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Organising Hackathons in Education

Hackathons are powerful tools that offer students an opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world challenges.


Rakhshanda Khan

senior lecturer
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 07.05.2024

Hackathon is a time-bound event of short duration, usually 24 to 48 hours, where participants come together to solve a particular problem. Hackathons started off as codefests, social coding events that brought together computer programmers to build a new software programme (Briscoe and Mulligan 2014). However, hackathon is no longer limited to software projects (Tauberer 2014). Nowadays, it emerges as an effective approach to encourage innovation in several fields, including academia.

Over the last five years, I have participated in several hackathons, either hosted by Haaga-Helia or other universities in Finland. However, numerous universities around the world are unfamiliar with hackathons and are less likely to use it in their courses. Recently we hosted an online hackathon, drawing participation from educators across various European universities to gain insights into hackathon methodology.

Hackathon Planning and Preparation

Through our conversations with educators globally, it is evident that orchestrating a hackathon poses some challenges.

Once an educator has decided on organising a hackathon, several decisions have to be made.

  • The educator makes decisions regarding resources, duration, format and rules of the hackathon. For instance, arranging smaller prizes, ensuring internet connectivity, deciding on the target audience.
  • The educator defines a suitable challenge for the hackathon, which needs to be communicated to the students. The challenge serves as a broad theme or overarching concept for students to innovate within.
  • The educator determines the suitable tools and templates that students work on during the hackathon. These templates can vary depending on the field of study. For example, in entrepreneurial hackathons, templates such as Business Model Canvas and Value Proposition Canvas work well.
  • The educator decides the venue, in case the hackathon is organised onsite while online hackathons require selecting a suitable online platform. In case of an onsite hackathon, a venue with large open space is required, where the participants can work. Refreshments must also be organized, requiring allocation of funds. In cases of limited funding, online hackathons are a viable option

Five steps for an educator to follow

Step 1: Opening

The educator begins the hackathon by introducing the nature of the event. Introduction to the overarching theme and its significance are important so that students understand the broad topic. The educator also introduces the templates and tools that students will utilize throughout the event.

Step 2: Team formation

Team formation can be done either during a course or it can be done on the actual day of the event. The most important thing to consider is, that the teams are diverse in terms of both skills and backgrounds. This encourages diverse perspectives and leads to more innovative solutions. The size of the team also needs to be determined. Generally, a team size of 5 students is considered ideal, although the educator can adjust the size based on the overall size of the class.

Step 3: Team activity

Each team first engages in brainstorming and ideation. The educator coaches the teams and facilitates brainstorming sessions emphasizing the importance of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. The educator provides the necessary templates and the students engage in the actual hacking process guided and coached throughout the process. Each team works on the challenges for one whole day, pitches the ideas during day 1 and receives feedback. The students develop their idea further.

Step 4: Pitching, judging and selecting a winner

Generally, a final pitching session is organised on the second day. A team of educators can act as judges. Each team delivers a final pitch and presents the solution in front of the jury that evaluates each pitch and selects the team with the best idea as the winner. The winner team is awarded with a small prize.

Step 5: Reflection and learning

The educator and students reflect on their experiences during the hackathon. They discuss the challenges encountered during the hackathon, along with the best practices. Students reflect on their learning and educators ensure that they integrate these experiences into future lessons.

We encourage educators to explore the hackathon

Incorporating hackathons in education can offer several advantages as they encourage creativity, foster collaboration, enhance problem-solving skills and offer hands-on learning experiences for students. Hackathons are powerful tools that offer students an opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world challenges.

Based on our experience of planning and executing numerous face-to-face and online hackathons at Haaga-Helia, my colleagues and I believe that all educators should consider trying hackathons in their teaching as long as it aligns with the educational goals.


Briscoe, G. and Mulligan, C. 2014. Digital Innovation: The Hackathon Phenomenon. Queen Mary Research Online. UK. Accessed: 16 April, 2024.

Tauberer, J. 2014. How to run a successful hackathon. The hackathon guide. Accessed: 16 April, 2024.

Picture: Shutterstock