You have probably done eLearning development in any of several different ways. These might include: individual contributors working alone or as a member of a project management task force; teams organized around specific sub-tasks; brainstorming; crowd-sourcing. But what about hosting a hackathon as a design and development approach for eLearning?

A hackathon, you say? What’s that?

A hackathon is an event in which programmers, designers, and others collaborate on a development project, frequently involving software development but also for instructional applications, and even (with less technical input) for civic and social purposes. Hackathons aren’t new; according to Wikipedia, the developers of OpenBSD and the marketing team at Sun coined the term to describe two events in 1999.

Hackathons usually have a specific focus and can last from a few hours to several days, with participants working in the same physical location during that time. Participants may work as individuals or in teams, and at the end of the hackathon it is usual for them to present their results as a “pitch” to a panel of judges. Participant incentives generally include cash prizes or merchandise: hardware and software.

Participants can come from a variety of backgrounds; in fact, it’s better if they do. Diversity is important in a hackathon. In an eLearning development context, some participants would know how to write code or to use authoring software, some would be graphic designers, some managers, some instructional designers, some software engineers, and so on.

What are the benefits of doing development this way?

Hackathons offer unique benefits, including going beyond those that brainstorming and crowd-sourcing provide. In addition to getting a project started quickly, hackathon benefits include the establishment of communities of interest within companies, between companies, and in the developer community at large. Hackathons can be in-house or they can be public. For the hosting company, a public hackathon can be a recruiting tool. Public or private hackathons can be a means of identifying individuals with the talent the organization needs for particular projects. Contacts with local developers can also be significant for the organization.

Needless to say, there are reciprocal benefits for the attendees: cash or merchandise prizes, finding a job, making a lateral move, or getting a contract gig. In addition, participants can benefit from peer-to-peer learning and networking. Coming in first isn’t the only reason talented people participate.

Although a hackathon is a very effective way to kick-start development, it is not necessarily a one-time event. In fact, there are advantages to conducting follow-on hackathons to continue the development process from basic design to actual code, creation of media, dealing with change management issues, and internal or external marketing of the resulting instructional products.

At the end of this article, I’ve included some links to resources that may help you decide whether a hackathon would be appropriate for your situation, and guidelines for putting one together. But at this point, I’d like to offer an example of a hackathon applied to eLearning, specifically to high-level design of a gamified approach to certification preparation.

The Certification Game

The Certification Game Hackathon took place November 15, 2014, sponsored by The Certification Game, an Austin, Texas startup company which aims to provide online asynchronous courses for people to prepare for various professional certifications. The company plans to incorporate games and gamification concepts in its courses to make them more engaging, to facilitate learning, and to improve learner results—more certifications, achieved in less time. The concept is “Serious learning, not so boring.” Their intent is to raise the middle class, by helping people to get certified, progress in their careers, and advance to a better job. (Full disclosure: one of the founders of The Certification Game is Ron Muns, who is on the board of The eLearning Guild, the parent company of Learning Solutions Magazine.)

What happened in Austin?

Ron Muns and Cole Leslie, founders of The Certification Game, invited software and game developers from Texas, particularly the Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth areas, to participate. They decided to offer a prize of $1,000 for the best solution presentation delivered at the end of the hackathon. They picked four judges (I was one of them).

A total of 27 developers accepted the invitation, and each of those individuals received a copy of the certification objectives for a specific professional organization, together with a description of the goal of the session, the prize, and the venue.

On the day of the hackathon, which ran from noon to 5 PM on a cold, rainy Saturday at the Capital Factory in downtown Austin, eight participants arrived. It’s not uncommon for 30 percent to 75 percent of people registering for a public hackathon to not attend, so this wasn’t a bad showing, especially considering the weather. A hackathon is about doing serious work in a relaxed setting, without becoming a social event in and of itself or a consensus activity.

Kicking off the event

Ron and Cole opened the hackathon by explaining the aims of the company and the goal of the event. Ron reflected:

Many of you get pressured to build a course, and another course, and another course, and you never get to do it the way you’d like. Some of the fun-based approaches, the immersive learning, you don’t have time to do. What we want to do, for one certification after another, is build five to ten certifications to start. We will bring people on board, subject-matter experts and curriculum developers, to do that, according to a scalable, workable model which you are going to help us create today. And after that, we will be able to continue building many more certification courses. But this is Day One: finding the right methodology.

Participants signed a copy of the very simple agreement with The Certification Game; the text barely took up a half page. All participants and the company have the right to use anything created during the hackathon. Participants agreed, however, not to develop a training program focused on certification, and that the logo of The Certification Game belongs to the company.

The four judges were introduced. The judges all had backgrounds relating to learning, in instructional design, coding/authoring, management, and psychology or human behavior.

Who were the participants?

All of the participants had two things in common: they enjoy building things, and they enjoy designing and/or building games. Other than that, they came with different backgrounds and different interests:

  • Dennis and Leah Bartlett, husband and wife, worked as a team; Dennis is an NGS engineer and software evangelist, and a website designer for 17 years. Leah is a graphic designer and blogger.
  • Alvaro (“Call me Al,” he said) Montoro, software engineer and developer, experienced hackathoner. Al has developed HTML5 games for classroom use.
  • Kelly Burns, eLearning facilitator, instructional designer for drillinginfo in Austin (software platform for the oil and gas industry), with experience in assessment design.
  • Heidi Ratzlaff, designer of games that involve physical pieces and movement, currently working on games that use wooden pieces and boards, with an interest in games from centuries past, puzzles, and games that teach without seeming to (stealth teaching).
  • CC Cooper, experienced in building and managing training teams and in course design. She is moving into talent development from training. CC attended mainly to observe the process and because she thinks the concept of using games to teach is “amazing.”
  • Calvin Bench and Michael Crowther, computer science students at the University of Texas with a background in graphic design and an interest in UI/UX design, also worked as a team.

The details

After the participant introductions, Cole and Ron provided a few final details:

  • Participants were not expected to do coding, although that would be acceptable; Leah Bartlett characterized this hackathon as a “design-a-thon.” The design was what was desired.
  •  The model for The Certification Game is different from the models for Khan Academy, Udacity, Lumosity, etc. It was clear that Cole and Ron admire those companies, but they want to be different from them—and better. The differences were explored briefly.
  • Ron gave an overview of the more than 260 learning objectives in the help desk certification standard provided to the participants, how certification standards are developed (for example, “What should a front-line analyst know?”), and an overview of the hackathon objectives.
  • The games for The Certification Game should teach content and help memory retention and focus, rather than being “learning theory” games.
  • At the end of the hackathon, participants would be expected to present their ideas. The prize decision would be made over the weekend and announced on Monday.

At this point, the three and a half hours for the hackathon began. Pizza, snack food, and beverages were available in the back of the room. The room was nearly silent the whole time, just the occasional quiet comment, soft chuckle, or murmur of satisfaction as ideas came together.

Ron commented,

With the intent set to create a clever way to design online courses that incorporate games or gamification, participants had a challenge ahead of them. This is a complex problem for several reasons. It is a challenge to make asynchronous learning more engaging and interactive, as there are no instructors, and the course content is entirely pre-determined. Another tough task is in creating something that delivers on the hype that gamification is currently garnering. Designing a course that uses more than badges and leaderboards in order to make on-demand courses that people actually enjoy, and that are not just a chore or job requirement, is not easy.

Presentations and the winner

At four o’clock, Cole called time, and the presentations began. Ron and Cole provided this summary:

The results were interesting and diverse. Calvin Bench and Michael Crowther came up with an idea to hold an event-based course and coined it “Certify.” Imagine employees coming together to go through a course that is modeled like an Easter egg hunt. Using their smart phones, participants follow a map to different “eggs” located around a space. Each egg is a learning objective of the course. Participants study and are quizzed on the content of that station either by planting the hardware there, or by deploying iBeacons. One great feature of this style of course is that it gets learners moving. Research has shown that movement enhances learning.

Another great idea came from Heidi Ratzlaff. She proposed basing a course on humor, and offering personalization. What type of joke do you like? What are your preferred colors? Do you never want to hear that annoying sound again? Those were some of the questions she proposed, all in an effort to give learners a more personalized and humorous experience.

In the end, the $1,000 grand prize was awarded to Kelly Burns for her idea “Trial and Error.” This course design methodology is based on Choose Your Own Adventure-type books. In this style of course, participants are presented with multiple options for a problem or question and, depending on the option they choose, the course will take a different direction. A particularly clever aspect of this course design is that it makes the learner want to repeat the content several times in order to know what would happen had they made a different choice at certain junctions. They become intrinsically motivated to repeat the course and, as we all know, repetition is the father of learning. Mixed with her recommendations for tools and LMS’s, Kelly’s idea resonated best with the judges.

These brief explanations describe the basics of three of the course designs, and there were nuances and details of each that made all the submissions impressive. There were also several other great designs from some very intelligent and talented people, and the positive and collaborative spirit of the event made for a fun time.

Some advice from the hosts of the Certification Game hackathon

To close, Ron and Cole would like to offer a few tips on what they found to be good practices for running a hackathon:

  • Use event marketing sites—Eventbrite, Meetup, and ChallengePost are all great places to post a hackathon.
  • Expect 40 to 50 percent turnout—experience shows that only a certain percentage of registered participants will actually show up. This was confirmed at our event and repeated by Capital Factory staff, who have hosted many hackathons.
  • Don’t overwhelm with detail—keep it as simple as possible, and stay general, if you can, so that you do not lose attention or hinder creativity.
  • Offer a clear deliverable—even while keeping things simple and general, make sure to be specific on what the final outcome will look like.
  • Let participants present their ideas—rather than just having them submit their work for review, take the time to have them present. This way, they get to fully explain their ideas, and the other people at the hackathon get to benefit from hearing different ideas.
  • Offer plenty of food and drink—if you are asking for participants to work for free, don’t get cheap on the fuel.
  • Make it fun—asking people to give up time after work, or on a weekend, is tough, so keep it relaxed and fun; it’s not supposed to be like work, even though it is work.

More hackathon guides and tips

Why host a hackathon:

Hackathon costs/benefits:

Tips on organizing a hackathon:

Planning and running a hackathon:

Advice on Quora:

Advice on education-focused hackathons:


Regular follow-up get-togethers: