GreatSchools Takes Silver at Gates-Facebook Hackathon

GreatSchools recently participated in and won 2nd place at HackEd, an inspiring 1-day education “hackathon” sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, CA.  College Summit and King Center Charter School co-sponsored the event.

The goal of the hackathon was to encourage developers, education experts, and nonprofits to prototype Facebook apps that help low-income and first-generation students get into and graduate from college.  HackEd was also the official kickoff for the College Knowledge Challenge, a broader challenge issued by the Gates Foundation with 30 more prizes totaling $2.5M.

More than 150 people attended HackEd, including representatives from organizations such as iMentor, 4.0 Schools, EverFiMytonomy, Unigo, and more.

(From left to right: Ben Rabidou, Marco Morales, Karissa Sparks, Gretchen Anderson)

I represented GreatSchools, along with Gretchen Anderson, our VP of Product. We joined forces with Ben Rabidou and Marco Morales from to form the “College Dream Board” team, one of approximately twenty-two teams in all.

To get started, we were instructed to focus on one of these three challenges:

  1. Pathways: Help students build, test, and implement personal academic pathways that grow out of college-career aspirations and are supported by informed decision-making.
  2. Building Peer Groups: Help students build social capital and a college-going peer group.
  3. College Admissions, Selection and Aid: Tackle information asymmetries in the college admissions, financial aid, and college selection processes that disadvantage low-income and first-generation students.

Our team addressed challenge #1.  In six short hours, we prototyped an app called the “College Dream Board.”


Designed for teens aged 13-17, the app offers a fun, highly visual, social way for youth to envision themselves as college-going students. Once a teen has the app, she is prompted to add milestones in three areas:  Passions, Strengths, and Skills.  She can also invite her close friends, family, and alumni from her high school or colleges of interest into her personal “Dream Team,” a circle of supporters who provide information and encouragement as she builds her Dream Board – the collection of all her milestones. It’s like Pinterest, but it exists within the Facebook environment and focuses specifically on the student’s individual education journey.

HackEd was a great experience, and in my opinion, we were all winners.  We learned a lot from one another and were spurred on by wall-sized banners featuring  mantras like “Focus” and “Move Fast and Break Things.” Here are three lessons our team took away from the event:

  1. Focus. The best ideas were the ones that focused on a single value proposition or killer feature and then drove it home. Apps that weren’t well-defined or tried to do too much were less memorable — and less successful.   
  2. Be bold.  The smartest thing our team did was to step outside our comfort zone and risk rejection early by sharing our idea with a pitch coach first thing in the morning.  He helped us hone our idea by asking some hard questions, and we incorporated his feedback.  We also  talked to high school students who were there  to provide  real-time feedback (they were tougher than the judges!), and we listened to what they had to say.  Rule #1 in designing great products: talk to your “customers” early and often. We pitched something that was unexpected, and we were willing to make quick adjustments on the fly if necessary.
  3. Done is better than perfect.  Several teams had interesting ideas, but didn’t leave time to design their prototypes. Others had too much to say and were unable to get to the end of their pitches in the allotted 3 minutes.  If there is one thing we know from building digital media solutions—and HackEd was a great reminder of this—it’s that we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. The 6-hour time constraint forced us to get to the heart of the matter quickly and to create a finished product – minor flaws and all.

So what’s next?  Now that we’ve had a taste of hackathons—HackEd was our first ever—we’re converts. Next up: GreatSchools will be participating in the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC) Camp in California this December.  Read more about it here.  After that, who knows? We might just issue our own hackathon challenge in 2013. Stay tuned!

Related News Coverage:

Gates Foundation to award $100,000 grants for college apps [CNN Money]

Tech powerhouses hold hackathon for students [ABC 7 KGO-TV Bay Area]

Inside the Facebook Hackathon: What’s Next? [NBC Bay Area]


GreatSchools is the leading nonprofit providing high-quality information that supports parents pursuing a great education for their child, schools striving for excellence, and communities working to diminish inequities in education. We are the only national organization that collects and analyzes data from all 51 state departments of education and the federal government to provide analysis, insights, and school quality ratings for parents, partners, researchers, and policymakers. Over 49 million users visit GreatSchools’ award-winning website annually to learn about schools in their area, explore research insights, and access thousands of free, evidence-based parenting resources to support their child’s learning and well-being.

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