Hack Days: a case study

I’m Liz Ellis, and together with my colleague David Vince, we organised and ran the Open University’s first Staff-Student Hack Day in January 2016. David and I are product development managers in the Technology Enhanced Learning Innovations team, in Learning and Teaching Solutions at the OU.

We had both previously been part of a team that delivered a Hack Day for staff in Learning and Teaching Solutions. LTS produces content and maintains learning environments for the OU’s students. The LTS hack day was a great success, and feedback was very positive for this sort of event.

When we were asked to run another hack day event for academic staff, as part of a three-day conference on Designing Online Learning for the Future, we decided it was an ideal opportunity to include OU students as participants. But this definitely added some complexity to the event.


The three-day conference was planned for academic staff to discuss new innovations in designing online learning. The original brief was for staff to work on design challenges relating directly to their modules in the Day 3 hack day, but we decided that this would be missing an ideal opportunity to involve ‘students as partners’ in tackling emerging challenges in producing online learning.

We also wanted to encourage staff to approach challenges in a new way, and a hack event offers an opportunity to think quickly, put business as usual to one side, and achieve a rough prototype in the space of a day.


The third day of the three-day conference was set aside for the hack day. Although not all staff were able to attend all three days, they were encouraged to attend at least one day of presentations, and the hack day as an opportunity to put theory into practice. The promise of students being present was a huge draw, and most staff committed to the day on this basis.

The event was in the middle of January, which made organisation complicated, with the Christmas closure dates, as well as other events on campus on the same day, but it was a date that had been predetermined.


The participants on the day were a mix of staff and students. Each group was recruited separately, and had different organisational challenges.


Staff had been selected by faculties to attend the three-day conference on the basis that they were part of module teams who were in the process of producing materials for students. The first two days of the conference were a mix of presentations and case studies on the topic of Designing Online Learning for the Future.

Although initially the hack day was planned as an opportunity for staff to work on existing design challenges from their modules, it evolved quickly and positively into an opportunity to turn the theory of the previous two days into practice; to work with students as partners to identify and prototype new approaches to online learning; and to have the opportunity to work in a flexible, iterative way for a day, in which day-to-day restrictions could be set aside.

Although some staff were not able to attend all three days, all communications and agendas clearly emphasised that the third day would be a valuable opportunity not to be missed, and asked them to commit to attending.

We had least three or four members of staff from each faculty, representing different disciplines, with us on the day.


Because for our first staff-student hack day we wanted participants to be co-located – this type of fast, iterative day can work remotely, but we didn’t want to tackle that aspect straight out of the gate – we knew that we need to invite students who were at least within 30 miles of the OU’s campus in Milton Keynes.

Any involvement of students in research, consultation or engagement needs to be cleared with the Open University Student Association, and we were pleased that they were in favour of hack day. We applied for the details of students who lived in the appropriate geographical location, who were either currently studying a module or had signed up to study a module, and who had previously indicated to the university that they were happy to be contacted. We used the Camel Messaging System to get in contact, rather than doing a wider appeal via social media, as we wanted to ensure the message was received by students who were nearby enough to attend.

Students were asked to register by filling in a Google Form, and were asked for details of current/past study, so we would be able to allocate them to appropriate teams on the day.

Because it was a week day, and because it was emphasised as a students as partners in online learning event, we made the decision to compensate them for their time at a fixed rate for the day. Although this meant a bit of administration in terms of raising contracts, and clearing appropriate budget, we felt it sent an important message.

We had 147 expressions of interest – we were surprised and gratified by the level of interest – but because of the restrictions around the venue, unfortunately we were only able to select 20 at random, and had to operate a waiting list to manage disappointment.

We communicated regularly with students who were on the list via email, and also interacted with them on Twitter.

LTS staff:

We wanted to ensure that staff and students would be able to prototype their ideas without being concerned with constraints around skill or expertise. We decided to involve interactive media developers, graphic media developers and media assistants from LTS to be a part of each group and both contribute to the ideas as participants, as well as help teams make ideas tangible for the pitches. We also provided a video booth and green screen in case teams wanted to use video.

The day had the benefit of giving the LTS staff a buzz and variety, as well as giving students and staff a chance to get to know them and their skill set, and understand a little more how production of content works.


An important factor in location scouting for Hack Days is getting the best size rooms for the number of people you’re expecting. Participants will want to stretch out as they work, and because of the competitive element, it’s good to be able to provide some break out spaces. All spaces should supply tables, easels for flipcharts or whiteboards, and the main venue should be equipped with a screen of some kind for the pitches. A second screen could be used to display social media feeds relating to the day, or be used for a virtual audience/team, depending on the format of the day.

Because we were inviting students on campus who had never been before, we provided them with all the necessary maps and directions, and set up signboards to the reception area, ready to welcome them to the day.

Timing was key for the staff/student Hack Day. We were organising the day with less time than would have been ideal, and with more warning we might have been able to accommodate more students, or extended the event in some way.

Getting started

David and I started with the date we were given for the Hack Day and worked backwards from there, deciding together on everything we would need to do to make the day a reality, and assigning the tasks to ourselves, or identifying the person we could delegate to.

We formalised what we wanted participants to achieve from the day, and then got the ball rolling on inviting students, having them register their details (we used Google Forms, which worked extremely well), randomly selecting who would join us, arranging contracts so they would be paid, and securing the budget for this.

Rooms were selected and booked, IT support was arranged for the day, and catering was arranged (cue another email round to ensure dietary specifications were captured).

We agreed what format we wanted the day to take, and prepared the presentation we needed for the first session, as well as cheat sheets for the participants to stay on track. This allowed us to recruit the resource we needed in LTS, and to start to use the templates we’d created from a previous Hack Day to make new posters, handouts, name badges, etc

Our decision not to have participants submit ideas ahead of time (which we have done previously, also using Google Forms, so that participants could vote on the ideas they wanted to hack) meant that we needed to leave enough time in the structure of the day for participants to complete this part of the process, and had to update the cheat sheet accordingly.

The LTS staff were briefed on expectations, and given guidance on how the day should run.

A supply run was made for prizes (‘gold’ medals and Amazon vouchers) along with sweets for the Hack Packs, and stickers for voting. Peppa Pig and Fireman Sam were incredibly popular voting tools.

The day before the event, we prepared the space. All the IT kit was supplied, and set up, and the Hack Packs were assembled. These consisted of flipchart paper, flipchart and whiteboard markers, post-its, sellotape, pens, and foolscap paper.  Also the cheat sheet and some sweets and a bottle of water.

An evaluation form was prepared beforehand, to be distributed after the event. This meant we were able to capture participants’ thoughts immediately.

And then we took deep breaths and got ready for the Big Day.

Hack Day is here

We kick-started the day with a quick presentation, introducing ourselves and our goals for the day, welcoming everyone as equal participants. We explained our Human Centred Design approach, and reiterated what we wanted in the pitches – something tangible that could be prototyped, and would address a problem or opportunity around our students’ experiences of online learning.

Everyone was divided into teams – clustered around disciplines – and introduced to their LTS ‘expert’. We ran a quick icebreaker, by asking teams to tell each other about the last thing they had learned, and then we allowed them to organise themselves as they wanted across the main venue and the breakout spaces.

Teams worked together through the ideation phase, then ‘phoned a friend’, running their idea past an LTS participant in a different team to get some feedback. Others ran their idea past colleagues in other parts of the OU or buttonholed random people over lunch, to ask their thoughts. This added a lovely buzz to the day.

Things started to heat up and the energy started to pump through the creation phase, as teams started to prototype their ideas, ready for the pitch. David and I tried to facilitate teams as much as possible, and reiterated what the purpose of the day was, to encourage them for their pitches. The final half hour was a feverish tidying up of presentations and checking all the tech was working.

Each team got 4 minutes to pitch (our previous Hack Days had 3 minute pitches, and I felt this worked better, as it kept people light and sharp), and if they wentt over time I ‘dinged’ them off stage with my bell. The Twitter screen worked overtime as participants joined in sharing their opinions using the hashtag, sending images, and begging for votes. We had a crowd of non-participants who joined us to see the work that had been achieved on the day, and this really added to the excitement and spirited heckling.

Voting was done in a manual way, by giving everyone silly cartoon stickers. Each participant had three votes to cast as they wished. We thought about using smarties or skittles, but experience has shown that these usually get eaten before the vote!

The count done, we cued up Queen’s ‘We are the champions’, and the team with the most votes came forward to receive their prize of Amazon vouchers, and a gold ‘star’ medal. The applause was huge, and the feedback forms demonstrated what a fun day everyone had.

You can now return to the main Hack in a Box page or get more information and ideas via our analysis and downloadable resources.