In Philadelphia, tackling education with technology

In February, the U.S. State Department's popular TechCamp initiative made its first stop at home. Can it make society more civil? We dropped in to observe.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

PHILADELPHIA -- The streets are hushed and the wind is brisk on this bright Sunday morning in February. At this hour, the sidewalks are mostly empty, but occasionally, a person emerges from one of the brick buildings that line the street and makes their way down the block with head tilted uncomfortably forward into the chilly breeze. A bit further down the avenue, a man huddles in his metal cart, waiting to pour any inquiring passersby a cup of coffee from the steaming pot in front of him. Business won't pick up for a few hours, at least.

Here, this is a typical scene at this time of year -- particularly in West Philadelphia, where the primary destination for most people who dare to venture out into the Sunday cold is a warm pew in a century-old church. For these people, the rewards for their effort are clear: family, friends, some gospel, perhaps coffee and a pastry afterward.

On this morning, almost 100 people have assembled in the building at 35th and Market streets, though they are sitting in a nest of steel girders and glass, rather than ribbed vaults and stone columns. They are visibly enjoying the friends, coffee and pastries present, but they are not here to listen to the voice of a higher power. They are here to devise ways to use technology to improve education in their city.

This is TechCamp Philadelphia, a two-day "unconference" and hackathon where technologists, industry leaders and public sector representatives are tasked with collaborating to fix a major problem. At this year's event, the first in the city, the topic is education. The industry is a pillar of Philadelphia's economy, but the city still lags considerably in educating its own residents. At a time when financial support from all levels of government is evaporating, the opportunity for a technological solution seems apt.

"I was really interested in this intersection of technology and education because I don't think they talk to each other as much as they should," said Claire Robertson-Kraft, a member of Philly CORE Leaders, a grassroots group committed to improving education in Philadelphia, when I asked her why she came.

Indeed, TechCamp began in 2010 as a program under the U.S. State Department's Civil Society 2.0 initiative, an effort that intends to "galvanize the technology community to assist civil society organizations across the globe" by leveraging the latest in information and communications technology advances. 

Noel Dickover, a senior new media advisor for the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy, took the train in from nearby Washington, D.C. to lead the weekend event.

"It's really all about low-cost, easy-to-implement technology," Dickover said. "Let's work with the small groups on the ground who are really getting the work done."

Per the State Department's international mandate, TechCamp events have been held in far-flung locales such as Thailand, Israel, India, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Senegal and Zanzibar -- Philadelphia is the 22nd. Dickover told me that he had just returned from Honduras, where there was a session focused on public safety and security, and would shortly shove off to Mumbai, for another focused on young entrepreneurship.

So why Philadelphia? Is the tech sector really that bad in the fifth largest city in the U.S.? Not at all, Dickover said with a chuckle.

"It's to show other people this model in the U.S. with the hope that they will replicate it across the country," he said, reminding me that domestic development isn't in the State Department's purview. "It's the network effect."

"I'm not trying to change society; I'm trying to enable others to," he added. Then he scurried off to give his introductory address.


Things really got going once attendees broke into smaller groups assigned to tackle one of 15 key issues that were proposed and edited the day before. The groups were ad hoc; attendees were encouraged to join a group with an issue they felt passionate about, or had the experience to help solve. At the end of the day, each group would be asked to present their solution to the larger crowd.

Some groups tackled big ideas; others, small issues that were a regular barrier to productivity.

For example, one group took on the challenge of coming up with solutions for finding and collating performance data on charter schools so that it can be compared to that of public schools; Patricia DiLella, a senior IT executive for the School District of Philadelphia, joined that one. Another group was assigned to improving the communication channel between students' teachers and their parents; one elementary school teacher who joined this group told an amusing anecdote about her inability to get in touch with the parents of a puking child.

Each group took a room in the sprawling URBN Center at Drexel University and dug its heels into their issue. I followed groups seven and ten, which agreed to merge to come up with ideas for ways that technology could be used to connect teachers to online resources -- including each other -- that could help them improve their instruction.

The eight of us pushed a few tables together, introduced ourselves, and got down to business. Group members were diverse in background: one man was the director of the PA Alliance for STEM Education; one woman was the directory of technology at a local charter school; two were school teachers; two were policy consultants. Oh, and one fellow was a journalist for a business technology publication named ZDNet.


With dry erase board on hand, the group hashed out ideas. Perhaps schools should structure professional development days for instructors, one said. Maybe there could be a professional online database that collected course materials, particularly in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- subjects, another suggested. What if there was a social network that could connect instructors in a more distributed, less centralized way? a third asked. The ideas came barreling out, but the group was soon exhausted and TechCamp's leaders called a break for lunch. We and the others would have to reenergize and regroup.

And so it went on, for the rest of the afternoon. Ideas were honed into action items. Questions were asked of each other. And as the winter sun began to set over Market Street, presentations were made to the rest of the group.

Did each group successfully solve its problem? Not quite, but that wasn't entirely the point. After a day of drinking coffee and eating pastries and generating ideas and swapping business cards, there were many more friends with common interests than there were two days prior. Education experts and technology types were more familiar with each other; community ties were stronger. And there were plenty of fresh ideas to expand upon at a later date.

Brian James Kirk, co-founder of technology news network Technical.ly and co-organizer of the event, said it was all part of the plan. Thanks in part to its format, TechCamp gives participants an equal voice.

"It's a more focused unconference," he said. "It's not dominated by technologists. It's embedded with technology."

Photo illustrations: Andrew Nusca/ZDNet

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