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  • Writer's pictureAtish Gonsalves

What we learned from running three (virtual) learning hackathons during Covid

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

Face-to-face workshops have been the preferred method of delivering training and running participatory workshops at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). However, the Covid-19 crisis brought NRC to a standstill when it came to helping staff learn, connect and engage. In response to the crisis, the NRC Learning & Development team partnered with Gamoteca to:

  • Introduce staff to a number of new learning methodologies, tools and technologies that embrace human connection, as opposed to only self-guided online learning

  • Experiment with game-based learning, with a particular focus on coaching, sharing and simulations

  • Use learning hackathons to ideate and prototype game concepts for addressing the challenges posed by Covid-19

What is game based learning and what are learning hackathons?

Game-based learning is a type of gameplay that has defined learning outcomes, designed to balance the subject matter with gameplay and the ability of the player to retain, and apply the theory to the real world. In addition, Gamoteca has embraced the use of learner-to-learner engagement as an integral part of the gaming experience.

The term learning hackathons, comes from computer programmers’ traditional hackathons, which are design sprint-like events in which participants collaborate intensively on software projects with the goal of creating a functioning software by the end of the event. In a learning hackathon, the same principle applies, participants learn about game-based learning in an accelerated manner and proceed to co-create their original game-based learning using objectives they set for themselves or identify through a user-centred design process.

During the learning hackathons participants used Gamoteca, an online game creation platform, to rapidly create the game-based learning experiences. Game based learning has been proven to engage users in cognitive processes like the active organization of relevant content and the integration with prior knowledge, in addition to these cognitive elements it also has a positive impact on attitudinal processes like motivation and empathy.

The team that led the learning hackathons.
The team that led the learning hackathons.

How to run a (virtual) learning hackathon?

The first step was to gauge the interest within NRC through informal conversations and emails with staff. Once it was clear that there was plenty of interest, a registration form was shared to understand learner needs and prior experience. Over 75 participants registered, and were divided into three groups of 20-25 participants each, to maximise diversity of backgrounds and experience. The learning hackathons were designed and run as one-week long learning events, with three live sessions of 3 hours each, spread out over the week. The learning hackathons included:

  • Minimum pre-reading – Short videos, design toolkits and a game that participants were asked to play before they attended the live event.

  • Participatory activities – A number of activities were designed into the live sessions including ice breakers, interactive polls, quizzes & games, regular breakout rooms for team work and live game play.

  • Presentations – were limited and focussed only on inspiring participants and introducing new concepts, e.g. design thinking and game-based learning.

  • Design sprints – The 25 participants were divided into 5 groups each, and were assigned one facilitator, who would guide them through the design process to address the challenges posed by Covid-19 to staff learning.

  • Game lab – In the final phase, the participants used Gamoteca to to rapidly prototype their own games, based on the ideas generated through the design sprints.

Lessons learned

At the end of the three weeks, three hackathons and 75 participants from across the organisation globally, here are some of the lessons we learned:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare – Just as you would do with a face-to-face event, the more time you put in designing and preparing for the event, the less challenges you will face during the live events. If things can go wrong, they will, and things can get tricky with technology in particular. Make sure you set up back ups and that one person is in charge of setting up all the necessary digital tools and materials beforehand , e.g. the lead facilitator’s laptop crashed on a Zoom session, but a co-facilitator took over.

  2. Diversity – Make sure to prioritise diversity of the participants (age, gender, location, experience, technology literacy, etc) when selecting and forming teams, to ensure a good mix of ideas and approaches. Diversity of the facilitation team is also critical.

  3. Make the technology easy, and provide ample support – Try to limit the number of technologies used and provide clear guidance and support on using them. We used Zoom (polls, breakout rooms and chat for Q&A), Mentimeter (for word clouds and a live game), Google Jamboard (as collaborative worksheets for the design sprints) and Gamoteca (to play and create games).

  4. Don’t underestimate the facilitation effort – Running three hour interactive sessions with 25 participants needs a minimum of two facilitators, one to manage the technology and one to lead the session. We also added facilitators to support each team through the design process.

  5. Evaluate in real time (and adapt) – Listen to the participants, constantly check in with them and adapt based on feedback. After the first group, the evaluation was overall positive, but the group wanted more time with their teams to co-create, and even less presentation time. We adapted the agenda for groups two and three, and we immediately saw an improvement.

  6. Don’t try to do too much (depth over breadth) – We were keen to cover a lot of ground in terms of content and activities, but by group three realised that the participants prefer less content, and fewer activities, but more time for each one.

  7. Give sufficient breaks – Three hours per day for three days in a week is a lot of screen time and average attention spans are short. We started with only one break for the first group, but increased this to two breaks (one every hour), by the second group. We communicated clearly that participants should stand up and stretch, get away from their desks, grab a coffee, etc.

  8. Be mindful of timezones (and weekends) – With participants from across the globe, we tried to group participants by time zones, and adjusted the start times to accommodate. Same for those weekends and public holidays, particularly for those joining from the Middle East, where weekends are Friday & Saturday.

  9. Deep dive coaching – There is only so much you and the teams can achieve in the sessions, so we provided follow-up, in-depth focus sessions for each team with a facilitator to go through specific questions and importantly next steps for their ideas.

  10. Provide opportunities for all participants to engage – This is important for any type of workshop, but can be particularly difficult to manage in virtual settings. Don’t let the louder voices drown out the quieter ones, and make sure you design activities and sessions that enable all participants to contribute, e.g. in co-creation sessions we encouraged all the team members to take turns being the lead scribe or developer.

Feedback from participants

We shared an anonymous evaluation right after the sessions to learn what we were doing right, and where we could improve. The feedback from the participants was overwhelmingly positive, and we got some useful tips to improve subsequent sessions.

Feedback from participants

Quotes from participants

The rapid and practical (learning by doing) development approach of the whole course and also the smaller group session. Given that it was online, the small groups helped went a long way in ensuring a hands-on feel with the practical elements
I now have a good tool that can add a micro-learning, participatory element to another course that I may design.
Well organized in a digital setting, good discussions in the breakout rooms. Very practical oriented.
The content of course, but the facilitators (both internal and external) made all the difference.

Thank you for being so engaging, clear in your instructions and for keeping the energy of the group up!

To learn more about running your own learning hackathon contact us at or check out our services page.

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