Many designers will agree that creativity flows when you connect with other designers to bounce ideas around, challenge each other, and try new things. Add to this a healthy dose of time pressure and a prize at the end, and you’ll likely be impressed with the variety of design ideas that start to take shape. 

The PG Learning Design team is no stranger to tight deadlines and high-touch quality production. The group of learning designers, media producers and digital designers has collaborated across all faculties to deliver learning solutions that engage, inspire and challenge learners to achieve a range of learning goals. 

Organised into ‘pods’ aligned to faculty portfolios, the team has worked on postgraduate coursework as well as innovative new short forms of learning since 2017. Check out our SharePoint site to learn more about who we are and what we do. 

Why we chose a hackathon

In May, the broader team got together for a ‘learning design hackathon’ to tackle a semi-fictional design challenge: a capstone subject in an online postgraduate course. I say ‘semi-fictional’ because the subject does exist, and will eventually be codesigned with an academic lead from the faculty later this year, but the academic had not yet been appointed and the subject lacked fully formed assessment details in its early draft form. So we improvised! We came up with some possible assessment practices, mirroring similar capstone subjects in other courses and then went on to focus on learning activities, scaffolding and refining the overarching story arch of the subject. The challenge: to design a full-scale proof of concept in Canvas with a simulated learning journey for the first three weeks of learning and then a draft pathway for the remainder of the subject. 

4 members of the PGLD team sit at a table together to work on the hackathon
Learning designers and digital designers from the PG Learning Design team tackle the “hackathon” design challenge

The purpose was to get everyone in the broader team, from across pods, to think about how learning takes place, and which possible designs can stimulate and engage students effectively.

And so our media producers brainstormed video formats, graphic designers came up with options for a visual identity and our learning designers tinkered away with learning pathways, progress validation checkpoints and opportunities for students to pause, reflect and apply. 

As the hours and minutes ticked away, and the deadline loomed – you could almost hear the clatter of tools: laptop keyboards smattering, butchers paper tearing and footsteps rushing between tables for final tweaks and checks. 

Members of the PGLD team concentrating, working on their laptops
30 minutes to go! The learning designers polish their work as the clock counts down

But the real challenge was to be reserved for the judging panel, consisting of myself alongside the head of learning design, the manager of learning design media, and a project officer playing the role of ‘student’. 

Evaluating the solutions

At the end of the day, each design team presented its proof of concept to the broader team. It really was a time to shine – with each team demonstrating impressive innovations and a diversity of angles and ideas. 

Screenshot of activity, with question: what are your thoughts about where your organisation ranks in regard to marketing, management, accounting and ambiguity?
One team designed a reflection activity for learners based on areas they would have covered in the lead-up to the capstone.

One team had developed a fictional character, a so-called ‘pedagogical agent’ called Suzie to appear throughout the subject demonstrating how theoretical concepts would be applicable to her professional context (You can read more about this method in this blog by Amelia Di Paolo).

Another team had prepared an ‘evolving case study’ based on a real event as it had unfolded in the media over the past year – and then contextualising it against the theories and concepts covered in the subject. A third team had organised a ‘panel of experts’ from a variety of industries to appear on a weekly basis and share their insights on each weekly topic – creating something of a playlist to ground the subject in real-world application. 

A screenshot from a case study, with content on 'failure to engage Indigenous stakeholders'
A case study based on real events that one of the teams included in their design

What the hackathon did for us

In the end, the hackathon exercise did much more than simply generate a diversity of learning designs suitable for a postgraduate capstone subject. While the designs were stunning and the ideas informing them compelling, some of the real value was in the opportunity to collaborate in new ways. For example, members of the team who work primarily with graphics gained a glimpse into the intricacies of learning design planning. Equally, some learning designers admitted that working with video producers opened their eyes to new video format types to support learning in new ways. And more junior members of the team had a chance to consider higher-level design principles, like whole-of-course alignment and graduate attribute development. 

The team is already looking forward to the next chance to hack away at a new design challenge. As one assistant learning designer put it, crowdsourcing good learning design in this way “really opens up your eyes to the possibilities of doing things differently – and of trying things you wouldn’t normally dare suggest”. It certainly is – and that’s the whole point. 

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