The Evolution Of The Hackathon – Part I

In their early days, hackathons and design jams were touted as the place for innovation. How could they not be? Pile together a bunch of computer scientists and software engineers, add coffee and snacks, and presto change-o, you’ve got a shiny new solution to any number of life’s biggest challenges. Because solutions and innovation are just that easy, right?

This week, the University of Guelph will host the 3rd Improve Life Challenge (ILC) – the 12th hackathon/design jam that I’ve co-organized1. Looking back on the first hackathon I helped organize, it’s very clear to me that these events have evolved significantly. Specifically, they have transitioned from relatively unstructured extra-curricular activities, to highly curated community-engaged co-curricular2 events complete with specific learning outcomes and curriculum.

With the ILC fast approaching, I thought it made sense to reflect on exactly how hackathons (at least at the University of Guelph) have evolved. And since there is a lot to discuss, I’ve opted to spread my reflections over several posts.

In The Beginning

Originally, the hackathons that I attended or organized were mostly unstructured events that tended to be the domain of the computer scientist and software engineer. The events were well organized, but save for team-building activities to keep morale and energies high during the course of a 48-hour weekend adventure, I failed to see much in the way of curated skills development. There were no specific learning outcomes, and little to no thought put into developing a curriculum. Participants were presented a theme, told to form teams, and then get down to business hammering out a solution as quickly as possible, with little in the way of guidance.

And the solutions that came from these events, while often flashy and cool, were almost always prototypes for slick mobile apps that were meant to be the next start up. Venture capitalists and angel investors often watched these events to discover the next idea in which to invest. Companies were founded – flourishing quickly or collapsing under the weight of shifting market demands and the need to provide a return on investment.

Startup Weekend Guelph
Startup Weekend Guelph. Photo courtesy of CBaSe.

However, I’m not convinced that many of the solutions created during the early days of hackathons were necessarily solving problems beyond simply increasing convenience for their intended users. This isn’t to say that these solutions were bad. Many jobs were created and money was made, and it doesn’t take much to realize how our behaviours have changed as a result of convenience solutions. Consider, for example, how Uber, Skip The Dishes, Instacart, and other such apps have modernized their respective industries by selling the promise of convenience and our release from the burdensome shackles of everyday life. But considering the collective brain power and energies of the people attending each hackathon, the early events seemed to miss out on the opportunities this could provide.

At least until event organizers and/or sponsors recognized the potential of channelling the collective brains and energies of a group of computer science and software engineering students to industry-specific challenges. I would suggest that this was a time where many assumed that tech could and should be used to solve every problem. Whatever the case, industry experts began to take a larger role in the events; not simply acting as judges, but providing expertise from the field so that solutions could be developed in a more meaningful manner.

Again, however, I think many of the solutions that were developed during these events were still struggling to be the next big thing, the next multi-million dollar start up, the next recipient of angel investment; shiny apps to improve efficiencies or convenience. An ethos of promise big enough to get bought out seemed to pervade. And still the events had no formal learning outcomes or curriculum. Students were not given any particular guidance to work well in teams, to develop interdisciplinary skills, or to integrate lived experience and other ways of understanding the problems they were solving. And they remained mostly the domain of computer science and software engineering folks.

As time went on, my colleagues and I began asking if this was the best approach3, at least for the hackathons we offered at the University of Guelph. Could we do more to provide students a better experience? Could we foster foundational4, design thinking, and interdisciplinary skills? Could we break down institutional silos by opening up our hackathons to the diversity of thought and knowledge systems available on most campuses? Could we work more directly with community partners to capture their lived experience and expertise to tackle complex social issues? Could we move hackathons from the realm of extracurricular events to a co-curricular structure? Could we further transition to a fully curricular event to be as inclusive to as many students as possible? And could we measure the impact on students and community partners?

With these questions in mind, we began to rethink the way we delivered our hackathons. More importantly, we began to experiment with their design; opening the doors to more students and a variety of community partners. We developed learning outcomes and curated curriculum to shift the events to be co-curricular in nature (and in several cases, completely embedded in course curriculum). We explored ways to provide students and community partners with support both pre and post event. And we began to evaluate the impact of these events on students and community partners.

In the next post, I’m going to describe what happened when we opened the doors to more students. And over the course of the next week or so, I’m going to attempt to describe the other changes we’ve made to hackathons – some good, some not so much. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and hear about the experiences you’ve had in this space.

1 Open Data Hackathon (2014), Startup Weekend Guelph (2014), Food Waste Hackathon (2014), NetZero Hackathon (2015), Startup Weekend Guelph (2015), Feeding 9 Billion Challenge (2015), Feeding 9 Billion Challenge (2016), GuelphHacks for Mental Health (2017), Feeding 9 Billion Challenge (2017), The Improve Life Challenge (2018), The Improve Life Challenge (2019), The Improve Life Challenge: Hack the Farm (2020).

2 What’s the difference between extracurricular vs co-curricular? There’s a nice summary here. For me, extracurricular means an event that doesn’t necessarily have curricular goals or learning outcomes. Co-curricular events are those that have defined learning outcomes that build on the skills that have been developed in class, or have a curriculum to develop additional skills. While the definition is a bit fuzzy, I think it’s based on intention – am I developing this event with specific activities to achieve a desired set of learning outcomes, or am I developing this event because it provides the students with a unique opportunity without the need for a curated curriculum? If the former – it is co-curricular. If the latter, it is extracurricular.

3 The call extended beyond the feasibility, utility, and need for the “solutions” that were proposed (i.e. were they even solving a real problem?) to include questions pertaining to 1) the health and wellness of students asked to participate in 48 hour events where they were pumped full of caffeine and sugar, and often didn’t sleep, 2) industries simply seeing this as a way for cheap research and development; making money on the backs of students, 3) whether students were developing any useful skills during these events, and 4) whether or not our events were inclusive enough.

4 Often referred to as soft skills, this includes communication, critical thinking, problem solving, bias recognition, etc.

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