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What is a Hackathon?

Hackathons are intense, time-bound events where people collaborate in groups to solve significant challenges or problems. They are increasingly being used in higher education as a means of enabling Challenge-based Learning (CBL)

A hackathon actively engages participants/students in a situation that is real, relevant and related to their environment.

Hackathons usually follow the CBL cycle of Engage, Investigate and Act. Each phase is interrelated and elicits learning through the process of collaboratively working towards authentic solutions or recommendations. Hackathons are context-dependent and can be tailored to focus on only one or two phases depending on the learners’ needs, stakeholder requirements and availability of time and resources.


Challenge-based learning cycle followed in a hackathon
Source: ECIU Workshop hosted by DCU (January 2021)

While the duration can vary from 1-5 days, hackathons tend to follow a broadly similar format based on the CBL cycle. Most begin with participants pitching their ideas and possibly outlining their areas of expertise. Once teams are formed, the challenge is refined and the teams investigate the problem to find an appropriate solution. The solution could be technical (such as a working prototype) or it can be based on a set of recommendations (such as a presentation or a report).

Throughout all this dynamic activity, participants are coached and guided by facilitators and mentors from industry or elsewhere who will help to tease out the solution, ask critical questions about audience and objectives, and direct teams to potential resources of relevance. At the end of the event, teams typically present their solutions to peers and often a judging panel. 


Upcoming ‘Activating Active Learning’ Hackathon

The 'Activating Active Learning' hackathon is an exciting opportunity to participate in an education-related hackathon alongside colleagues, expert mentors, and students. The Hackathon will take place on Tuesday, 21 May 2024 from 9.30 am to 3.30 pm on the DCU Glasnevin Campus. The event is being organised for DCU staff who might be interested in hackathons and Challenge-Based Learning (CBL) but have yet to experience such approaches themselves. It is a chance for the staff to engage with and investigate a range of active learning possibilities while gaining hands-on experience in the CBL format. There are a varied range of Challenge topics including Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), Active Learning, Academic Integrity, and Digital Transformation. The participants are encouraged to pitch authentic challenges from their experience. 

The event is being organised by the Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU), DCU Staff can contact organisers Clare Gormley and Lily Girme in case they need further information. Staff can register via registration emails sent out by the Teaching Enhancement Unit.


Why Hackathons?

Broadly, Challenge-Based Learning falls under Pillar 1 of the DCU Strategy 2023-2028, which focuses on a transformative learning experience. This is significant because CBL is being embedded as a core pedagogical innovation in DCU Futures, and a growing number of other programmes across DCU.

A range of disciplines and faculties are embracing the Hackathon format, for example:

  • Each year, the DCU Business School runs a Hack4Change Hackathon. The recent iteration of this had around 800 students from the DCU Business School and Futures programme and featured industry mentors and DCU staff offering feedback and insights on proposed solutions linked to sustainable development goals (SDGs).

  • The annual Interdisciplinary Science Hackathon is another example of a large-scale hackathon in the form of a 2-day online event where 200+ first year chemical sciences students work together to propose solutions to real-world challenges. At the end of the event, they present their challenge and scientific solutions in the form of elevator pitches to a panel of judges.

  • Over the past four years undergraduate and postgraduate students from DCU Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge studying business, management, technology, entrepreneurship, and marketing through the medium of Irish have taken part in a hackathon on Árainn Mhór island off the north west coast of Donegal. This event, the first and only one of its kind, has seen collaboration with islanders, technology experts and mentors from various groups such as Three Ireland,, Donegal County Council, Fóroige, Pleanáil Teanga Árainn Mhór, Hexa studios and others.

  • In 2022, DCU Institute of Education held its own two-day virtual hackathon event called Hack to Transform. This weekend event for postgraduate research students invited participants to solve/hack an education challenge for the 21st Century.
  • Another notable recent hackathon was held in March 2024, with 14 teams of students from the Faculty of Engineering and Computing, Faculty of Science and Health and Faculty of Humanities and Social Science. This inaugural ‘FIRST® LEGO® League’ Hackathon was hosted by the DCU Faculty of Engineering and Computing in partnership with the DCU Engineering Society and CreativeHUT, supported by PWC.


DCU Assessment Hackathon 2022

Relatively few educators have had a chance to experience a Hackathon for themselves. In May 2022, 50+ members of a group of DCU staff joined forces to hack the following big idea: How can we design an authentic and sustainable assessment experience for all?

The practicalities and impact of this event are described in the Irish Journal of Academic Practice article ‘Running a Hackathon for Academic Staff: A case study from DCU’ (O’Riordan and Gormley, 2023).



 This work by DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)