Learning Hackathons Redux 

I have written before about hackathons in the past. This time I am re-thinking some of the lessons Erin and I have learned. Erin Peterschick is my partner in crime with these things. We have been a great team for 3 years now. I have worked on some of these in the past, but we really did some good work in the past year on hackathons in the learning community and in the non-profit world as well. In September, we will be doing it again at Training Magazine’s Online Learning Conference. This will be our largest Hackathon yet! So on to the lessons learned! Here are some points we have learned and have refined for our upcoming hackathons. 

1. Hackathons don’t have to be 24 hours’ worth of hacking! I have done them over the course of a day, and with Erin, we have done them in as few as 2-4 hours. The premises are similar to a full hackathon, but you come away with actionable ideas and a path to get to real world solutions. The point is to get crisp about what you are trying to accomplish, don’t make it too big, whittle away at the outcome you want, then go for it as a group to get to what it will look like. 

2. People want to connect and to collaborate. Sit people at a table and ask them to do things and they will do it as individuals. Give people assigned roles and tell them they need to come up with ideas together, that they only have limited time for each activity in the hackathon and now they need to get crackin! They find ways of getting the information they need, they talk about their challenges and they bring it all together by tackling the hard stuff together. 

3. The roles are important in a group. We have all seen activities that go awry because the facilitator does not set it up correctly (I am guilty), but also if there are no clear roles for people who are needed in a team. For example, we need a scribe in each team. Everyone can take their own notes, but we really want to share out the group's ideas to others. We need someone to help with that effort by taking effective, clear notes. We need a table captain. Someone to take charge, keep people on task, and keep them moving. In our hackathons, we also have a coach for tables or who walk around. These people are hugely important. They keep teams and people from being stuck. They are the ones who are intentionally provocateurs of new processes and believe most challenges can be overcome. They are a catalyst for people to think differently to solve the problems. These and a couple of other roles are hugely important for good learning and action to happen. 

4. Be concise and brief with your idea. In the end of some of our hackathons, we judge the team’s ideas. We sometimes use the “elevator pitch”, which is a very concise way of pitching your idea to the C-suite. I am not a huge fan of long PowerPoint decks because they first 5-6 slides get looked at in an executive presentation, then the meeting gets derailed by questions. We all know you need facts and data to get the project approved, but you also have a short time in the beginning before the executives are going to start diving into the details. You need a way to generate excitement and to show impact up front. 

5. Visualize it! Another way we summarize our hackathons is to have the teams draw out their ideas. This helps get the ideas and the creative juices flowing. This also is a fun way of explaining their thoughts behind the ideas. You often see it from a different perspective when you are drawing it out. For a team, this can be powerful as they see where there are other connections between the ideas and even how to overcome some of the challenges. Pictures add layers and dimensions to the ideas. 

Erin and I have learned much about the world of hackathons through our own mistakes, learning from others, and putting best practices into action. I hope you will join us for a hackathon soon. It will be a fun filled action packed day with lots of good information sharing. 

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How do we create an ecosystem that promotes learning? 

The first question I always ask people, “are you utilizing the internal systems that you already have?” If you first take an assessment of those systems, before you build or look at other systems, you might find that you have many of the tools you already need to help you grow your online learning capacity. 

 How do we partner with other parts of the organization to help us? Why haven’t you been talking to your communications department, other parts of HR, IT, and finance to consolidate information and to help curate good content so people get what they need just in time? It is odd to me, that when I talk to some HR and Learning professionals that there is not more synergy between departments that deal with the same roles within an organization. Too often, we only partner when they want help on a big role out and need training. 

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What will your legacy be? 

My father owned his own plastic fabrication business for many years. I grew up around the shop and would learn things like how to make forming molds and how to bend plastic. I learned through the years, my father’s influence on an industry. Here was a self-taught man, who did not go to college, yet he was very well respected and a pioneer in plastic fabrication. He made sense of the not so easy. For those of you who live or have visited Seattle, you know the Monorail. It makes only two stops. One at a shopping center in downtown Seattle and one at the Seattle Center, home of the World’s Fair in 1962. If you have seen the front windows, they have a curve that is a little hard to describe, but also that are very distinct. There was also the Bubblelator, which was an elevator shaped like a giant bubble, made out of plastic. Imagine trying to create the plans and the means to shape those windows in 1962? He went on to create a type of plastic cement, much like super glue, that would adhere plastic to each other without bubbles being shown, again a feat no one else in the Northwest had mastered yet. He wasn’t a chemist, although I found a couple of chemistry books in his shop. What I realized is, he just figured things out...   

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How to Harness Social Content for Learning 

Technology is rapidly changing, as is the amount of data generated on the Internet every minute. YouTube users upload 48 hours of video, Facebook users share 684,478 pieces of content, Instagram users share 3,600 new photos, and Tumblr sees 27,778 new posts published (According to DOMO analytics)...

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Learning in the Cloud 

Upon meeting new people at conferences or meetings, I often request, “Name something you learned in the last two weeks,” followed by the more compelling question: “How did you learn it?” Inevitably, they answer in one of two ways: through one-on-one coaching or an online resource.

 Learning isn’t happening in classrooms, and collaboration has left the building. The action is online and “in the cloud.” Through our mobile devices, we have constant connection to our e-mail, intranets, the Internet, and other great resources for learning. Consequently, it’s now commonplace to hear someone say, “Hmm. I don’t know. One second, I’ll just Google it.” 

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Future of Learning and Education 

Technology is constantly evolving and changing the ways we live, work, and learn. The ways we approach learning are very different than they were even a decade ago. In order to keep our practices current, we must stay ahead of this technological evolution, and that starts with getting the most out of today’s technology. 

Have you provided on-the-job support for learning, examine the impact of cloud technologies on learning platforms, and discuss how learning platforms can integrate with other enterprise systems? 

You need to examine the increasing role of social media as a means of enhancing informal and social learning and learn how and when to use social and informal learning tools to assist in learning and knowledge transfer. 

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