Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Hack.edu: Examining How College Hackathons Are Perceived By Student Attendees and Non-Attendees

research paper summary
Hack.edu: Examining How College Hackathons Are Perceived By Student Attendees and Non-Attendees. Jeremy Warner and Philip J. Guo. ACM International Computing Education Research conference (ICER), 2017.
College hackathons have become popular in the past decade, with tens of thousands of students now participating each year across hundreds of campuses. Since hackathons are informal learning environments where students learn and practice coding without any faculty supervision, they are an important site for computing education researchers to study as a complement to studying formal classroom learning environments. However, despite their popularity, little is known about why students choose to attend these events, what they gain from attending, and conversely, why others choose *not* to attend. This paper presents a mixed methods study that examines student perceptions of college hackathons by focusing on three main questions: 1.) Why are students motivated to attend hackathons? 2.) What kind of learning environment do these events provide? 3.) What factors discourage students from attending? Through semi-structured interviews with six college hackathon attendees (50% female), direct observation at a hackathon, and 256 survey responses from college students (42% female), we discovered that students were motivated to attend for both social and technical reasons, that the format generated excitement and focus, and that learning occurred incidentally, opportunistically, and from peers. Those who chose not to attend or had negative experiences cited discouraging factors such as physical discomfort, lack of substance, an overly competitive climate, an unwelcoming culture, and fears of not having enough prior experience. We conclude by discussing ideas for making college hackathons more broadly inclusive and welcoming in light of our study's findings.
@inproceedings{WarnerICER2017,
 author = {Warner, Jeremy and Guo, Philip J.},
 title = {Hack.edu: Examining How College Hackathons Are Perceived By Student Attendees and Non-Attendees},
 booktitle = {Proceedings of the 2017 International Conference on International Computing Education Research},
 series = {ICER '17},
 year = {2017},
 location = {Tacoma, Washington, USA},
 publisher = {ACM},
 address = {New York, NY, USA},
}

Hackathons are everywhere now! Many companies, nonprofits, governments, universities, and even artists have organized these events. Although this term originated in 1999 (OpenBSD and Sun Microsystems hosted the first ones), hackathons really took off around 2011. Here's a Google Trends chart showing the steady rise of searches for “hackathon” over the past decade:

One of the most prominent types of hackathons is the college hackathon, which is usually a 24- to 36-hour event held on a college campus where students work in teams to create software prototypes and optionally demo them to judges to compete for prizes. Here's an overhead view from one hosted at the University of Rochester, which was the site for this paper's study:

In 2016, Major League Hacking sponsored over 200 college hackathons with 65,000 total participants. Hackathons have occurred at all of the U.S. News Top 40 most notable computer science departments, some of which attract over 1,000 participants who fly or bus in from around the country.

But despite the rapidly rising popularity of college hackathons, very little is known about why students choose to attend them, why they find it so engaging to spend their weekends coding intensively with little sleep, what they gain from attending, and conversely, why other students choose not to attend.

Study Setup

To investigate these questions, we studied six college students (3 men, 3 women) at the University of Rochester who attended its annual hackathon in 2015. We interviewed each student the week before the event to gauge their expectations, observed them at work throughout the hackathon, then interviewed them the week afterward (and one month later) to get post-event reflections.

After this study, we realized that our data painted an overly-rosy picture of hackathons since, after all, these six students were enthusiastic enough to both attend and to participate in our research. Thus, to get a broader perspective from students who perhaps did not enjoy hackathons as much, we sent out a short online survey that asked:

  • If you have never attended a college hackathon, what factors discouraged you from attending?
  • If you've attended before but didn't enjoy the experience, what aspects felt discouraging to you?

We received 256 responses from students at four U.S. universities (42% from women). We distilled the data from our interviews, observations, and survey responses into the following findings about both why students liked and don't like hackathons.

Why Students Like Attending Hackathons

Students viewed hackathons as fun weekend social events where they get to hang out with like-minded people. One participant told us: “You get to be a part of a fun exciting environment, be encouraged to focus intently on a creative solution, meet new people, learn new technology, possibly travel someplace new.”

They also liked how the time-limited, co-located nature of hackathons generated excitement, positive energy, and helped them focus intensely on achieving concrete goals.

Even though hackathons aren't structured as educational activities, we found that three forms of learning occurred there:

  • Incidental: Students learned technical skills (often from teammates) as a side effect of trying to get their projects into a working state.

  • Opportunistic: Students took advantage of situational opportunities to direct their learning toward unexpected paths. For instance, one saw that Pebble smartwatches were available for attendees to borrow, so he decided to learn the Pebble API to build a prototype smartwatch app.

  • Peer-based: Since professors aren't present at hackathons, all learning and teaching occurred between peers. Some felt that the ad-hoc, peer-based learning at hackathons seemed more authentic than the top-down, professor-led instruction that occurs in classrooms.

Why Students Don't Like Attending Hackathons

The students who chose not to attend or had negative experiences at hackathons mentioned discouraging factors such as:

  • Physical discomfort from being crammed together in tight spaces with little sleep.
  • An emphasis on making superficial and flashy demos to impress judges rather than working with more substantive technologies.
  • An overly competitive climate, especially at larger hackathons.
  • Trouble finding a team to work with or an idea to implement.
  • No time for this extracurricular activity.
  • Fears of not having enough prior programming experience to meaningfully contribute to projects (more frequently reported by female students).
  • A sometimes-unwelcoming “hacker” culture that made them uncomfortable (more frequently reported by female students).

Toward Making Hackathons More Inclusive

Finally, our paper suggested possible ways to make college hackathons more inclusive and welcoming to all kinds of students. Why is this important? As these events continue moving toward the mainstream of computer science student culture at universities around the world, it's critical to broaden participation because these aren't merely venues for socializing and learning, but are also potential job-seeking opportunities as more companies start recruiting at hackathons in lieu of traditional on-campus career fairs. A lack of inclusion means that certain groups (e.g., women, underrepresented minorities, first-generation college students) miss out on these avenues for informal learning, professional networking, and jobs.


Read the full paper for details:

Hack.edu: Examining How College Hackathons Are Perceived By Student Attendees and Non-Attendees. Jeremy Warner and Philip J. Guo. ACM International Computing Education Research conference (ICER), 2017.
College hackathons have become popular in the past decade, with tens of thousands of students now participating each year across hundreds of campuses. Since hackathons are informal learning environments where students learn and practice coding without any faculty supervision, they are an important site for computing education researchers to study as a complement to studying formal classroom learning environments. However, despite their popularity, little is known about why students choose to attend these events, what they gain from attending, and conversely, why others choose *not* to attend. This paper presents a mixed methods study that examines student perceptions of college hackathons by focusing on three main questions: 1.) Why are students motivated to attend hackathons? 2.) What kind of learning environment do these events provide? 3.) What factors discourage students from attending? Through semi-structured interviews with six college hackathon attendees (50% female), direct observation at a hackathon, and 256 survey responses from college students (42% female), we discovered that students were motivated to attend for both social and technical reasons, that the format generated excitement and focus, and that learning occurred incidentally, opportunistically, and from peers. Those who chose not to attend or had negative experiences cited discouraging factors such as physical discomfort, lack of substance, an overly competitive climate, an unwelcoming culture, and fears of not having enough prior experience. We conclude by discussing ideas for making college hackathons more broadly inclusive and welcoming in light of our study's findings.
@inproceedings{WarnerICER2017,
 author = {Warner, Jeremy and Guo, Philip J.},
 title = {Hack.edu: Examining How College Hackathons Are Perceived By Student Attendees and Non-Attendees},
 booktitle = {Proceedings of the 2017 International Conference on International Computing Education Research},
 series = {ICER '17},
 year = {2017},
 location = {Tacoma, Washington, USA},
 publisher = {ACM},
 address = {New York, NY, USA},
}
Created: 2017-08-18
Last modified: 2017-10-12
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