Hackathons for Design Research Experiments

Design-based research interventions lead to knowledge production. In collaborative real world work environments, it is reasonable to expect an increase in learning. However, when these transient environments are designed as disruptions in routines learning opportunities are lost. In this essay I will define the design-based research method by explicating the key points from Barab and Squire’s Design-Based Research: Putting a Stake in the Ground (1). Next, I refer to Star and Griesemer’s article in 1989 identifying how collaborative work can be translated towards useful outcomes (2). I will then situate my argument in the context of hackathons intended to spark innovation by throwing together inter-disciplinary teams.
To investigate learning in naturalistic contexts, Barab and Squire propose design-based research generating viable theories improving practice (1, pg 6). Design-based research is focused on real-world social interactions with complex and multiple variables (1, pg3). The flexibility of design procedures is intended to iteratively arrive at connections to both existing and novel theories (1, pg5, 8, 9). The designed research activity involves users and researchers to engage as co-participants in the production of knowledge (1, pg3, 10). Though insights are tied to a situation, they can be extrapolated to form “flexibly adaptive theory” to be applied in new local contexts (1, pg 11). The authors stress their ability to “explain phenomena and produce change in the world” for others to use theory in their practice (1, pg 7).

Creating anything now is a group project no longer restricted to a particular discipline. Star and Griesemer examine the negotiations between interdisciplinary groups who cooperate using standardized methods and boundary objects to generate reliable, generalizable scientific knowledge across domains through the case study of a natural history museum (3). The strategies identified from a managerial point of view recognize the need for “maintaining coherent information” (3, pg 18). They stress the understanding of how the “boundaries of social worlds are constructed” as temporary resolutions for the purpose of co-operation (3, pg 21, 27).
Hackathons are associated with software development practices. The cult of hackathons and hackers by extension are stuff of legend. Designed to generate solutions if not novel ideas Internet companies set up hackathons. Facebook, Yahoo! and Google and Government bodies like Atlanta’s public transport unit, Marta now use them as siren calls for the fastest geeks to give up the night or weekend. These environments emerged in learning environments as collective exercises among university students at MIT in the 1960’s engaged in “marathon bursts” (4). However, coders are not the only audience for hackathons (2). Structured to encourage rapid idea development, these events create a break from routine work for people with jobs to flex their intellectual and social abilities. The validity of hackathons as key events for creativity is often made through arguments of “experience-distant relevance” (1, pg 6) in the discovery of Facebook features or even companies (4). A closer look may reveal otherwise.

Hackathons share features similar to design-based research experiments. Each event produces a situation characterized by flexible, socially situated and participative aspects (1, pg3). In an attempt to meet design-based research agenda hackers create what Star and Greisemer call boundary objects (3). Though performance-oriented, hackathons themselves represent boundaries when viewed as spaces. They maybe structured to include social opportunities for a final presentation. This could stage “an obligatory point of passage for the whole network of participants” (3, pg 4) but also succeed in mutual learning among members. The true potential for knowledge creation especially in group learning phenomenon lies in observing the space as a site for social interaction than the artifacts.
The disruptive intent of hackathons at present merely suspends reality. Learning from these events can be narrowly viewed through a problem-solution lens. However, systematically observing the social and cultural standards with experiments designed to generate hypotheses about boundaries could contribute to effective theories on group work. Fuzzy boundaries (1, pg 9) need to be defined, for example the question of ownership of the created artifacts in the transient teams. But, in the pursuit of knowledge the question is less contentious, virtually harmless if the reward is clearly outlined.


  1. Barab, S. and Squire K. (2004). “Design-Based Research: Putting a Stake in the Ground,” Journal of the Learning Sciences. Taylor and Francis
  2. Elizabeth Spaulding and Greg Caimi. April 01, 2016. Hackathons Aren’t Just for Coders, Harvard Business Review link
  3. Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. “Institutional ecology, translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.” Social studies of science 19.3 (1989): 387-420. Sage
  4. Steven Leckart, June 2012. The Hackathon Is On: Pitching And Programming The Next Killer App, Wired. link

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