Blog Aleksandra Mangus 11.03.2020

Aleksandra Mangus

I have been a participant and organiser of various hackathons in Finland since 2012. My current activity involves promoting and educating on learner-oriented practices in youth work. I curate content for the MIL & Youth Participation Resource Pool for youth workers by SALTO-Youth PI, and for my own YouTube channel FINEST Education (launch in March 2020).

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How to unite young people around the current societal issues and activate their agency?

In this blog I talk about the Global Media and Information Literacy Youth Online Hackathon – the event I co-organised with UNESCO in late 2018. I present the outcomes of the event as well as the results of my master thesis based on the GlobalMILHack, and I give advice for youth workers and educators on how to adopt the practice.

“It is essential to bring youth voices to the fore and to encourage young people to take action. To speak of meaningful youth engagement is to develop inclusive partnerships with them, involving them and their organisations in all aspects of programme planning, development, execution and monitoring/evaluation.”


Formally, in a nutshell

Global Media and Information Literacy Youth Hackathon project was designed and coordinated in the framework of the UNESCO’s Youth Spaces Initiative, under the supervision of UNESCO MIL Programme and in close consultation and collaboration with UNESCO’s Communication and Information Sector.

It was a 3-day online event introduced in the framework of the Global MIL Week 2018 with an objective to engage young audiences in a new form of a collaborative and results-oriented activity, while also educating these audiences about MIL.

Several international partners supported and collaborated on this project to create and boost awareness of the hackathon: UNESCO MIL Programme and UNESCO MILCLICKS, Global Student Square (USA), University of Latvia, Vytautas Magnus University (Lithuania) and Tampere University (Finland). The hackathon was conducted fully online in English and the participation was open for all young people from anywhere in the world that qualified to their country-specific age criteria for youth – a requirement introduced by the UNESCO MIL Programme team to keep the focus on their young audiences.

The hackathon was organised online between October 24th and 26th, 2018, involving more than 80 remote participants from 23 different countries, and resulted in 13 team projects, 9 of which were chosen by a committee of UNESCO and invited GAPMIL representatives to continue on to a follow-up 4-week programme funded by UNESCO Youth Spaces Initiative (YSI). The aim of the programme was to develop the teams’ projects further and prepare the Concept Note document (CN) to be presented to the evaluation committee for final selection and funding. In result of this activity, 5 final projects were awarded funding from the UNESCO YSI. UNESCO MIL Programme Team has been monitoring the development of the projects and communicating with the teams ever since.

Informally, in personal opinion

It all started with one of the members on UNESCO MIL Programme team admitting the bothering truth in one of the organising calls we had in spring 2018: “We are spending money every year on events and different initiatives, but we do not have any long-term results, plus our engagement could be much better…” That moment a thought of a themed MIL hackathon first came to my mind, which instantly decided to share it out loud with the whole team. What? A hackathon? Online? The idea was very vague, yet tempting and after a bit of time spent explaining what hackathons are, the team agreed to give its chance.

Now when I look back, I am feeling eternally grateful for this opportunity that taught me so much and got me connected with such bright and driven people from countries far away from Finland. What strikes me the most is that this event managed to unite people of different age, gender and origin around the troubling cross-national and cross-cultural issues, and prompted them to take action and come up with so-called “grassroot innovations”. These included digital solutions (mobile apps, web learning platforms, online games), as well as non-digital ones (conferences, training networks and action groups). The pitches of the eight GlobalMILHack finalists are presented on event website.

Lessons learnt

Halfway between the GlobalMILHack and its 4-week followup programme, this whole experience turned into a case study for my Master Thesis, which is now published here. Essentially, I tried to find out how to bring maker culture into MIL educational practice through an online hackathon, and the short answer to this question is “more that we think”. Below are the six elements that expand on my findings in more detail and that can be taken as guidance for adapting hackathon practice to youthwork:

#1: Hackathon makes learning multi-cultural and opens opportunity for equal participation. The environment of an international hackathon presents the participants with the common endeavours which bridge across differences in age, class, race, gender, and educational level. Participants engage in various ways according to their skills and interests, because they depend on each other in their journey to the final reward. Hackathon allows each participant to feel like an expert and share their skills, while at the same time learning from other. In an international setting, as in GlobalMILHack, it created an environment for an intercultural dialogue. The combination of several digital media channels used for communication with the remote teams enabled the event to reach and engage the audiences that are often isolated from active international participation. These tools included email for making important announcements, Facebook messenger for team chats, Google Hangouts for weekly group calls, and Google Docs for exchange of written materials.

#2: Hackathon scenario as the sequence of scheduled facilitated collaborative learning activities. The 4-stage scenario of the Double-Diamond Design Model (Research, Insights, Ideation, Prototypes – see image below), can be used in MIL pedagogical practice to create learning experiences with different timeframes for each stage.

Image source: Service Design Vancouver

While in case of GlobalMILHack the initial plan was to have a 3-day hackathon, the decision was made to extend the experience into a 4-week course. In other settings, this same scenario can be stretched over a longer or shorter periods of time, depending on the facilitator’s needs and available resources.

#3: Adhocism in learning experience. The journey of the participant in a hackathon is non-linear and involves iterations and reconsiderations. Similarly to a hypothesis testing, participants have to use their flexibility and adaptability in order to arrive at the truthful statements and reasoning. On the other side, adhocism shows in the way participants build and test their assumptions – they have to be time-cautious and use the materials and tools at hand in order to build and test their assumptions fast.

#4: The competitive element of the hackathon and its emphasis on the real-time problems of the audience. The competitive element provides the hackathon participants with motivation to treat the whole experience seriously, while its application to real life encourages the participants to make substantial commitment to the work. Participants, therefore, experience both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to show their best, which, in turn, helps them discover and apply their strengths and talents. Collecting evidence for the problem in focus by searching on Internet and talking to the relevant audience is also important for information gathering and educating oneself about the real-life situation of the problem in focus. In this case it is linked to problem- or phenomenon-based learning, where search for theoretical material and information starts with looking a the particular problem or situation in real life. Such approach proves to be beneficial to the student, which can relate and empathise with the problem.

#5: Constructive non-guided individual and team knowledge creation around the central MIL theme throughout the diverging and converging tasks of the hackathon. Results show that the participants managed to reach a better understanding of MIL and its importance in the society, through finding information about the theme and active exchange of gathered knowledge and examples with their teammates with no strict guidance from the facilitator. By involving external experts and professionals, hackathon organisers can enrich the learning experience of the students. Mentors, in particular, benefit the teams with their different view of the issue combined with their relevant field experience. Judges, on the other hand, are the ones who decide whether or not the projects should get any reward and, as in case of GlobalMILHack, be funded for implementation.

#6: Using contemporary media and technology awareness to design new solutions to tackle the problems in focus. Ideation stage of the hackathon diverges participants’ thinking on what is that they know of (media and technology-wise) can be applied to solve the problem of their chosen target audience. This practice makes them exchange their knowledge and skills in using new media, both enabling and educating themselves to find better, more innovative approaches to the problem. Teams develop analytical and critical thinking regarding the existing solutions and the ones that the team thought during the Ideation stage. Hackathon encourages deep and critical assessment of the solutions in mind, as they have to be original, applicable to and feasible in real life. Teams are also required to look at the existing solutions in the field and see why they are not sufficient to solve the chosen problem. Combination of these two practical tasks facilitates the team to think outside the box and at the same time stay realistic to produce competitive solutions.

Instead of a conclusion

Reading a master thesis may be worth the effort, yet, for those who like it short and sweet, I am happy to give the following tips on how to get started with a youth hackathon:

  • Pick a theme that is close to their (young) hearts. From my experience, the troubling topics have been: youth unemployment, misinformation, life choice struggle, health&diet, human relationships. If you can, ask them what would they want to work on. Main job here is to keep it focused on the theme, yet not too narrow.
  • Schedule in advance. You’ll probably need around 2-3 months at the minimum to plan all the activities, find valuable partnerships and promote the event. Of course, if you already have the venue, the tools, the participants, the mentors, the judges and the funding/prizes ready, you are all set. Now make sure you’ve got a stress-resilient facilitator that can make sure the process does not get out of control (which it usually does).
  • Find valuable mentors. These are the people that can add quality to the participants’ learning experience at your hackathon. Mentors should ideally have diverse backgrounds and be interested in the event’s theme. You never know what wild ideas may pop in heads of your participants, so it is always handy to have few technology, design and business specialists around.
  • Invest in documentation. No, not the papers. If possible, take pictures and videos of your event, so you have something nice to share with your participants and partners after the event is over. Even if you, like me, decided to have an online event, it is worth to think what visual memory can you personally create/ ask the participants to create on their own during the event. Also, ask for feedback during and after the event.
  • Do not, at any point, criticise the ideas. This is probably the hardest to keep in mind. The rule is that if a team member shares an idea with you, instead of saying “Yes, but…” always say “Yes, and….” so that the team builds up on your advice and doesn’t get discouraged. Ideating is a fragile process, but if done right, it is very very powerful and can bring unexpected results. Try to nurture the open discussions, help everyone share their views and find a way to validate even the most ridiculous ideas (those often lead to the best solutions).

There is a lot more to say about hackathons, and if you think that this topic may be of interest to you, feel free to drop me a line at I’ll be glad to help with any step of the process.


GlobalMILHack official website (old domain was

Press Release “UNESCO supports the launch of the Global Media and Information Literacy Youth Hackathon”



Global Media and Information Literacy (MIL) Week

Global Student Square

Double-Diamond Design Model by Service Design Vancouver

SALTO Participation and Information Resource Centre (SALTO PI): Participation Resource Pool

Mangus, A. (2019) Bringing Maker Culture into Media and Information Literacy. Case: Global Media and Information Literacy Online Youth Hackathon 2018. Master’s thesis in Digital Literacy Education. Tampere University

Aleksandra Mangus