Are Hackathons The Classrooms Of Tomorrow? My journey to the frontier of education

April 28, 2014, 1:45 am

VT Hacks, 2014.

Last weekend I unexpectedly stumbled into a learning community. It was at a hackathon on my campus called VT Hacks. I was familiar with these types of events at places like Facebook and even in academic libraries, but this was my first opportunity to attend one.

I knew people would be writing code, but I didn’t anticipate the wide range of hardware that they would be programing: quadcopters, glass, Kinect, iBeacons, 3D printers, leap motion, Pebble watches, Fitbits, oculus Rifts, and Raspberry pi. It was eye opening.







I spent a total of ten hours across three days observing and interviewing participants. I knew I wanted to blog about it, but I wasn’t exactly sure what my angle would be.

VT Hacks (which happened over Easter Weekend) drew together over 400 undergraduates from around the country. About 60% were from Virginia Tech and the others came as far as Texas A&M, Florida State, and UConn. It amazed me that all these students would travel to such an out-of-the-way place such as Blacksburg for the opportunity to stay up late and develop websites together. For me that was the guiding question and it took me into the heart of hacking.

My initial thought was that hackathons were becoming the intramural or club sport for the 21st century. Many schools have hockey, rugby, or ultimate freebie teams — recreational student organizations – that travel to other universities and compete.

Hacking, or developing software collaboratively in a very short period of time, is following a similar pattern. Every weekend students travel to different colleges in order to participate in these marathon coding sessions. MHacks is the one that everyone raved about: 1,000+ students from over 100 schools. PennApps and Bitcamp are also major draws. From Purdue, to Pittsburg, to Pasadena, there were 37 of these collegiate hackathons hosted by-students-for-students all across the country during the spring semester.

I became aware of this after seeing students at Virginia Tech organize a bus trip to Detroit (in January) to attend a hackathon. This is an interesting phenomenon; undergrads trekking across the country every weekend to develop websites at other schools. Imagine staying up until dawn in a basketball arena designing a mobile app that will compete against hundreds of students from other colleges. In fact, many schools are starting to recognize these efforts as official student groups. This enables participants to receive financial travel support, just like a club team for volleyball or lacrosse.

Is hacking a sport? Not exactly but there is an “official college hackathon league” with rankings, standings and schedules. Maybe instead of flag football it is more comparable to other intellectual collegiate contests such as mathletes, debate, or design competitions.

How does it work? There isn’t an official format but most college hackathons typically run from Friday at 9PM to 9AM on Sunday. This allows for 36 hours of productivity by undergraduates who are there for the fun of it. No class credit. No professors. No textbooks. No homework assignments. And while there are some prizes, such as laptops and upwards of $1,000 recognition and reputation appear to be the most valuable incentives.

What’s the appeal? According to Ben Johnston, lead organizer of VT Hacks, “hackathons are a gathering of people who come together to celebrate creativity, innovation, and technology.”

When I mentioned my sports analogy to Ben he remarked that the “competition aspect has actually decreased.” In his view the “focus is more on community, learning, and sharing — and less about prizes or winning.” He offered, “hackathons are actually the best form of sportsmanship and it’s not even a sport.”

“College should be a four-year-long hackathon.” Hayden Lee

Hayden Lee, president of Virginia Tech’s Entrepreneurial Club said that the appeal for him is the opportunity to meet and network with others. He views hackathons as a “high density of intelligent people” and that’s what’s stimulating.

When I asked him about the competition between schools he said that “it’s more about the bond between people rather than rivalry—in fact—school rivalry doesn’t matter here at all.”

Others echoed these sentiments. While they were all competing for prizes, there was a definite communal vibe. As I reflect on the experience it seemed more like an eclectic conglomeration of arts festive, science fair, tech expo, and conference, all mashed together.

So was a totally off based with my analogy? While these hackathons had the look of collegiate competitions, that didn’t seem to be the reality. The rankings didn’t matter. (By the way, the University of Maryland won the Fall 2013 season.) It seems the key element was community—enjoying each other’s company and building ideas together.

“Hackathons are the new career fair… at least for computer science.” This came up frequently in my conversations. Sponsors such as Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Rackspace, and other technology companies view hackathons as recruiting events. I heard a handful of stories about people getting hired or receiving venture money due to their output from these events.

I spoke with one of the sponsors and he agreed that hackathons are “one thousand times better than any job fair because you actually get to interact with potential employees. You see how they work, how they think, and what they are passionate about.”

I asked students about career fairs and many remarked that they “didn’t like getting dressed up” or “acting proper” and felt the process was “unnatural.” Tech-oriented students indicated that they preferred hackathon conversations instead because of the more informal setting. Potential-employers likewise noted the limitations of career fairs being that they didn’t get to spend enough time with candidates and that it was hard to “size someone up based on a resume, web portfolio, and sixty-second conversation.”

It seems that hackathons are becoming the new proving grounds for tech professionals. These environments provide employers with the opportunity to see what candidates can do. They get a firsthand look at the skills, attitudes, teamwork, and imaginations of the top engineers, coders, and designers from around the country.

And sometimes they don’t even have to wait for them to graduate. Just like elite athletes leave college early to play professionally, we are starting to see this with elite hackers and entrepreneurs as well. Hackathons, like football fields and basketball courts, provide a platform and the potential for lucrative job offers or startup funding. There is precedent, Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and many others who used college as a launching pad but never finished. Hackathons are providing students with a place to hone their skills, showcase their talent, and catapult their careers.

“The benefit of hackathons is being around likeminded people who bring together different skills, tools, equipment, and experiences,” offered Clarissa Stiles from Virginia Tech, “you won’t find all this anywhere except at events like this.”

Others expressed similar sentiments. The overarching theme was that hackathons created opportunities for people to collide, mingle, and share their knowledge and tools in an open and inviting environment. Isn’t this what we want college to be?

Hayden Lee (VT’s entrepreneurial clubs president) elaborated on this concept: “I’m really into Oculus Rift right now. This hackathon provides me with a chance to meet others working with the same technology. This summer I want to develop some non-gaming applications and this gives me a chance to expand my thinking and to understand the capabilities of the hardware. It also increases my social network.”

I had heard of Rift when Facebook purchased it, but this was my first chance to see the headgear in action. It had that “next big thing” kind of buzz all weekend as seemingly everyone was talking about it. Kent Heckel, an especially enthusiastic attendee, video blogged about using Rift to control a quadcopter —or as he put it: flying a helicopter with your face.

All weekend there was a constant low hum of conversation as students worked on their projects. While most interactions occurred among teams the social barriers were very low. Students would take breaks and wander the arena. Some worked on the basketball court, while other along the concourse level. They enjoyed looking at what others were building and some even offered to help code. This wasn’t about grades or winning—it was about seeing great ideas manifested.

The practice of informal mentorship was common. Hayden explained, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Others will tell you what they’ve learned, what worked and what didn’t. This is helpful and isn’t something you typically learn in school. People here can warn you about what to avoid or what not to do, and prevent you from wasting a lot of time.”

Hayden started college as a mechanical engineering major but after teaching himself how to code using Udacity he switched to computer science. He feels that he “lost a lot of time” with his development because he didn’t have any real-world guidance. “I feel like I am six to twelve months behind where I could be if I had been going to hackathons and learning from people here—learning from their mistakes instead of making them myself.”

As the learning theme became more prevalent a new question emerged: should hackathons count as course credit? I asked a handful of students and they pondered the idea. I could tell that it wasn’t something they had ever considered. But listening to how they described their work and the ways they collaborated it became obvious to me that these were authentic learning encounters. I would argue that a string of hackathons could serve as independent study credit.

“College should be a four-year-long hackathon,” Hayden declared, “it should be required that all first-year computer science students participate in at least one of these.”

This pushed me think differently about classrooms, curriculum, and formal education — and how these hackers viewed the difference between the two environments. Here is a sample of the responses from students at a wide variety of schools:

 “Hackathons are good for the soul because you get to dream a bit rather than just doing mundane problem sets every week.”

“I actually look up to the tech reps more than professors because they are working on the cutting edge of computing, rather than still stuck in the 80’s or 90’s like many of my teachers.”

“At hackathons you can get your hands on a lot of cool technology that you’ll never see in a classroom. And you can do whatever you want with it, there is no linear path.”

“Class can be fun and is even sometimes interesting, but at hackathons you push your limits.”

“College is about mastery of a skill or subject. This here isn’t about mastery. It is about momentum. It’s about getting something started. Something you believe in.”

“Classrooms are less personal. Hackathons are not grounded in grades or academic performance. Here you try something and if it fails or if you lose interest, it doesn’t matter. You can just try something different.”

As I absorbed these comments I kept thinking back to a conversation with a class a few days prior. It was in our SCALE-UP classroom. An impromptu tour interrupted an instructor but he welcomed the dialogue. We asked him about “the future of education” and his response was that simply upgrading classrooms wasn’t the answer—instead he felt that we needed to change what we demand of students. One of his students chimed in that if material was being covered that wasn’t on a test or impacted his grade that he would tune out. He just had too many other things to do so it was a matter of efficiency. Many other students agreed.

Juxtapose this attitude with the hackathon. On one side I have students (and a faculty member) in a progressive classroom setting begrudging the system they perpetuated. On the other side I have hundreds of students from around the country working together for 36 hours straight in an arena on projects they are passionate about. “I’d rather be doing this all day than be in class,” one attendee remarked. When I asked him why he answered, “when I’m here I’m trying to solve real problems and build usable applications—in class it’s all kind of for nothing.”

Another student offered, “we are here to do something because we want to do it, something we are naturally curious about. It’s the discovery of cool things and a bit randomness or unexpectedness.”

Hackathons are indeed somewhat serendipitous by nature because you never know who will be there or what you might encounter. For example, one of the sponsors made several quadcopters available for participants. Many attendees had never seen these before but stepped up to the challenge of hacking them. Another sponsor offered a prize for the “best Raspberry Pi Hack” and another for the best “app that shows value of low latency.” There was even one with a fitness motivation theme. This is what makes each hackathon a little unique because different technologies or categories are presented; going in you don’t know what to expect.

I spent some time with Bob Summers, “Chief Geek” at Fitnet and Founder of TechPad—who I had interviewed previously for my startup paper. Bob served as a sponsor of VT Hacks as well as an advisor. Many of the student organizers told me that Bob’s involvement was essential; he helped deliver wireless access as well as permission to use the basketball court.

I asked Bob about the educational nature of hackathons and he said they were powerful because they gave students “direct experience with problem solving and applied critical thinking in a safe environment where they could afford to take risks.”

He also felt that hackathons were a breeding ground for the entrepreneurial spirit. “Good ideas that emerge here could lead to building a startup or getting hired.” I asked him about the career fair theme and he agreed that hackathon experience was becoming essential for good prospects, “I look for it on resumes.”

I asked Bob about the club sport competition theme and he felt that hackathons were more like marathons or group fitness. “You could run 26 miles around your neighborhood but it isn’t the same as an organized race. This environment is designed to encourage people to do something they couldn’t or wouldn’t do alone.”

Just like marathons, not everyone finishes what they hoped to accomplish. One attendee I spoke with said that this was her third hackathon and that she had yet to get something up and running. “But for me that’s not the point, I’m here to learn.”

Hackathons also present a melting pot for interdisciplinary interactions and engagement. One team from Virginia Tech was composed of majors representing computer science, computer engineering, aerospace, and mechanical engineering. Their objective was to develop a 3D printed maze game that included raspberry pi and leap motion control. Blending their collective skill sets and scavenged electronics they built something they couldn’t do individually.

John Kutz, a member of the team, commented, “hackathons are a perfect example of the hands on, minds on concept that Virginia Tech often talks about.”

It quickly became apparent that I had I ventured into an organic community based on civility, creativity, and knowledge-sharing. While students were exhausted, they never seemed stressed. In fact, the overriding mood was one of optimism. Students were having fun doing something they loved and learning along the way. They also revealed some dent the universe kind of ambitions:

“I’m working on something today that I have never done before.”

“I’m building something that currently does not exist.”

 “All of us here, we are motivated to shape the future of technology together.”

 “We are shaping the future of the web.”

 “This is all very brief. It only lasts for a short time. You have to seize these 36 hours. They are magical”

“When you are at a hackathon, you give yourself permission to try something new. A you try to build something that will be amazing.”

Dominic Bett, a student at Claflin University offered perhaps the most illustrative comment on the learning community concept:

“Learning from each other is a critical piece of the hackathon experience. We get to talk with sponsors and vendors and they enlighten us, they help us discover our interests. In the classroom you learn the basics, the theory, which is helpful and important, but at a hackathon it is up to you and your team. It is a both a personal challenge and group competition. But really it is a chance to find your passion. It is a chance to explore things like Google Glass, gaming, or back-end database development. This is where you find out what you really want to do with your life.”

While writing code and developing apps is the centerpiece of hackathons, they also offer opportunities to work on soft skills as well. Programmers and engineers can gain tremendous insight into the entire process from beginning to end. Working at this rapid pace they are forced to confront their own limitations and to appreciate the skills and abilities that others bring to the table. In short, Hackathons provide holistic view of everything that goes into implementing an idea from scratch.

Over the course of a weekend students learn about collaboration, teamwork, negotiation, project management, time management, interpersonal communication, dealing with setbacks, division of labor, and motivational techniques.

Clarissa Stiles emphasized the importance of sleep management. “It sounds silly but it’s critical. In order to get through this you have to plan everything.”

Another critical component is learning to accurately estimate the time required to complete a project. One student remarked, “Things always take longer than you think they will. Now that I’ve have been to a number of hackathons I’m getting better at anticipating the time commitment and breaking things down into discrete tasks.”

On a related note, another student commented on learning to execute better. “Sometimes the skill set you need doesn’t exist. Or the tool you need has not been built. It might take you ten hours just to figure that out. It can bruise your ego because you want to do everything, but these experience can help refocus your scope.”

Hackathons can also serve as validation. Stephanie Wyche from Claflin University shared, “VT Hacks helped me gain knowledge, but it also reassured my career aspirations to do computer science and engineering. It is sort of like you get to try out and see what it involves in a simulated environment.”

While developing an application the main focus, Hackathons also require strong presentation abilities. Once the hacking is concluded, attendees participate in an Expo at which they provide a two-hour show-and-tell similar to a poster session. Teams or individuals stand beside their computers and demo their work for judges, sponsors, and fellow students.

Many of the attendees were very shy. While their industriousness is evident, their public speaking skills could be further improved. Hackathons provide them that opportunity to build confidence. On the other side of the spectrum, some of them had a commanding presence and charisma. They displayed strong sales skills and were persuasive on why their products are insanely great.

Related to presentations, another critical aspect is creating a sense of spectacle. Over half of the expo demos consisted of one or two guys standing behind a laptop pointing to a screen. I found myself drawn to people who had some type of gimmick or visual aid. This might include setting up a monitor or putting a laptop on a chair on top of the table.

Hardware on display, such as rifts, leap motion, or quadcopters, was a definite draw. One group even included printed copies of scholarly articles that offered insight into a psychological phenomenon they built an app around. In short, not only do students have to build interesting software, but also they need to find ways to get noticed among the crowd.

It seems the ideal team would be: a coder, an engineer, a designer, and a marketer. With the right balance of technology aptitude, organizational and planning skills, as well as sales and presentation prowess, a team would have a fair shot at delivering an amazing product that receives a great deal of attention.

While hackathons offer a nurturing community for participates to build and engage, they also have a ripple effect stretching beyond the intended audience. A few observations:

On the first night a father and son (a high school student) drove up from North Carolina to attend the opening ceremony and check out the action. The son plans on studying computer science and Virginia Tech is one of his top schools. They had visited the campus during the formal process but the hackathon offered greater insight into the CS community. One of the event organizers spent ample time touring them around. I can imagine that having a strong hackathon presence could start to factor into recruiting for computer science and engineering. Students want to go to places where they can have these types of experiences, not just to places with nice labs and classrooms.

Another interesting observation was a proud mother and father walking the arena. They were there to support their son and also brought homemade cookies in for the students to enjoy. One of the nice things about the college hackathon experience is that you get free food and snacks at regular intervals, in fact the whole event is free to attend— but seeing parents giving away cookies just punctuated the generosity that you find within this community.

Another example: when I was talking with Bob Summers (who has a reputation in the community as a tech mover & shaker) a man approached and asked for his advice for getting his nine-year-old son interested in computers. The recommendation that bubbled up was enrolling into coding dojo. This is a camp where kids learn coding basics and start to build interactive websites. I saw the man again during the expo. He brought his son along I watched as he bounced around between the tables enthralled by the action.

One more example. One of the organizers of VT Hacks remarked that they were thrilled they could host a group from Claflin University. He remarked that diversity and inclusion (prominent themes at Virginia Tech) were important to the team and that they re-routed one of the buses to be able to provide transportation to the Historically Black University which included many first-time hackathon participants.


During the closing ceremony I noticed that almost everyone wore VT Hacks t-shirts or shirts from other hackathons or related tech events. I also noticed  laptops covered with stickers from  college hackathons — plastered on likes badges of honor. It struck me that this was much more than just an event: it was a lifestyle.

There is a certain romance to it all. I’ve realized that this wasn’t really about building a mobile app or winning a prize. It was about being someplace special—someplace important. It is about making it to the end and being a part of a nomadic creative community.

Consider the boldness of the act. Every weekend students drive or take buses to different universities in other states. They work long hours on crazy ideas that may or may not work, all while surrounded by hundreds of strangers. Yet there is serendipity and epiphanies around every corner. On the surface these hackathons may sound extremely geeky, but  they are immersive adventures. Not only are these students brilliant, but they are also brave. They embark on these journeys to learn but also challenge themselves.

Every weekend during the semester there is a hackathon (or two) somewhere on a college campus. Right now there is a sense of purity in it. They are run by-students, for-students. And while universities, advisors, sponsors, and community volunteers help, these are student-driven ventures. I hope it remains that way. I fear they could become too commercialized or bureaucratic, or even worse, too standardized and predictable. The element of surprise adds to the unique character of these hacking festivals, and this is vital to their success.

The lasting impression for me was the discernible joy of learning. This was refreshing. There is so much possibility beyond the formality of textbooks and course management systems. We can get distracted with metrics and accreditation-driven learning outcomes, but this experience was something different—it was education in a raw, powerful, and genuinely authentic form.

Students left knowing more than when they arrived. They were inspired—not by faculty or graduate assistants, but by each other. They left knowing what they could do and believing more deeply in themselves. Hackathons are not only skill builders but confidence builders as well. They are a grueling experience that causes you to grow, change, act, and think differently. They are about far more than technology, they are about people and interactions. And most importantly, they are about finding yourself, pushing yourself, and realizing that you can do anything you want .

For more stories , videos, and photos visit the VT Hacks Tumblr

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