What is a Hybrid Hackathon?

When you think of the word “Hybrid”, what comes to mind? At Major League Hacking (MLH), the word “Hybrid” entered our world after the onset of the pandemic as a way to find a middle ground for our hackathons that wanted to ease back to in-person. There were some in-person elements and elements that were entirely digital. It was a way for hackathon organizers to have both worlds in one event. While supporting hybrid hackathons was an important experiment for us, we’re now recommending that all of our organizers choose between fully in-person or digital. If you’ve organized or attended a hybrid event, you are probably aware of the complexity, and how difficult it is to ensure accessibility and inclusion for all participants. 

For instance, imagine going to a birthday party, but you have to sit in a different room where there is no cake, no blowing out candles, and you can’t play games with your friends in the main room where the birthday party is happening. Instead, you get to watch everything through video conferencing along with other party-goers sitting in other rooms also on the same video conference call. You get to play digital games with the others that are joining online, but not those who are playing in-person games like “Pin the tail on the donkey” or hitting a piñata for free candy. 

That would be a horrible experience!

Interestingly, this is a relevant allegory to some of the feedback we’ve received about hybrid events. When the pandemic hit, we all had to scramble to figure out how to create community and maintain engagement without meeting together in-person. We questioned how to ensure that everyone was included and that the event felt like an in-person event and not something only experienced from a distance. From weddings to birthdays to conferences, questions and concerns loomed on how to manage an intimate event in a virtual setting. 


Thoughts from the Community

The hackathon community felt this as well. MLH Member Event Hackathons, prior to March 2020, had been exclusively in-person. These events included a Coach sent to work the event as an extension of the organizing team as well as other resources and benefits. All of this came to a screeching halt in 2020 as in-person gatherings were either off limits or became very limited. As restrictions began to ease and events were able to return to in-person, it became clear that not everyone was quite ready to be together, in a physical space, just yet. Because of this, the hybrid hackathon became a more common option in order to keep in-person attendance limited while also allowing people to attend a hackathon digitally at the same time. 

The biggest challenge for the hackathon organizing community was ensuring that the folks attending online felt just as included as those attending in-person while attending the same hackathon. For many, it felt like there were two entirely different events happening in two different spaces. We started getting more feedback about this, so we included the question in our Season Census last year. Here’s a bit of what we heard back from hackers: 

“Other than having mentors available, I’m not sure what components/workshops were available to virtual participants if any?”

Virtual participants didn’t have as many fun opportunities as in-person participants”

 “There were more opportunities for giveaways in-person than online, so I kind of felt like it was lacking in inclusivity in that aspect”

“One thing that I would like to see improve is the interaction towards those that are watching remotely since it can be a bit hard to handle both a live and remote audience.”

“I think you had a serious advantage in terms of both judging and the amount of fun you would have if you were in person vs online.”

“The live stream angles were not always ideal, and judging was a discouraging experience for us online participants”

While it’s clear that the hybrid model wasn’t optimal, we did hear from many hackers that the digital experience, overall, was good when that was the primary focus. I think that it’s safe to say that digital events are here to stay. There are certainly pros and cons to running a digital event but overall, it’s given organizers an opportunity to reach more hackers on a larger scale when done well. 


Aren’t Hybrid Events More Accessible?

Digital events have also allowed more accessibility into the world of hacking, which is critical in communities that don’t have the resources or ability to travel to attend in-person. While organizers should always find ways to make their events as accessible as possible, the hybrid format didn’t seem to offer the same experience as a fully digital event. Sure, folks can attend your event online but, as we saw in the feedback from hackers, the engagement and inclusion weren’t the same. 

So, what have we learned? Accessibility does not necessarily equal inclusion. Inclusion is necessary for a great experience at a hackathon. 

As an organizer, your ultimate goal shouldn’t only be to expand your reach to a higher quantity of hackers. We definitely agree that more people attending is super exciting, but if we can’t offer the hackers a high-quality experience, then the high attendance numbers don’t matter. 

If you’d like to learn more, join us for an info session on the pros and cons of each type of event on August 11th at Noon EST during Organizer Office Hours. Maria Dunning, MLH Hackathon Community Manager, will be walking you through how to make the right decision for your event.  

*Update: Watch the recording of the latest info session on Hybrid Events below and download the presentation deck here

Watch Here!