Students thrive on Digital Inclusion Challenge

A team of six students from UCC and BSS tackled a digital hackathon under the aegis of Middle Years Programme design teacher Lynda Yearwood —  and came away from the experience ready for more.
The Digital Inclusion Challenge was sponsored by, a Toronto-based digital transformation company. Team leader Jefferson Ding, Year 10 classmate A.J. Shulman and Year 11 students Robbie Evans and Joshua Li formed the UCC portion of the team for the COVID-19-related challenge that required students to create a response to the fourth United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Teams were allotted 10 days to come up with a solution. 
“Students feel connected to the challenge because they have been directly impacted by COVID-19,” says Yearwood. “It has been forcing changes to education worldwide and many of these changes may affect the educational experience long term.”
The UCC-BSS team was among 150 university and high school teams from across the globe that participated in the challenge. Although they didn’t place in the Top 10, the students were pleased with their solution and eager to continue refining it. They also enjoyed the hackathon experience.
“We went through a huge list of ideas and solutions we thought would have been great research directions with huge potential, but we wanted something practical,” says Ding. “Other teams took a more theoretical approach.”
The team created COLAB-R, an online social media platform that allows students from all educational backgrounds to connect online with activities that are both instructional and fun. Participants choose pursuits related to English, music, coding, or film, and are randomly grouped with others. Activities include creating a story one sentence at a time, or writing code to solve a particular problem. As well as being scholastic, the platform helps alleviate pandemic-related social isolation. 
“It’s a mashup of fun and creativity where you can interact with others,” says Ding. “If you find someone interesting, you can wave at them and create a connection on the platform. It could be the start of a friendship.”
Adds Shulman, “We’re creating an environment to meet new people in a structured way. It’s like meeting someone in school. It gives you something to talk about and fun things to do.”
To get the platform ready in time for submission, the students divided up the tasks, such as market research and coding. Not only did they meet their deadline; they also produced a 10-minute YouTube video explaining and demonstrating their product — all while juggling classes and other commitments.
The team members plan to continue refining their platform in order to introduce it to a wider audience in 2021. They’re buoyed by the experience and willing to be part of future hackathons.
“I felt fortunate to have the experience of going through an accelerated development process with such passionate people,” says Evans. “I learned a lot about all of the necessary phases.”
Shulman agrees. 
“This was very valuable and I would do it again,” he says. “It was great to make an actual product that we can continue to work on.”
Li adds, “The challenge was still very much meant to be a learning opportunity for us this year and we will definitely use what we learned to build a stronger pitch next year.”
Ding plans to ensure COLAB-R is more widely available, but he’s also eager to participate in more hackathons, involving as many fellow students as possible.
“The future is extremely bright, and it’s ours to explore,” he says.
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