that will allow teaching to continue through snow days.
The term is unfortunate because it suggests the participants are hacking into someone else’s website or system. A hackathon is simply a get-together of tech developers at which teams come up with new technology over a few days. Halifax held one in late 2013 at which developers created apps using the city’s open data.
I’d invite programmers and computer science students to such an event. It would be great to also invite a team from the government’s IT staff and some front-line teachers to help develop a product that meets the market need.
The participants would break into teams that would try to come up with the best product to let teaching continue through snow days.
The geeks who show up at these events would have brighter ideas than mine. But what I’d envision is a simple online platform that would allow teachers to work with students while they’re all at their own homes. It could involve Skype or Google Hangout. It could include a scheduling function that would simply line up which students to work with through the day. A simple and pleasing user interface would be essential.
It will also have to account for the greatest hurdle in such a solution, which is the problem of some students not having Internet access or the needed hardware at home. Some students would need to be contacted by phone in this system. Such an endeavour could lead to community drives to buy the necessary hardware for students who can’t afford it.
The upside of such a hackathon is huge. If the solution is implemented, students would get more individual time with their teachers. Students would increase their comfort with online learning. No classes would have to be rescheduled to Saturdays or holidays. Snow days could actually improve the quality of education.
What’s more, if the application has a market in Atlantic Canada, there are likely markets elsewhere. There could be a new company, creating a few jobs in the region.
The best thing about such a plan is it would be a showpiece for the cultural change that the Ivany commission called for. It would require public and private sectors working together for everyone’s benefit. It would draw on the natural inventiveness of the population to solve a problem.
It would teach students that snow days aren’t holidays; they’re just days when you do your work at home.