West Philadelphia recently hosted a meeting where education and technology experts came together to redesign the city's academic system from the bottom up using tools made possible by the proliferation and declining price of technology. The gathering was called TechCamp Philadelphia – a so-called "unconference" – and among the attendees were tech experts, industry leaders, and education advocates and public sector representatives, all with the goal to improve the education of each Philadelphia student.
"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.
Surprisingly, the meeting is not being held under the auspices of the Education Department. When it first started in 2010, it began as a program under the U.S. Department of State and its Civil Society 2.0 Initiative, which calls on the private actors in the technology community to put their effort, expertise and knowledge towards solving a civic need.
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.
The ideas really started flowing once the opening addresses were over and the attendees broke down into smaller groups. One group tackled a project that could make a real difference now that more states are embracing school choice agendas. The participants were looking for a way to use charter performance data to allow them to compare charters against public schools in their areas. Leading the effort was Patricia DiLella, a senior IT executive for the School District of Philadelphia.
Another group tried to create a solution that would ease the way of communications between parents and their children's teachers.
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.