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8/6/2013
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Kaplan Hackathon Makes Time For Innovation

Test-prep company gives tech-savvy innovators two regular work days to focus on developing new business projects.

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"Back to Hack" -- a tech-themed adaptation of AC/DC's "Back in Black" -- played as 2013 Kaplan Hackathon participants gathered July 31 at Kaplan's New York City offices for a 48-hour innovation marathon. The energy was palpable as inventors sat huddled around computers, eager to begin projects that could change modern technology.

The idea behind the event is to gather individuals who are passionate about technology for the purpose of project development. Many employees lack time to focus on developing their own ideas; the hackathon provides them a 48-hour opportunity to do so. At the end of the event, prizes are awarded and some projects are funded for further development and production.

The first hackathon was a success in 2012, but event organizers strove for improvement in 2013. Instead of solely focusing on ideas from tech developers, Kaplan held an "Idea Jam" earlier this year so that business and media professionals could also submit ideas to be considered for the 2013 hackathon.

Participant Srikar Doddi described how the 2012 event allowed him to collaborate with other employees while producing a social learning platform for students. Most days of the year are spent on work-related projects, Doddi explained. "This was enjoyable because it allowed me to pursue something I have always been interested in."

[ Can a computer really grade writing? Read: Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate. ]

The 2013 hackathon showed a 50% increase in participation from last year's event, with a total of 178 participants broken up into teams of two to 10 individuals. Bernardo Rodriguez, chief digital officer for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, estimated that 50-60% of participants were engineers, along with some business and media professionals.

From July 31 through August 2, the teams worked to bring ideas as close to production as possible. The last day consisted of presentations and final awards. Prizes were awarded for categories such as product usefulness, financial practicality, technical excellence, popularity, flair and closeness to production, and overall winner. Hackathon sponsors Amazon Web Services (AWS) and 10Gen gave prizes for those who best used their software. Winners received a variety of cash prizes. AWS and 10Gen supplemented cash awards with Kindles, Starbucks gift cards and T-shirts.

In addition to these prizes, Kaplan gave Enterprise Awards to projects with enterprise applicability that could extend beyond Kaplan. A total of $50,000 was set aside to give these three projects a start.

Phil Wells of Team Doogie, winners of the Kaplan Hackathon award for tech excellence for its mobile app-testing robot.
Phil Wells of Team Doogie, which won the Kaplan Hackathon award for tech excellence for its mobile app-testing robot.

The usefulness award was given to a product titled "Preserving Academic Integrity of Nursing IT Courses Using ProctorTrack," which uses a biometric scanner for facial and knuckle recognition of test takers. If, during an exam, a student gets up or leaves the test page to Google an answer, the program flags the action and informs the student that behavior is monitored. Such a project would preserve the integrity of Kaplan courses used by schools across the country.

The award for tech excellence went to Team Doogie, which created a robot to test mobile apps. The robot, created with a 3-D printer, is programmed to flag problems in app software through automated human-like motions such as swiping and tapping a screen. Such an invention has the potential to replace the human app testers that pose a high cost to companies.

The popularity and grand prize awards went to KapFlix, which offers online tutorials for students and gives video feedback based on wrong answers. Students can watch multiple video clips that are strung together to provide a logical learning experience.

The hackathon's success shows the potential for innovation within Kaplan, and the company aims to incorporate more technological creativity through regular projects. "We're thinking about how to implement 10% of time for engineers to pursue what they're passionate about," said Rodriguez.

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David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
8/6/2013 | 9:47:21 PM
re: Kaplan Hackathon Makes Time For Innovation
A robot to test apps? Now even our thumbs are obsolete.
Kelly22
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Kelly22,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/7/2013 | 1:17:13 PM
re: Kaplan Hackathon Makes Time For Innovation
I have to say, that project was among the most impressive of the ones I saw. It's amazing what the team was able to do in just 48 hours.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
8/7/2013 | 8:56:22 PM
re: Kaplan Hackathon Makes Time For Innovation
Kaplan is pretty much THE revenue stream for what's left of the post-Bezos Washington Post Company. It'll be interesting to see if these sorts of investments substantially impact the direction of their products.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
8/15/2013 | 8:43:37 PM
re: Kaplan Hackathon Makes Time For Innovation
Inside Higher Ed has a story on Kaplan leaving the Post's orbit http://www.insidehighered.com/...
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