#YouthvsCOVID Hackathon — My Journey Away From the Comfort Zone

by Jordan Partridge

As some of you may know, I recently took part in a Hackathon with Teens in AI organised by Elena Sinel and team, and what an experience!

This is the first Hackathon I’ve ever taken part in, and even then I was very hesitant to join! I have a very small knowledge of programming and absolutely no knowledge of “hacking” in the traditional sense, so I had to be persuaded to join by my good friend Arion.

I’m glad I allowed myself to be persuaded because the last 3 weeks have turned out to be the most beneficial thing I will have done all lockdown. Not only did I get a chance to provide a solution to problems caused by COVID19, but I also had all my myths about what a Hackathon involves completely busted.

Instead of “hacking”, I learned how to be an effective CEO, how to manage a team with an Agile and Scrum technique, how to cold email, how to direct a project to a strict deadline, how to delegate, and most importantly, how to get user feedback and make use of it, and how to be a good leader.

As a team of 5 we developed an “Uber-esque” platform fondly known as OLFA: Online Learning, For All (this name eventually stuck!). OLFA was the result of a brainstorming session in which we asked ourselves the big questions about the COVID-19 crisis: What makes education one of the biggest problems being faced in the world right now due to the coronavirus? How can we fill the gaps in students’ education that a nationwide lockdown has caused? What would make online education much more fluent and smooth?

The solution was proposed by our CTO, Phoebe, who suggested an app or program that could match teachers who are qualified in certain subjects with students lacking in a teacher for that particular subject and implement teaching via online learning during and beyond the context of the pandemic. As one of our backend developers Pralish put it during the brainstorming session, OLFA would become “a kind of Uber for students needing a certain subject teacher”.

One of the key challenges we faced during the hackathon was the business aspect and solving the problems involved in that aspect of our project. None of our team had any previous business experience, so as CEO I was thrust into the deep end, learning about B2C, B2B, and B2B2C approaches to financing our project, as well as researching possible costs, sources of revenue, and sponsorship opportunities with businesses such as MyTutor and CloudLearn in a similar business market to OLFA. We initially decided as a team that a B2B sponsorship approach would be the best option, perhaps taking funding from private schools and outreach programmes of big companies such as HSBC, and we held this view for a long time, while mentors subtly prompted us to rethink!

Having looked into the logistics of various options, it became clear to me that we couldn’t rely on sponsorship to keep our project alive, even if we were to run as a non-profit; there were still hosting costs, salaries to pay, and advertising expenses that had to be paid for somehow. To fix our dilemma, I reached out to some of the experts!

I spoke to James Stanforth, Director of Online Learning at Eton College, about how to make distance learning a real success. I spoke to Stuart Gibson, Managing Director of CloudLearn, and received valuable insight into how online tutoring is done effectively using their business model. I had a call with Simon Hay, CEO of Firefly, and we discussed what type of business model works best for a company like the one we were creating. These conversations led us to a huge pivot in our project right towards the end of the hackathon time frame, and we decided to acquire our project funding through our user base, possibly through a subscription model.

As a team. one of our major worries was creating yet another barrier to education for students from poorer backgrounds, but we came up with a solution that would keep our project running and financially viable, but also provide our service to those who perhaps couldn’t afford it. Our motto is “Online Learning, For All” at the end of the day! The idea was simple; students (or their parents) would pay a subscription fee for example, with the option to add a small donation on top of their subscription that would subsidize or completely remove costs for students from poorer backgrounds. We brought this up with our mentors, who revealed that they had been nudging us towards this approach all along!

If we went on to continue making OLFA a reality, we would consider providing our own online learning materials, or offer one-to-one teaching facilities. Our first goal was to provide core subjects such as English, Maths and the sciences to key years such as those in years 10 to 13, taking their GCSE and A level examinations within the next year, but in future OLFA would branch out to include other subjects across a range of students in key stages 1 through 4 and beyond. Furthermore, we considered incorporating university students into our platform as unofficial mentors or tutors, able to put their experience of GCSEs and A levels to good use and enhancing their own learning by teaching others from younger year groups. This is a route OLFA could consider in the future, and a route we’d love to go down!

We were told at the beginning of the Hackathon that this was “not a school”. We wouldn’t be learning anything here that we would learn in a stereotypical school environment (a good job really, since my school days are now behind me, and the university is much more my style!). Instead, we got a chance to learn soft skills, and to work with industry experts, the likes of whom I would never be able to meet otherwise.

It’s opportunities like these that you don’t get in day to day life. These are the sorts of opportunities you have to go looking for, the sort that come from a “ask and ye shall receive” philosophy only.

So this may have been the first Hackathon I took part in, but it will no doubt be the first of many, and I can’t wait to feel the rush of last-minute preparations all over again in the future! My only bit of advice for you, the reader, is to stretch yourself, put yourself out of your comfort zone.

As Wayne Gretzky puts it so well: “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Jordan Partridge is currently studying Mechatronics and Robotics at the University of Leeds, and has a keen interest in Artificial Intelligence and the accompanying ethics.

Powering the Next Generation of Thought Leaders, Innovators and Technologists in #AI @teensinai #TeensInAI #GirlsinAI #MCStartup2016 Founder @elenasinel