‘We should do a Hack Day,’ Andrew McDermott said, nearly a year ago, when our team was first starting to emerge, and we were beginning to think about what our agenda might be. We had been discussing the ineffable question of how to create, embody or encourage a culture of innovation in our unit. ‘Where do you start?!’ seemed to be the direction we were headed in. Hack Day immediately became the goal.

A year, some stressing, and some sweat later, and the day is done and it exceeded even our own expectations. Having only our own experiences as participants of external Hack Days and workshops to go on, we decided to treat #TELhack15 as a pilot and we learned a great deal in the process.

We knew what we didn’t want. We didn’t want a workshop that was overly facilitated. We didn’t want our participants to just listen. We didn’t want it to take more than a day. We didn’t want our participants to think we were only after stealing their ideas. We didn’t want to them to leave demotivated and demoralised.

The ideas

We decided to centre the day on the theme of TEL problems and solutions, and run it as a competition. Participants would submit their own ideas via our website before the day. These would then be up-voted by other participants until there was a clear Top 6. On the day, these Top 6 ideas would be revealed (with much fanfare, of course) and each person would be able to pick the idea they were most interested in.  The Top 6 ideas as voted for by the participants were:

1. Student apps, to connect students based on their interests, to help them form communities, or to connect with ‘study buddies’

2. An Open University portfolio builder which allows students to document their skills and development whilst at the same time showcasing their talent to potential employers or anyone with an interest in their work

3. Alternative ideas for module delivery

4. Using storyboards and narrative structure to create design-led, better paced, appealing modules

5. A mechanism to share best practice across module teams

6. 3D virtual field trips (VR/AR) and 360 degree video panoramas.

Altogether 34 ideas were submitted through our website in the registration stage. Of the ideas, 58% were new, while 42% were an enhancement on existing products/practices.

Products made up 62% of the ideas put forward, with ideas around enhancing the student experience following on 25%, and proposals for work on internal process making by the final 8%.


We intentionally didn’t provide a great deal of guidance on how to interpret the brief, as we felt this would give participants the freedom to explore both their chosen idea and the ways they could tackle it as a team.

Some approached their idea as it stood, but others used it as a springboard to something different. For example ‘Team AmazOUn’ took the idea ‘ A mechanism to share best practice across module teams’, and flipped it about to create an LTS retail store, where units and faculties on campus could ‘shop’ for LTS resource, expertise and specialists by putting them in a basket before heading to the check out. They even included Black Friday events and Fire Sales.

The teams were a mix of staff from different media production specialisms, and it was decided early on not to pre-divide people by skill. This gave the day fluidity, and gave the solutions more variety in scope.

The prize at stake for the winning group – other than a medal, a #TELhack15 magnet, and bragging rights – was the commitment from the Learning Innovation team that we would help them explore and develop their solution, with a view to implementing it for staff/students.

Fostering creativity

The seven teams (VR turned out to be so popular we had to form two teams!) were each given a crib sheet with suggestions on how to shape their morning and afternoon. Taking inspiration from a human centred design approach the morning included breaking down the idea into many different ideas and building it back up again.

The participants were asked to ‘phone a friend’ to test-drive the idea. One team took this opportunity to skip the middle man and went straight to LTS Director Chris Rooke who gave them his opinion – and so the ‘Rooke Rating’ officially entered the lexicon.

The afternoon was spent refining ideas and preparing a 3 minute pitch. It was thrilling to see and feel the creative energy bursting out of the teams. Some teams were using prototyping software to mock up sites, others were using graphic design and video editing skills to mock up Virtual Reality student interaction. Others used some excellent drawing skills to create flip boards.

The pitches were fast and furious as teams raced through hacked features, course design, futuristic tech and new learning narratives. Liz Ellis was ready and eager to ‘ding out’ anyone who overshot the allocated 3 minute slot. The interest in the day spread and passers-by stopped in to hear the pitches, creating a gratifying buzz. And then it was all over, and time to vote.

And the winner is…

Team Stellar! The team consisted of Joel Beckford (media coordinator), Dean Collins (art worker), Catherine Chambers (S&V producer), Claire Judd (DDE) and Ryan Hayle (IMD). The winning idea was for a 3D interactive video approach to a module, specifically a mission to explore the moon in which the activity entails collecting a piece of moon rock, which is then analysed in a ‘lab’. The team produced a video which they demonstrated as part of their pitch, and explained the principles behind the idea, as well as how the idea could be implemented.

Did we achieve what we set out to do?

Unqualified yes. As a team, our intention is to foster and nurture the culture of innovation, creativity and ideas that we know exists in LTS and the Open University. Events such as Hack Day are important for bringing people together, helping them to network and share their ideas and talents, and giving them a hand to develop their own hacks into real solutions.

This style of event is a bit out of our usual comfort zone, and it was great to see participants from all over the unit embrace it.

Dot Coley, a member of Team Student Connect, which developed an idea for a Student App, told us afterwards: ‘All innovation starts with a random idea, so events like Hack Day are vital for future innovation.’

She also picked up on the deliberate mixing of teams: ‘The mix of the type of staff added dimension to our product.  It provided us with a wider skillset, enabling our initial idea to be looked at from alternate angles.  I think this is vital in product and process development because it brings ideas to life. Diverse teams tend to have more scope for innovation.’

The next Hack Day is planned for spring 2016 and we’re off to the races on plans – increasing the scope to include our non-LTS colleagues, and perhaps allowing hackers to book time with media specialists.

However, the immediate priority is to help Team Stellar breathe life into the their winning concept, and then helping the other teams to explore their products and solutions, ultimately offering whatever we can to our students to improve their experience of study at the OU.