Beginner’s Guide: How Hackathons work as educational models

Traditional classroom interactions aren’t obsolete, but they can be augmented by embracing the personal communications now available to students through new mechanisms like hackathons, jams and meetups. Hackathons, jams and meetups exist on the premise that participants will self-organize their efforts and develop meaningful projects through structured interactions and communications. Studying how hackathons work promises to validate their use in schools, as well engaging students more deeply than traditional classroom activities alone.

Beginner’s Guide to HackathonWhat is a Hackathon?

Nothing encourages students to brainstorm, pitch concepts, form teams, plan projects and develop prototypes like a hackathon. The creativity, teamwork and problem solving unleashed in a short period of time through collaborative projects at hackathons often stimulates participants to engage more deeply in their professions and academic interests. While hackathons have gained popularity outside of classroom learning environments, they can also add rich layers of interactions to existing class activities.

Hackathon Structure and Observations

The basic hackathon structure can be adapted for use in both meetups and conferences.  A well-run hackathon involves a series of easily replicated steps, yet each one is a unique experience based on the contributions of participants.  

Hackathons can be presented as competitions, celebrations, tributes or any number of other mechanisms that focus participation for some desired purpose.  For an academic setting, this means plan carefully in order to set constraints appropriately.  While a three-day event might prove too taxing for some students, a one-day hack-fest or 4 hour jam can inspire students to set their focus in a way that can last the entire course term.

Hackathons identify participant interests on a number of levels, and can serve as a great way to kick off a course at its beginning.  It’s not unusual for friends to approach an event together, compare notes and determine their approach prior to the event itself. These interactions serve to “open up” a classroom environment, to encourage students to prepare together.

Each hackathon starts with some introductory period where ground rules are described along with criteria for evaluation.  With a goal in place, the main event starts off with participants being asked to identify themselves if they wish to pitch a project to the attendees.    Less-motivated students are given the benefit of the examples and opportunities presented to them while more motivated students are challenged to “up their game” as they recruit their team and develop their approach. 

The short-term nature of a hackathon provides ample opportunity to change course or teams without serious consequences.  Not everyone digs in for the duration, but those who do are recognized by their peers and benefit for their efforts.  Once formed, teams must develop a strategy of what they think they can accomplish and then set about completing their project within the time allotted.

In almost any project, there comes a point where a change of course is required.  Experienced hackathon organizers make sure they have experts available to teams for consultation. In shorter events, teachers can help their student teams develop their class project ideas in a compressed time-frame.

The project “wrap-up” phase amps up the motivation and emotions while at the same time turns the focus towards presenting a finished project to the other attendees and judges.   Each team takes a few minutes to describe the problem they have addressed, their plan of action and the results of their project.  

Once each team has made their short presentation, the judges typically confer in private in order to sort out their top picks. While a 4 hour “jam” might result in hand drawn sketches of concepts, targets, processes and resource requirements, a 4 day event might feature working prototypes.

How Hackathons Work as Ideas for Course Design and Teacher Observation

Picking topics for relevance within a school term can put faculty in the uncomfortable position of establishing context without student input.  But when participants perform at hackathons, observant teachers are given a “heat map” of their interests. Hackathons surface the actions of students through their adoption of roles within teams.  Observing these teams in action reveals a variety of roles that might be called forth again within classroom activities. Unlike traditional assignments, a hackathon is all about students bringing their ideas, their questions, their curiosity, energy and hard work together with others in order to produce something together within an artificially compressed time period. Organizers and teachers are often in motion monitoring, responding to emergencies and offering guidance when asked.  And, more often than not, they are actively observing.

How Hackathons Work as Time Frames for Courses

Four methods of hackathon adaptation lend themselves most directly to a school calendar: one-day hackfests, weekend-long hackathons, and semester long projects. Each of these has been put to use at USV, with positive results. When a course is managed as a hackathon, there’s an emergence of student leaders along with a sense of ownership and professional experience.  As mentioned by these leaders from the “Tangram Jam” Games Studio project:  “This is beyond the scope of a student project: it is industry experience”.

Hackathons expose students to new directions of study and opportunity, and the skills practiced during hackathons can be mastered by experiencing them repeatedly.  Finding projects or experiments worthy of team formation, developing an understanding of what makes teams work well, identifying skillsets of team members, focusing and re-framing projects to meet a deadline, and developing persuasive project presentations are skills worthy not only of a classroom but also throughout their post-academic careers.

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