Hublab: Creating a Shared Space for Co-Design


Design Process and Timeline

Our group was drawn together under the topics of symmetric learning and the developing world. After a painful separation from our friends, the missionary zebras, we resolved to address Ethan’s stated goal of the possibility of a partnership between the Media Lab and the Innovation Hub (iHub) for our project.

Our project was driven by the five original questions posed by Ethan:

  • How do we learn symmetrically?

  • How do we find the right peers?

  • How do we mutually coach?

  • How do we avoid the missionary stance?

  • How do we establish peers without co-presence?

In order to learn more about our future partners and to think about how to proceed, we first learned as much as we could about the iHub from their website, featured events, profiled individuals, and blogs online.  We also did some background research about what was being done in the online collaboration space by investigating the existing technological platforms and theories.  Obviously, on the ground ethnography and relationship-building in person would have been highly desirable, but we quickly made friends with a limitation that will return again and again throughout this process.

Once we were moving along and felt we were on the right path, we elected to take a two-pronged approach. On the first prong was trying to build a relationship with the iHub as carefully but deliberately as possible—we knew the process would take time, so we got started as soon as we could. We reached out, via Ethan, to Jessica Colaço, a founding member of the iHub and one of the premier researchers in Kenya to learn more about the iHub and discuss the idea of a partnership. Our first call with Jessica was extremely valuable.  She was able to give us a lot of insight into the iHub that we could not gather from the static words/images presented online.  She walked the computer around her office to give us a sense of the physical space and “vibe” of her office.  She gave us her opinion about the real needs of the iHub so we could check our assumptions She warned against demos, and implied co-location as a goal for this collaboration.  She identified mentorship and ownership within the community as the most pressing needs.

At the same time, our second prong was to develop the “How Might We”s and try to really develop the technology we were going to use as a shared space and basis for collaboration with the iHub.

Absent any on-the-ground ethnography, we performed “collaboration case studies” to walk through IDEO’s “AEIOU” process of how people in each of our fields collaborate (teachers, researchers, open source software developers, and MIT students). While none of these groups were the iHub exactly, they were all groups with some structural and  aspirational constraints and interests We highlighted similarities and differences across  our four groups and tried to work out some analogies that unified these groups. After pushing things to a matrix and further refining, we settled on the “How Might We”s at right. We knew also that we wanted to pursue them with the design principles of co-design, inclusivity, and symmetric learning in mind.

Our answers, after deliberation and checking in with Ethan, were that a combination of shared projects and a place that facilitated less-focused and unified sharing (of cultural knowledge, personal inspiration, appealing future projects etc.) would be a recipe for success. As we worked on these ideas though, dissatisfaction and discomfort crept in – how could we develop this platform all on our own and be true to our design principles? We pivoted to figure out how, without co-location, we could grow the relationship and the culture. Ultimately, we opted to create a mailing list like some ones that are beloved in our communities – the Tufts Fletcher School social list and the Media Lab’s Awesome list. We determined  to host the list like a party, trying to imagine the events, sharing and contributions that could facilitate the organic connections necessary to develop new and interesting projects between the organizations while staying true to our design principles.

Our next step was to arrange a call with Jessica and to exhort her to bring more members of the iHub staff along. The call was scheduled early in Boston, but things got off to a late start. The better part of the time was spent on personal introductions, leaving only a small window to briefly float the mailing list idea. We needed to rush to class, so we really didn’t have any time to get much of a reaction. Simultaneously, the Google hangout technology was glitchy, further straining the connection. On the plus side, when we debriefed, we agreed there was a feeling of wanting more, a mixture of hope and disappointment.

Subsequently, we launched our listserve, intending it as an asynchronous, simple, always-on channel for communication. We created the list as a Google Group, making sure that it didn’t have an MIT address so that the list’s ownership was shareable. Through some initial prompting, largely by Jason and Jessica, we invited over 30 people to the listserve, and each person made at least 1 introductory post in the first 3 weeks. Approximately an equal numbers of MIT and iHub members to pioneer the collaboration space with us. The list has a number of active but gradual conversations. The most popular has been a thread where list denizens introduce themselves to one another. The sole thread originated from the iHub side is a follow up to our video call in to their Kids’ Hacker Camp (discussed below). We hope to have more successful threads and hangout calls as a way to get to one another and build a genuine community.

Representation on Listserve by institution

Our Group’s Internal Process

Although our aim was to codesign a collaboration with iHub, our first order of business for the class was to build a shared vision for this team of four. We each came to the group on good faith that there was a shared vision  to be found.

A key part of our process was reflection and self-assessment.  After each interaction or design decision, we analyzed the balance of power/contribution in order to determine whether or not that step was truly grounded in our fundamental principles of inclusion and symmetry.  We identified areas where we fell short and altered our approach accordingly.  While these reflection discussions were time-consuming, they helped us better navigate our journey.

For example, for our second call with the iHub, we asked Jessica to gather a group so that we could see and interact with a greater variety of people.  Both parties walked away wanting more, but we chalked it up to the glitchiness of the call.  However, we later realized that we took up more than half the time trying to explain our vision and didn’t really leave enough time to gather feedback from them. Recognizing this led us to research conversation dynamics between cultures and genders.  We made an even greater effort to solicit Kenyan voices and not make any more major decisions without a balanced dialogue.

Another valuable part of the design process was building a narrative.  While this was not something we consciously realized at the beginning, we have come to feel that it is extremely important for fostering ownership over an emergent project.  We were fortunate to have had documented much of our process (both for in-class presentations as well as for our own benefit), but are now considering ways to physically create this narrative (ex. blog) so that others may more easily understand the evolution of our thinking. Furthermore, the story itself adds weight to a journey and is what inspires many people to join the effort.

As a whole, our group worked extremely well together.  We brought a diversity of experience and opinions to the table, but were committed to the same goal of building symmetry.  We were able to complement and challenge one another.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Toward the goal of creating a symmetric collaboration with the iHub to co-design, we faced a number of challenges in- and outside of our control, and through reflection, learned a great deal from them.

Contextual Challenges


Lessons Learned

Current Events. Between October and December 2014, Kenyans have been processing the events of September 13 when an attack at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi left over 70 people dead, hundreds wounded, and many questioning the country’s vision and capacity to address non-state terrorism and the deep socioeconomic inequalities in East Africa that might have fueled it.

We did not address the Westgate attack with our iHub colleagues, and interesting, they did not bring it up with us either. Maybe this reflects the adolescence of this collaboration, and it would have played out differently if hublab was an established relationship at the time of the attack

Asynchronous Time and Location.  Nairobi is 7 (8 on DST) hours ahead of Boston. In an effort to establish interpersonal connections with our counterparts, we held Google hangouts starting between 6:00am and 9:00am in Boston.  We also emailed. In the beginning, those emails were necessarily long because we didn’t have a relationship, or a commitment to a collaboration.

Collaborations are built around a shared vision and trust. By not being co-located, it was hard to get to know each other to start this process.  So much is lost when an experience or a place is translated into static words and images online. Although meeting synchronously over Google hangout improved the quality and speed at which we built interpersonal connections, we faced time constraints in terms of Boston folks needing to start their busy days, and Nairobi folks wrapping up their days to get home. We realized that a successful international collaboration needs a mix of synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication.

Culture and society. Boston and Nairobi have different cultures and societies. Despite a great deal of overlap in professional skills and motivations, our differences in ideas about education, equity, gender, and religion explicitly or implicitly factored into this work.

We attempt cultural competence in each interaction, though we have no illusions sometimes our Western-ness and African-ness will bother the other. To ensure that people raise grievances when appropriate in a way that builds cross-cultural understanding, we have to create and enforce norms around speaking up and listening in all channels of communication.



Lessons Learned

No clear project or user. A key part of the design process is gathering insights, based on observation, and empathy for the experience of the end users. By nature of this collaboration, there is no clear project or end user to organize the collaboration around. Are the four of us and our Nairobi counterparts the end users? Are we co-designing for a third-party user? The answer to these questions are yes, and yes – the hublab collaboration will hopefully lead to multiple projects with multiple users.

The trick is identifying initial viable shared projects. Based on the feedback of mentors including Juliana and our experience thus far, we believe that without shared projects that the hublab relationship will lose traction. To identify these initial shared projects, a few key people from iHub and MediaLab will have to make a plunge into this yet-to-be-defined space and be prepared to learn and fail and try again. Trust building is iterative, you have to give some to gain some.

Informal vs. formal communication. We knew that building a shared understanding and trust would require informal and formal interactions. We initially ideated whole events that were structured as either formal or informal. For example, project-centered planning meetings versus demo parties with beer and music.  In reality, however, the lines between formal and informal interaction are blurred. For instance, as a result of the time difference, the four of us typically logged onto Google hangout with Nairobi in the early morning from our respective couches trying to conceal greasy hair and jammies while our colleagues circled around a single laptop at iHub dressed in button down shirts.

Having blended informal and formal communication channels is both a strength and challenge. On the one hand, these situations have tremendous potential for trust-building because you can gain a fuller impression of a person faster than if you met in a strictly formal setting. The challenge, though, is that poorly-defined social spaces can feel scary, and may prevent folks from opening up. Another potential is that people feel offput by an informal interaction because it was insensitive or experienced out of context. To manage these potential challenges, we suggested guidelines for the listserve that give contributors benefit of the doubt, and encourage listening. We have tried to model this in our posts, and in our Google Hangout conversations.

Lopsided support. Although we followed the IDEO process and reached out to iHub as our first step, the four of us started ideating for the course before we had a full picture of what is really going on in Kenya, and before they have a clear vision of the kinds of things we do at MediaLab. Added to this, both sides of the collaboration were rather unbalanced in the sense that our group is part of a course, getting a lot of support from our mentor, presenting in class and getting feedback from our peers and from IDEO, but nothing like this exists on the iHub side. When we met through Google Hangouts, this actually deterred us from good communication because the four of us are on the same page (even though it took us quite a while to get there), but the people at iHub lacked the context in which all our ideas were created. An example of this is the concept of ‘symmertorship’; they didn’t like this word at all, probably because they lack the context to understand it.

In certain cases not being co-located can be a good thing in the sense that group thinking is more easily avoided. Also, an organic collaboration, rather than one motivated by class assignments might seem more ideal.

However, co-location would allow us to know one another. If we don’t really know each other and we don’t have a clear picture of each other, how can we co-design something together if we barely have a channel of communication?

As previously mentioned, we realized that before we could co-design, we need to build a relationship and we shifted our focus from building a learning platform to creating an environment in which a relationships can be established and can be nurtured.

Furthermore, we came to see the course assignments and meetings with Ethan as a real asset. Juliana called this structure “lamp posts” and encouraged us to find more lamp posts to create incentives and momentum for the hublab collaboration.

Chatter versus silence.  In Google Hangouts and on the listserve, the voices from MIT have been louder. A great number of the comments on the listserve were prompted from the four of us, and a bulk of the posts coming from MIT.  This is partly because we are motivated by the structure of this course. We also realize that Western-erns tend to fill the space in conversations, and are more likely than African to speak up in a conversation.

We are making a concerted effort to let there be more silence, and let the conversation move slower so that it is more inclusive.

By identifying a few key iHub members to move this collaboration forward, we also feel we’ll get better feedback about when to prompt, and when to listen.

The relationship model. The initial hublab relationship felt like a blind dates on two levels; first our group was set up with Jessica Colaço, a contact of Ethan’s. Second, we asked Jessica to set us up with some more people at iHub, and ultimately, the two groups started working on getting more people set up on both sides.

From the very beginning, however, the four of us wanted hublab to be a long term relationship, and we had the same feeling after talking to Jessica for the first time. The hublab relationship is therefore more like an arranged marriage; a relationship that spawns further engagement than the time allocated for a class project. It should also be noted that iHub’s was never in a class; instead they got involved in this experiment because they are motivated to build a relationship with us.  Thus, opening a communication channel in which we can arrange these relationships at different levels (as a whole community, but also smaller relationships based on interest and shared visions and projects) is a top priority.

Perception. We were surprised by how preconceived ideas of the other side would affect the project. For instance, we noticed that although our counterparts at iHub have a very similar skillset to ours and have been through a very similar education in similar fields, the way we see each other can be quite misleading. A concrete example of this happened during one of our interactions. iHub run a week-long hackathon for kids to build robots. We were invited to call in (via Google Hangout) at the end of the third day. They gathered around all the kids and we were chatting to them for a good hour and a half. A couple of kids were very surprised to learn than none of us have ever worked for NASA, or none of us actually work with robots. Even though this example involves kids, adult also share a perception of what happens on the other institution that might not be realistic. And obviously this happens on both sides of the collaboration.

We were also surprised by some advice from David and Juliana of Ushahidi who said that creating a narrative of the organization as it develops is key; the narrative is a shared adaptive vision and the inspiration for new members to join.

Misperceptions can make for great stories while developing that shared narrative. The trick is finding ways to call out the misperceptions when they occur, and finding common ground through them. We might have crushed some kids’ hearts when by saying we don’t work for NASA or play with robots, but we plan to use these stories to share smiles and move the relationship along with iHub.

Next Steps


We consider this process only a fraction of the way completed.  We plan to continue building this relationship between MIT and the iHub and are in the process of identifying a core group of champions who have the time and passion to meet regularly.  We have already had some individuals step up to be part of this group (3 from Kenya, 1 from MIT), and will continue reaching out for more.  To stay true to our guiding principle, we want to renew our commitment to symmetry by ensuring this group co-designs the listserv space using a shared vision that they create together.  We also hope that the possibility of co-location via a trip to Kenya or vice versa may be able to happen in the near future to cement this partnership.

Now that we have created a space, we would like to begin offering opportunities for interaction, possibly including a demo party, project karaoke, and/or unhangout.  We are also considering the possibility of bringing a third party into the fold; in creating something together for a third party, the members of hublab.  With Dana moving to Rwanda early next year, we could even pull off a Boston-Nairobi-Kigali connection!

Finally, we think it would be valuable to partner this course with a course in Kenya that has like goals and a similar timeline.  It does not have to be the same exact course, but one that shares our end goal of researching/creating an effective online learning collaboration.  We feel that such a shared structure and commitment obligations on the part of all participants would infuse the relationship with a more natural symmetry that comes out of shared goals.

Portraits of Success

Underlying all good relationships, whether they are arranged, spring from a blind date, or develop organically, is a friendship. Friendship is not something measurable (like a platform or a product), but rather an intangible bond that exists between people. There is no set formula to build it and no time frame that dictates when it happens. We cannot say when it is “complete” or “enough” because just like relationships, a successful friendships feels different for everyone.

 Luckily, people do not have to be co-located to share a passion or form a friendship.  There is a wide range of ways the listserv can be considered “successful,” all of which can be considered worthy in their own right.  Here we lay out some of the main success scenarios:

  • Organic Shared Projects.  These are projects that spring from conversation, not merely from one side or the other soliciting members to join a pre-existing team/project.  Not to say that’s a bad thing, but a more telling metric would be co-ideated and co-designed projects that are the outcomes of a collaboration.

  • Relationships based on mutual interest.  These relationships can be either 1-to-1 or 1-to-many, but our vision is that they are pockets of people who connect because of similar interests.  We are already seeing a little of this kind of activity come out of the listserv, but it’s at the very beginning stages.

  • Trigger free. This means members will not have to be “forced” or “reminded” to use the space (kind of like we were for this class), but will naturally think of it as a space they can come to for sharing resources, feedback, and insight.

  • Core Group of Champions.  While we are planning to stay involved, we ultimately want this collaboration to be something the four of us can walk away from.  We believe that having a core group of champions on both sides of the ocean who are committed to keeping the group going is essential to ensure the partnership grows.  We already have three individuals in Kenya (Jessica, Wachira, and Elizabeth) as well as one in the Media Lab (Chelsea Barabas) who are interested, and have set up a meeting next week to discuss how we would like to move forward.

  • Co-Learning and Symmentorship. This, as we all remember, was the point of this class!  We see this happening through co-teaching of skills and exposure to one another’s work that leads to co-learning and fosters our original theory of symmentorship as a pathway to mastery.

Overall, with the creation of this listserve, we sought to become like the four professors of this class by gathering interested and capable people into a common space to fuse their passions and co-create something larger than the sum of the parts.

Beyond MAS.S70 

Through this experience of co-design and relationship building, we each take back lessons and reflections to apply in our own domains.

Laura’s Reflections

This is what I wrote when I applied for a spot in this class

Having taught/lived in a very remote region of Honduras for 3 years, I’m interested in ways of enhancing learning experiences where schools have had little previous access to any sort of technology (or electricity, for that matter). I’m fascinated with devices/programs that use an individual-paced adaptive learning platform. However, I believe that these emerging platforms must be designed in conjunction with local pedagogy and designed specifically for local learning contexts. I’m also interesting in creating educational curriculums that look ahead to develop the 21st-century skills necessary for students to be productive, global citizens.”

I have always framed my areas of research around two things: (1) using technology to increase access to quality education for students with limited resources, and (2) promoting 21st century skills that develop students into lifelong learners and responsible global citizens.  This process has altered the way I see the first. I now understand the complexities that come with trying to increase “access” and “quality” of education by merely enhancing technology.  It takes more than a well-built platform to  form meaningful relationships across distance; it takes time, commitment, and ownership. Technology is not a replacement for co-location.  I am increasingly fascinated by what is lost in the fiber-optic cables that carry virtual conversations between people.  Because the personalities of individuals and goals of each relationship is unique, it’s hard to design spaces in which people can find mentors and form meaningful connections.  Moving forward, I plan to rethink technology’s role in my definition of “access.”

One of the things that I love to do is write and tell stories.  I have a natural talent for finding the right words, using digital media, creating images, and generating pop-culture references to communicate with an audience.  Yet, I think of storytelling as a fun side project.  Juliana’s view that creating a narrative is an essential part of the collaboration process has allowed me to rethink the role of storytelling in my work.  Telling stories is a way to build empathy that lays the foundation for symmetrical relationships. Moving forward, I think I have to stop discrediting it “fun” and start thinking about how it can be used to foster trust, inspiration, and meaning for others.

José’s Reflections

Although I have always found that co-design is implicit in my work with students in open source projects (they always co-design a solution with a mentor), I find the idea of merging co-design and symmetry very appealing and intriguing. I see the relations established in apprenticeship settings happening at multiple levels in which anyone, at a given time, is always a peer. A master to master relationship is a relationship of peers, and it’s only through acceptance by your peer network that you become one of them. This happens at all levels (journeyman and apprentice).

 But to achieve symmetry in a relationship, the relationship itself cannot be unbalanced (members have to be peers). Since the beginning of this project, Symmetry has been bugging me big time.

I am somehow fixated with the symmetry of symmetry (I know…). If the relationship is unbalanced (eg. master to journeyman) then the interaction cannot be symmetric. We discussed a few times scenarios in which, for instance, one person would benefit from learning a new skill, and the facilitator would benefit from the interaction with the learner. What’s symmetric about that though? I’m not implying that what each side learns has to be quantified and be made equal, but if both sides do not benefit in the same way, then there is no symmetry.

I can see symmetry in a study group; I also see symmetry in our group, four rather different people joining forces to solve a problem and learning in the process. I need to think more about how this can be applied to open source projects; it won’t work just by putting 2 to 4 people together, but they will also need to be  given the tools to go through the process we went through. I am teaching a software engineering class in the Spring term and I have to get some of these techniques in this class folded in within the Agile methodologies labs, and make students apply them in their designs.

 Another takeaway from this class is the different ideas about group formation and about group and power dynamics. It was very interesting to see the different interactions within our group from the design, development, teaching, and entrepreneurial fronts. We perceived certain topics or ideas in radically different ways, but we managed to make that a good thing.

I have also always been fascinated by the importance that language plays in community interactions, and how it can play an important role in identity and belonging to a group. A good example of that is Symmentorship; you’ll have no idea what I am talking about if you are a Muggle.

Dana’s Reflections

This course introduced me to education and design concepts that brought tremendous insight to my work as a research mentor, and gave me a ton of opportunities to improve my own teamwork skills. Furthermore, I used IDEO design tools to help flesh out a grant proposal during the course, and I will likely use them again soon as I co-design a research mentorship program for clinical researchers in Rwanda in my new job starting in January.

The grant proposal is something that I’ve been thinking about, and trying to articulate, for almost two years. It’s why I joined this course! The concept is to transform the scientific literature from just a research repository into a learning platform by integrating video tutorials and other multimedia into scientific articles. In the grant, I organized the deliverables around user desirability, technical feasibility, and business sustainability, a design framework posed by IDEO. When the application asked, “What is the primary question of university-level [Harvard] interest that you are addressing in your proposal?”, I responded with: “How might we leverage research as a teaching and learning opportunity?” Another IDEO tool.

Learning to phrase “how might we” questions has allowed me to participate in ideation conversations in completely new ways and it opened a door toward finding creative confidence in myself. Before learning “how might we”, I would have started a thought with “how about” or “what if”. The latter two phrases lead to proposals, which, in a collaboration space can come across as bossy or deterministic. It also leaves the person making proposals vulnerable to flat “yes” or “no” responses; and “no, I don’t like that idea” does not lead to creative confidence. “How might we” is an invitation. It broadens rather than narrows the conversation. And this simple phrase has allowed me to participate in groups in more creative, productive ways.

The very concept of creative confidence was new to me at the start of the course; this and a number of other concepts have been immensely helpful.


When Patty made the distinction between “just in case” versus “just in time” learning in her presentation, for example, the loose pile of ideas in my head around adult learning and learning as a busy professional, started to snap into place.

As a geographer and public health person, I don’t have formal training in education theory. Through my work on a team of research mentors at Harvard Medical School, however, I have a lot of impressions of what successful mentorship and training looks like for overworked, passionate clinicians, community health workers, health facility managers, and program planners in low-resource settings. These learners don’t apply concepts with much success after generalized trainings. For them, there is often a patient or mini-crisis that is more important than a scheduled lecture or meeting in the middle of the day, and so attendance of regularly scheduled events is poor. The most successful examples of learning and mentorship that I have witnessed (and experienced) involve mentors who are responsive to questions as they arise, who provide personalized support, and who teach through example. Although “just in time” learning can by non-personalized, the distinction between “just in time” and “just in case” is leading me to consider minimizing lectures, and instead assembling example work and personalized assignments to help mentees work through their own research projects.

Jason’s Reflections

This semester, I’ve been near-constantly under the weather and miserable just about constantly. Virus, sinus infection, back pain – I’ve been a physical disaster. The thing about pain is that you really can’t focus very well and everything seems that much harder. Oh, and I’ve been in a statistics class that crams a year of material and effort into a single semester. So why am I so happy about also facing one of the most intellectually and emotionally draining challenges I’ve faced as a graduate student at MIT?

A) The Project: Staring at the board on the team creation day, looking for where to put my PostIt notes, I was surprised to find myself placing one on the space for developing countries/symmetry. I’d been actively thinking about how to make MOOCs a better place to learn and teach (especially if they’re seemingly going to exist anyway), and have been working on getting skillsharing going in the Media Lab via the Festival of Learning and Studcom for 5 semesters now. But since my Masters work, I’ve been really compelled by how power dynamics and identity issues are in some ways inherent to the interpersonal dynamics that occur when people learn from and with each other. Ethan’s positioning of the missionary stance and the challenge of teaching someone something while seeing them as an equal, attempting to hold in mind the value that person contributes and the many things you may wish to learn from them, avoiding the opportunity to elevate yourself, was unshakable. So I picked a new adventure, and I am entirely changed and compelled.

After all of our work in the IDEO process, grinding away in the ideation mines, it was really pleasing that in the face of such daunting challenges – mutually coaching one another and building shared culture across the Atlantic with no physical co-presence – we kept coming back to the really human issues inherent to the project. We should share food! And music! And T-shirts! And what if there was daycare…? We looked at the challenge before us from the class and started ideating the platform, already factoring our experiences from the Tufts Social List and Awesome@Media into our thinking and Dana and Laura did a particularly wonderful job drawing out plans for what our platform could do. But as we talked, the ghosts of unused platforms wafted into the room. The idea of showing up to meet our Kenyan friends with an aircraft carrier of a platform already built  moved us to silence. So what if we just started a mailing list? The absurdity was of course wonderful, but this absurdity was amplified by the fact that it just kind of seemed right.

At this point, we have e-met some wonderful Kenyans, excited some really great people from around the Media Lab about working with Kenyans, and gotten great feedback and respect from luminaries like Philipp Schmidt, Mitchel Resnick, and of course Ethan Zuckerman. The mailing list will live on, with help from all of us, and not just collect a grade before hitting the recycling bin. And in my fondest dreams, it exists beyond any of our individual participations.

B) The Process: Honestly, I tried to remember or find documentation of my AEIOUs, and I couldn’t. I’m pretty sure that all I cared about were symmetrical Interactions. It was really great to participate in IDEO’s process and do the collective, exhaustive mining that allowed us to find the gems of what we really cared about as a team. It was really useful to have Laura around as a local expert as well, introducing further models or providing nuance and clarity when IDEOs tools weren’t quite getting the job done. But as fun as that capital-P-process was, the process of grinding out the steps necessary to make things happen were immensely satisfying to me – getting 6 to 8AM Google Hangouts going, doing the shoe leather work around the Media Lab that led to Erhardt, Alexis, Nathan, and highly-in-demand Scratch expert Abdulrahman to show up for the the Kids’ Hacker Camp call, and maintaining the traffic on the list (perhaps too actively for a time). I enjoyed coming to understand the narrowest amount of what sorts of challenges and victories a place like the iHub has, and, despite my general exhaustion in the face of meeting strangers, seeing others get deeply excited at the process at making new transatlantic friends on both sides was extremely inspiring. All we did was open a window, and people were ready to wave over the hedges.

Whether or not this sort of thing is sustainable without ever meeting one another in person is another question. We tried a number of activities to get things going on the list, and only the Hacker Camp call felt like an unambiguous win. It’s been exciting to think through the design features and feedback loops of anarchist organizing techniques and how to make them land online. The answer hasn’t full emerged yet, but I hope to continue meditating on that hard problem. And even as I despair a bit, we were able to hear from Juliana Rotich and David Kobia that, yeah, these things are hard and a grind and they take time. We were on the right track, but the wrong timeline. And hey, Elizabeth wants to try project karaoke sometime!

C) The Team: We agreed to make a mailing list together. The importance and value of the thinking, care, and risk-taking that went into that decision can’t be overstated. It’s not every group project with high-achieving types in demanding environments that will agree to jump over the waterfall together even though they know it’s the right thing to do. I have so many fun memories from this process, and really, once you call Kenya at 6AM with people while you’re in your jammies, you’re kind of family. This was a remarkable group to work with and I was struck in reflection by how necessary all of our diverse skill sets, networks, and personalities were to getting this thing to fly. I think we found this in part because we were great at seeing and utilizing resources, and respectful without being afraid to speak our minds. What more can you ask?

Polyglot: Project Documentation

The initial motivation for our project centered around creating an engaging language learning experience.  The following report outlines that process and finishes with our reflections on the experience.

Initial Brainstorm

The first few meetings started with discussing the scope of the project, what we wanted our platform to have, and some initial sites to start researching what was on the market. After some discussion we came up with a few of the following criteria as well as some initial research to see what other language applications were on the market.


  • Young adults and adults

  • ESL

  • Mobile

  • Level(s)

  • Skills to practice


We want to build a mobile platform with the following features:

  • using mobile technology to scale learning

  • integrated/immersive learning

  • flexibility of learning (personalization)

  • student-centred and/or students-generated content

  • allow for sustained engagement

  • creates an authentic learning environment

  • encourage fluency but also accuracy

  • Incorporates a safe, fun, and inspiring online community


Some ideas to start with:

  • Fill in the blanks (speech bubbles)

  • Use random cards (with a word and picture) to complete a sentence

  • User Generated Content (e.g. students taking photos/video and then learning based on them perhaps using a crowd-source model) for JIT learning


Sites to research:

  • EnglishCentral

  • Memrise

  • LiveMocha

  • DuoLingo


User Profiles

After coming up with some initial ideas, we started to think about what kind of users would use our product.  All of us have been language learners, and two of us are actively involved in the language learning and teaching process.  Again we brainstormed some ideas for possible usage scenarios based on our experiences and dove deeper into what the user needs might be, where they were located, and how they might use the product.  Listed below are the usage scenarios and the profiles we came up with.

User scenario 1:


Two university students, Taro and Adam, have agreed to do conversation exchanges via Skype.  Taro wants to learn English conversation and Adam wants to improve his Japanese skills.  Taro is a student at University X in Tokyo, Adam a student at University Y in Boston.

Taro has the basic knowledge of English but his oral skills (i.e., speaking and listening) are weak (compared to his reading and writing skills).  He wants to improve his oral skills via interacting with a native speaker of English directly.

He is also interested in learning vocabularies/expressions specific to his field (biotech) as he plans to do an internship next summer at one biotech company in Cambridge.

Adam has taken two years of Japanese at University Y  in Boston.  He can have basic conversations in Japanese.  He is interested in improving his Japanese overall skills.  Also, he is interested in learning Japanese customs and culture.  He plans to do a homestay program in Japan next year.

User Scenario

Taro and Adam collect what they want to learn via mobile devices (e.g., photos, video’s).  They can gather their learning materials in real life or from the web sites.  They meet once a week via Skype.  The meeting consists of two sessions: (i) Japanese session where they both speak in Japanese and discuss what Adam wants to learn and (ii) English session where they both speak in English and discuss what Taro wants to learn.

User Scenario 2:


User: Krishna Prakash, Office Boy


Krishna was born and grew up Belathur, a village two hours away from Bangalore. He studied at the local government run school until grade six after which he helped his father run the family cashew farm. At the age of fifteen he moved to the city because of the opportunities to earn more money there. For three years he worked in a steel plant doing unskilled labor, before finding a less strenuous job waiting tables at a roadside restaurant. Rakesh Murthy, a sales rep for a software distributor would often eat at the restaurant and struck up a rapport with Krishna. When the peon at Rakesh’s company left, Rakesh recommended Krishna for the job.

Krishna’s duties involve doing odd jobs around the office where around twelve people work:

  • making tea and coffee

  • opening the office in the morning for the cleaning lady

  • delivering the newspaper to the manager’s desk

  • washing dishes

  • fetching lunch from a nearby restaurant 2-3 days a week

  • fetching cigarettes and Starbucks coffee for the staff

  • sweeping the office every night and locking up

  • buying office supplies


He earns Rs. 4,000 (around $50) per month and lives in a tiny room in a slum two hours away from the office. He spends four hours on his daily commute by bus.


In contrast, the people who work in the office earn between $1,200 and $5,400 per month.


Krishna only knows very few words in English – like ‘water’, ‘tea’, ‘coffee’, ‘cigarettes’ etc. He only speaks the local language – Kannada. Half of the people in the office speak Kannada so complicated tasks can be explained to him. Most of the time though, he doesn’t need much more knowledge of English to do his job apart from the basic words he knows.


Key Goals

Krishna has a friend Hari who was more fortunate than him. Hari stayed in school till grade 12 and had some basic English skills. His parents were able to pay for him to study English for 1 year after school and now he works in an office as an junior telemarketer earning a salary of Rs. 8,000 (double that of Krishna). Krishna would dearly love to learn English so that he can get a better job. His daily contact with the people in the office are a constant reminder of how his life could be better if only his English were better.


Usage Scenario

Krishna saved for one year to buy a smartphone. He paid a whole month’s salary for it and it is his most prized possession. He can listen to music on it and play games while he is commuting to and from work.



User Scenario 3:


User: Yuka


Yuka is a Japanese girl from a middle class family in Japan. Her parents take her education very seriously but since she is the eldest of 2 other kids, the parents are cautious about their spending. They pay for the private school, but they cannot afford to send her an English preparation course such as TOEFL prep, which will cost the family around $10K a year.  Yuka has always wanted to live abroad, master English, and become an architect while she has no idea how to even get started.  She faces the following problems when learning English:

  • unqualified English teachers at school

  • TOEFL exam questions that she does not understand how to approach

  • high cost of a test preparation school

  • her local community and family members do not have any information on the topic

The diagram below outlines other problems that Yuka faces:


Key Goals

An online platform that Yuka can learn and practice how to become “a near native speaker” and a scholar in English language and cultural context. By engaging in various projects offered at this site, she will not only explore her interests but also learn to speak, read, and write in English naturally. Within the 3 years of heavy engagement, she only spent 6 months in TOEFL/SAT prep while being able to get good enough score for her to acquire scholarships (offered domestically) for a liberal arts college.


Use Scenario

She can access the site with her iPhone during her commuting time to school (1.5 hours each day), free time, and any other time she has data access to.  She makes friends (who are partner school kids, college volunteers, or other high school/middle school kids learning English from all over the world) there, collaborate on projects, and really enjoys the gamified and truly engaging system that allows her creativity flow.


User Scenario 4:

User: Clare


Clare is the Director of Operations at a multinational company in Costa Rica that has just opened operations there.  She was sent to Costa Rica from the US to jump start operations there and get local staff and management up to speed on the latest projects.  She may be in the country for a year or two.  Her company has put her in accommodation in an upscale area in San Jose where most expats typically live.  She has almost everything she needs near the house and a local driver takes her around. At work, she speaks English as all staff members must have at least a 6.5 to 7.0 on the IELTS or passed the FCE, CAE, or CPE (Cambridge Proficiency exams). Her job is very demanding and she works long hours.

Key goals

Clare would really like to learn Spanish given that she might be living in Costa Rica for the next two years.  She studied for a couple of years in high school, but then never continued after that. She doesn’t always like living in an expat bubble and would love to explore the city and the rest of the country more, but feels that this might be difficult with her very limited Spanish. She also feels that it would really help develop relations with local staff and allow her to learn more about Costa Rican culture and customs. Her company is willing to pay for private language instruction, but it is difficult for her to have regularly scheduled classes given her busy schedule. Thus, she would like to have the flexibility to do some independent study on her own.

Usage scenario  

Because of the demands of her job, she has a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, and smartphone. She works on her computer all day, and usually uses her tablet at home for entertainment and surfing the internet.  Often, she also brings work home with her and does that via the laptop.  She also carries a smartphone around with her and uses that for texting, e-mail, some simple games, managing her schedule, and doing some simple work tasks. She generally has some free time in the evenings, tries to take an hour lunch about 3 times a week to get away from the office, and tries to have one day to herself on the weekend. She would like practice her Spanish via her tablet or mobile phone as those devices are more portable and she can study while being driven around the city, travelling, or just sitting on the couch at home. Initially, she would love to speak Spanish in restaurants, ask directions, go shopping for clothes at the mall, shop and bargain at the local market, and have a simple, but extended conversation with locals to find out about more about them and their country.


Design Phases and Decisions

Iteration 1:

Once we came up with user personas, we tried brainstorming ideas again, but had difficulties during this stage identifying what our next steps were.  We tried coming up with potential ideas for what what the final product might look like and came up with the following:

  • plugin model – pull in apps, plugins or a toolkit based on your language needs

  • feature driven

  • example document you can take a picture of, upload, put comments and ask questions, crowd-sourced answers

  • plugin model – pull in apps, plugins or a toolkit based on your language needs

  • feature driven

However, we were not sure where to go from there.  It seemed as if we were going in circles.  Therefore, we tried picking a user and trying to imagine how a user might use a particular application and came up with the first, rough design for the user Clare.  

How Clare uses technology in her daily life:

How it might work:

The idea focused on vocabulary learning and incorporated the concepts of capture, communicate, and creating new content.  We decided that vocabulary learning was a good area for focus and met with Pattie to get feedback.  Based on our meeting with Pattie, we changed slightly and came up with slightly more focused “how might we..” questions.  These are listed below:


“How Might We” list

  1. How might we actually make this platform about language learning and not just another social media network?

  2. How might learners actually know they are improving?

  3. How might learners actually improve their level?

  4. How might we provide enough scaffolding to support learners but also still allow them to be self-directed in their learning?

  5. How might we engage users and provide a structure or platform that allows the content produced to be intrinsically motivating?

  6. How might we create a community of learners feel to the platform where learning is symmetrical rather than one-directional and unequal?

  7. How might we get expert feedback into the process to help validate learners’ experiences and attempts?

  8. How might we take into account non-roman script languages?

  9. How might we design the platform so that learners can migrate towards what interests them?

Iteration 2:

During this iteration, we focused on the following issues:


Target audience: what level of language learners are we going to target for?  How does the design should differ depending on each level?

  • 3 levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced

  • beginners – focus on word-level features (pronunciation, spelling, maybe simple sentences, etc.)

  • intermediate – longer sentences and some dialogue around the picture and context

  • advanced – full discussions about picture, context, culture, etc.


Just In-Time learning: How can we incorporate the concept of just in-time learning?

  • “learning on the go” – users can capture content via mobile device (photo’s or video’s)


Learning Progress: How can we let users know/ensure that they are learning and advancing their language skills?

  • flashcards to keep a record of that content

  • allowing learner’s to induce grammar and vocabulary rules by pulling in authentic examples from the web and from peer feedback


Content Categorization: Can we categorize/cluster the contents that users post, so that we can utilize these data/metadata later on?

  • categorizing content so that participants can organize as well as access content by their interests using hashtags.

Example: I can organize my flashcards by hashtagging them with #food and I can look and discuss other people’s cards on #dance


Personalization and Beyond Vocabulary: We incorporated this concept into “Phrases” feature.

  • some kind of space for learners to actually create, produce, or use the language they are learning

  • some kind of feature that allows learners to indicate on the picture/video/audio/text  what it is they need they help with


Correct/Incorrect & Peer Feedback:

  • allowing users to indicate by correctness and incorrectness of a response as well as by whether they like it or not

  • peer and machine feedback

Example: users can post particular sections of something they have written or said and ask for feedback from peers as well as utilize features like spell check, grammar check, or even some translation

  • focus on English language only or at least one other

  • users can build their reputation and also move up a level


During this iteration, we came up with the following questions:

  1. What’s relationship will the users have with each other?

    1. symmetric p2p – sometimes you are the mentor and sometimes you are the mentee

    2. native speakers to non-native speakers

      1. What will attract native speakers to the platform if they are not learning a language?

    3. advanced speakers to less advanced speakers

      1. Is it okay if their feedback may not be accurate or correct from a native speaker’s standpoint?

      2. Begs the question..are native speakers always going to be correct about their own language and be able to give meaningful feedback to a learner?

  2. What is the motivation for users to help each other?

    1. gamified aspects – building a reputation that other users can see by the quality and/or quantity of the responses you give

    2. you are learning a language and want others’ help, you help others in the hope that they will return the favor

    3. allowing learners to ask more advanced or native speakers for help or feedback maybe via private message or direct reply

  3. Should a learner’s reputation be the only determiner for advancement to the next level?

  4. How might we actually make this platform about language learning and not just another social media network?

  5. How might learners actually know they are improving?

  6. How might learners actually improve their level?

  7. How might we provide enough scaffolding to support learners but also still allow them to be self-directed in their learning?

  8. How might we engage users and provide a structure or platform that allows the content produced to be intrinsically motivating?

  9. How might we create a “community of learners” feel to the platform where learning is symmetrical rather than one-directional and unequal?

  10. How might we get expert feedback into the process to help validate learners’ experiences and attempts?


Iteration 3:

During this interaction, we narrowed down the scope of our project and started exploring the design in concrete terms.

Here are what we decided:


  • beginner

  • both native speaker (NS) and non-native speaker (NNS)

  • motivated/active learner

  • learners and helpers



  • Will be multilingual – focus on Spanish and English for symmetric learning and to incentivize native speakers to join

  • Will have the option for users to both “help others” and “learn”

  • learners can circle or annotate the parts of the image (similar to iannotate/skitch app)

  • allowing users to indicate by correctness and incorrectness of a response as well as by whether they like it or not

  • Help Others

    • will include items that need to translated

    • voting on “correct” answers

    • Language hangout – conversation exchange

  • Learn

    • take picture and post content

    • create flashcard

    • review flashcards

    • use others’ flashcards (like Quizlet)

    • play games with the flashcard content

    • read others’ posts

    • language hangout – conversation exchange

    • ability to post to a discussion forum or private message users if they have more general questions


Questions that haven’t been answered well yet(some of these were also from the previous meeting with Pattie)

  • How will learners know they are improving?

  • How will learners actually USE the language they are learning? – most of what we have now is just isolated input without any practice of it in a communicative context.

For example, if a user learns the phrase “give up”, how would they use it in a conversation?

Takako and I suggested having a language hangout where learners could have real-time talk with other learners.  Perhaps we could expand on this idea or adapt it. For example, should it be face to face chat, written chat, both? We should think about learners who might initially be shy about communicating face to face.

  • Could we somehow create conversations around interests? Even for beginners?

  • Can we actually test this using a prototype of some sort, similar to the facebook prototype from one of the groups?

  • How might we provide enough scaffolding to support learners but also still allow them to be self-directed in their learning?

  • How might we engage users and provide a structure or platform that allows the content produced to be intrinsically motivating?

  • In what ways do we want to use gamification?


Iteration 4

Deliverables and the Workflow for the class presentation:

1. Profile/Login Page/User input

  1. Language to learn

  2. Native language

  3. Country of Origin

  4. Self-determined level

  5. Interests?

2. Photo Capture

3. User Input from learner

a. Text label in native language

b. Voice label

c. Tag

d. Phrases

4. User input from helper

a. Text label in native language

b. Voice label

c. Tag

d. Phrases

5. Voting/Correction

6. Practice

a. Flashcard review

b. cover information review

c. games

d. Conversation exchange

7. Dashboard

a. Review process (what needs to be labelled?)

b. What needs to be commented/corrected?

c. Your progress

d. Categories/Interests?

  • Two users (both languages)

  • 1st time login workflow

  • 5th time login workflow

  • 100th time login workflow

Final Design Mockups









In search of symmetry: Project Documentation

(by Divya Chaturvedi, Marcela Gomez, Abdulrahman Y. Idlbi, Ye-Her Wu)

Part 1: What got us thinking about symmetric learning?

The missionaries

We recognize we are in a pretty privileged position. We have been given opportunities to learn, and refine our skills, in a way many do not have. We want to give back to our community; we want to help those who are less privileged. Some of us want to teach, others start programs/ projects for causes and communities we care about.

But in helping the communities we purport to help, are we really changing things for the better for them? Are we providing them with the assistance they really need? Or are we simply imposing our ideals and world view on a community we have deemed “helpless”?

Where is the asymmetry?

So there is an asymmetric relationship between the person that gives, and the person that receives. Examples of the relationship:

The teacher and the student: The teacher holds the power, s/he holds the knowledge that student wants to learn. But does the way the teacher teach, actually help the student learn? The less educated the student, the more asymmetrical the relationship. This is particularly so amongst less literate/ skilled adult learners and those in developing communities, who feel powerless, who see themselves as passive learners in the process.

The funder and the recipient: This is probably where the asymmetry is greatest. In providing the resources, the funder also enjoys a disproportionate say about which kind of project or idea gets implemented. The funder’s ideas may be different from the reality on the ground and may not lead to the desired outcome that would benefit the very people it was intended for. The funder could impose his vision, but the recipient is the conduit for him to achieve this vision.

The volunteer and the beneficiary: In most instances this is the well-meaning person who genuinely wants to make the world a better place. However, his only reference point is the life he has had, and the only solutions he knows, are those he has practiced. So while his intentions are right, his solutions might not be suitable or relevant to the context.. When he lends aid, through his contribution of skill or knowledge, there is asymmetry as he may not know what the beneficiary really needs, while the beneficiary may not be able to protest.

How do we improve this asymmetry?

We recognized that while it is unlikely to make a missionary/ beneficiary relationship entirely symmetrical, attempt can be made to make it more balanced. While the person/organization may be well meaning and sincere about the aid they are trying to give, how can they do so in a collaborative and reflective way that allows for full engagement and participation of the communities and people being helped so that the aid and is meaningful and relevant to the communities?  Similarly, how can beneficiaries communicate their needs to those in power who sincerely want to help?  To answer these questions we set out to build an iterative feedback mechanism that could lead to a better understanding and knowledge transfer between the two groups with the hopes that it would thereby bring about meaningful and applicable solutions as well as better learning outcomes.

Finding a project to work on

We were interested in helping the well-meaning “missionary” access and understand those who are most affected by an issue. This narrowed our scope to identifying projects relating to “The funder and the recipient” or “The volunteer and the beneficiary”. Relating to the former, we explored working with a local social enterprise which received funding from Foundations (e.g., Gates Foundation) and local Government.  They wanted to help their funders understand the on the ground implementation challenges better so that decisions on resource reallocation could be made faster.

The second option was to explore improving the Open IDEO platform, at the suggestion of Ethan and Philip. The goal of Open IDEO is to “draw upon the optimism, inspiration, ideas, and opinions of everyone to solve problems. They set us the challenge of helping Open IDEO source for solutions that were “more relevant”.

In the end, we decided to work on the Open IDEO challenge given its showcasing of a wide variety of global challenges and its effort to engage the global community to provide solutions to these challenges.  Further, as representatives from four different countries (India, Mexico, Singapore, and Syria), we felt we could understand the global nuances better and be able to provide more relevant solutions.

Exploring the concept of “the bridge”

Ethan Zuckerman describes ‘bridge figures’ as people who “straddle the borders between cultures, figuratively keeping one foot in each world.  As a bridge, you are an interpreter between cultures – translating and contextualizing ideas from one culture and another.” (Rewire, 2013)  Bridge figures can be important when it comes to building understanding between different cultures, countries and people. To be a bridge figure, a person should have spent substantial amount in a culture and country that is different from their home or root culture/country, for example students from Africa or India pursuing higher education in Western Europe or America. However, there is a difference between being bicultural and a bridge figure. Bridge figures care passionately about ‘one of the culture they inhabit and want to celebrate it to as wide an audience as possible.”

For an open online platform like OpenIdeo, bridge figures can play a critical part in translating and contextualizing ideas from one culture to another.  They can provide the much needed local context to a global challenge that would enable more localized solutions/ideas to emerge that would enrich the challenge measurably. Such bridge figures can be valuable ‘contextualizers’ for any global challenge put out by OpenIdeo providing local/cultural knowledge and information that would help draw in more people from that culture/country to contribute their ideas and inspirations.  When a user sees a representation of his cultural context at the OpenIdeo site, he/she is more likely to share their own unique ideas and suggestions that pertain to their own culture.  Bridge figures as ‘contextualizers’ can truly make the OpenIdeo challenge global, by drawing in and hooking people from their own cultures in different parts of the world!

Part 2: Creating symmetric learning spaces – trying it out on Open IDEO

Open IDEO is an online platform supported by IDEO where sponsors such as the Mayo Clinic and USAID can post global challenges with the hope of solving a widespread social problem (such as, “How might we all maintain well being and thrive as we age?” and “How might we create healthy communities within and beyond the workplace?”).  With the help of its members who are part of the global community, Open IDEO tries to develop solutions to face those challenges.  The website reflects a defined challenge cycle that consists of Inspiration, Ideas, Applause, Refinement, and Evaluation.  At the end of the cycle, a number of winners are announced for the challenge.  Afterwards, there is an ongoing period of “Realization” where the winning concepts are actually put into practice.

While going through the challenges on the OpenIdeo website, we noticed that a large proportion of the participation came from the developed world, and from people who may or may not have any direct experience or contextual knowledge of how the OpenIdeo challenge and its solutions would affect the people.  Or, in other words, how a small segment of participating users from mostly developed nations affected the direction and conceptualization of ideas.

Our journey as charted by our “How might we…”

How might we…

  • bring equal attention to the problems regardless of the proposer?
  • encourage localized versions of the problems/solutions?
  • encourage people from the targeted communities to participate in the process?
  • give voice to the people affected by the issue so that their opinions are reflected in the challenge?
  • help Sponsors and Contributors better understand the context of the problem?
  • uncover the assumptions of Sponsors and Contributors for more relevant/ effective solutions?

And we finally settled on

  • encourage beneficiaries to participate in the process?
  • reach localized solutions?
  • provide context to the challenges?


Initial impressions

For our initial dive into Open IDEO, we decided to each take a challenge that resonated with us and “see” how it would play out in the communities we come from, respectively.

mexico 2 Marcela picked a challenge titled “How might we make an election experience more accessible to everyone?” Two things stood out to her; an analogous example and a winning concept.  In the analogous example, one person suggested thinking about voting lines as similar to airport security lines.  People lined up to vote in her hometown, in fact, did not resemble people lined up at airports.  Elections in Mexico always take place in July, and in the northern states that means temperatures of over 100 degrees.  In addition, one of the winning concepts involved a voting bus.  Mexico has a long history of vote buying, where people are literally paid to get on a bus that will take them to the voting booth where they will vote for the candidate that sponsored the trip.  Neither the analogous example nor the winning concept seemed applicable or relevant to her community, and she kept thinking of what information and knowledge the OpenIdeo contributors should know in order to come up with real solutions that would be applicable and relevant to her community.

Abdulrahman looked at the challenge “How can technology help people working to uphold human rights in the face of unlawful detention?” and realized that one of the winning proposals did not quite work for the targeted audience. A solution conceived at a make-a-thon in London looked very different from the ground realities.

makeaton 3 makeathon 4From this, we realized that what was missing was context. The folks proposing solutions did not quite understand the contextual environment and challenges for the very people they were hoping to help.

makeaton 5makeaton 6

Introducing context

inspiration 7

inspiration page 8 It is not that Open IDEO did not consider context. The first step of the OpenIdeo challenge process to elicit solutions is the Inspiration phase. The purpose of this stage is to elicit stories, tools, case studies, and examples that will inspire solutions – preferably through pictures. However, these Inspirations are then grouped in an amorphous whole that assumes that these inspirations are homogenous globally.

But context differs from country to country, community to community, person to person. Thus we hit upon the idea of separating the Inspiration phase into separate threads, grouped, perhaps by geographical locations. This would help solution contributors gain a better appreciation of the environment of the beneficiaries they are trying to help.

We realized that the inspiration phase is the most critical phase as it allows for a sharing of tools, examples, case-studies about a particular challenge that would help in crafting real solutions.  The Inspiration phase would greatly benefit from a deeper dive into contextual information and knowledge and the showcasing of local context would inspire more people from different parts of the world to contribute.

localized solutions


building bridges


contex and inspiration

Currently, OpenIdeo follows a linear path of solutioning for a challenge from Inspiration to Realization. We proposed a more fleshed out Inspiration phase that would include the space to add contextual knowledge. For example, contributors could add relevant and localized information that would enrich the inspiration phase and the subsequent ideation phase. The Inspiration phase would look something like the image below with the Inspiration phase having many contextual threads.

before and after process We also realized that using maps to display the context would provide an easy visual display of contextual information and would encourage contributors and contextualizers to explore, understand and relate with the context.  Further, the addition of a “connect” function would allow potential contextualizers who identified with other contexts in some other part of the world to draw this linkage, and reframe the context to that of his community. In the long run, this would give contributors and contextualizers a better appreciation of the shared global experiences, and the “markets” that specific solutions can work in.

Further, to make the ‘context’ easy to follow, add, and understand, we proposed the following framework.  The ‘context’ during the Inspiration phase would be broke down into four categories:

  1. Self: share your perceptions, dreams
  2. Community: share your community’s social, family, formal and informal structures
  3. Infrastructure: what are the tools, utilities, technologies available in your local community
  4. Space: How is space shared in your local community

example of context buckets


Proposed “new” look for the Inspiration and Profiles page

redesign 1


The added context would be easier to view on a map.  The context could have pictures or description. Clicking on a context icon will lead the user to a detailed view.

redesign 2

zoom in and out view


Suggestions for Profile page

profile sample

In addition, to involve more contextualizers and contributors from different parts of the world, we propose that the “Profile” page of Open IDEO contributors include two tools. First, it should capture the contributor’s regional experience, so readers know about the contributors experience and his or her credibility in providing contextual knowledge or other inspirations and ideas from a particular viewpoint. Second, it should also track and rank top “contextualizers”, similar to what is already being done for top inspirers, conceptors, evaluators, and collaborators.


 Other observations/ learning points beyond what we have explored

  • The more concrete the challenge, the easier it is to add context. So some challenges that are more specific in nature get much more detailed and relevant solutions.
  • In the Inspiration phase, OpenIdeo sets out certain ‘missions’ that help guide the thinking of contributors on inspiration.  The language of the ‘mission’ can be modified to gather as many diverse contributions as possible.


Next Steps: More thinking needs to be done on how might we….

  • encourage contextualizers to contribute to solutions within their communities?
  • enable co-creation of solutions between contextualizers and solution contributors from outside the community?
  • allow the contextualization phase to give a real sense of the reality on the ground, yet prevent the process from being politicized?



Some responses from friends and family around OpenIdeo’s current challenge “How might we inspire young people to cultivate their creative confidence?”

Appendix 2 Appendix 1


Tapping the Crowd in Free Online Courses (And Beyond)

Team Members: Griff, Jeff, Katherine, Mila and Srishti.

It is possible to complete an online course with 40,000 students and never interact with anyone else in the virtual classroom. Which is strange, because the major providers of so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs, boast how social they are. One MOOC provider, Coursera, promises in its marketing materials that students will “learn with four million Courserans,” and edX, founded by Harvard and MIT, says it can help students “connect with smart and passionate people, just like you, from around the world.”

The reality is that most MOOCs focus on a set of self-service learning resources consumed in isolation. Each student watches a series of lecture videos at their own pace, and then takes tests and turns in other assignments that are graded by automated software. Yes, students are taking the course together, but in the same way that hundreds of thousands of readers around the world peruse The New York Times together every day. MOOCs do have discussion forums — just as online newspapers have comment sections — but the interaction among online students has so far been minimal.


We hope to change that.

As part of a course at the MIT’s Media Lab this semester, we’ve developed a prototype for a tool that will help arrange MOOC students into small teams to study together or perform group projects. For inspiration, we looked to other popular services that match people: online dating services, multiplayer video games, couch-surfing sites, and more. But we also turned to the extensive literature on group dynamics and learning in teams. And we took a few too many spirit animal quizzes.

We found one grouping framework particularly compelling. It posited that there are seven types of roles people play in meetings: Encourager, compromiser, leader, summarizer, ideator, evaluator, and recorder. We visited Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and did an informal experiment to see how useful those categories were. For this session we divided participants randomly into five groups of four to perform a task known as “the marshmallow challenge.” Each group was asked to build a tower out of 20 pieces of spaghetti, a piece of string, and some masking tape that could hold up a single marshmallow. The group with the tallest free-standing tower at the end of 18 minutes won. The experience reminded us that team interactions are complicated and defy easy categorization. In one group, for instance, one participant started out as a compromiser, but took a more active role halfway through to become an ideator and leader. Still, these categories seemed worth considering as one factor in building diverse teams.


In the end, we crafted a short survey asking students about their personality and preferred roles in groups. The online survey has a lighthearted tone, and will soon also include a picture of a cow with the words “don’t click me” in a speech bubble. Our system will note who clicks the cow (and how many times) in assigning them to a group (along with other variables, of course).



Based on the survey results, the system will create a profile page, and assign one of 40 animal avatars based on the role the survey suggests they might play in an online group.
Someone who is deemed an ideator might be assigned a penguin avatar, for instance. Students will have the option of changing their animal, and in the end the hope is that users will embody the role suggested by their creature.


The experience of taking the survey and editing the resulting profile page is meant to encourage positive participation in the resulting group. We do not include a troll as an avatar choice. Many people have had bad experiences in group projects in school or other settings, after all, where one or two people do most of the heavy lifting while others coast along. Group work is hard to manage, and our tool will never be perfect.

In the future, we hope to expand the system to give users even more control over their group placement. Students will eventually have the option of entering an online social mixer where they can recruit team members or join an existing team.


We hope to test our grouping tool in a MOOC that MIT’s Media Lab will offer this spring called Learning Creative Learning. And we’ll be presenting the idea at the Designing Future for Peer-to-Peer Learning conference in Baltimore in February. Here is the link to the full conference proposal where you will find more detail about our project and footnotes for our research You can also watch a video of our class presentation below.

And each of us have included a short reflection on what we’ve learned.

Mila’s Reflection


At the beginning of the semester I had no idea what to expect from this class. We were told to create groups with other people who had varying trajectories and backgrounds, many of whom I didn’t know. In my “pitch” video I mentioned taking a large group of people and giving them a customizable and engaging experience. Learning Creative Learning seemed like an obvious choice because it would give me access to a potentially massive audience. My interest in the topic stemmed from my experience working at the NYC Department of Education, which is the biggest school district in the country. We had thousands of teachers to support with a relatively small central staff. Many wanted individualized attention and assistance, but our budget restrictions and lack of manpower made it impossible to address everybody’s needs. So, my individual “how might me” probed at ways to encourage people to work out problems on their own or better yet, work with others and form strong support systems.

After I found my MOOC team we started brainstorming, something we kept doing until the final presentation. Over the course of the semester we realized our group had many leaders and lots of big ideas. Fortunately, with Philipp’s help, we managed to hone in on some general concepts. How do we make MOOCs digestible, engaging, and empowering? This was an idea that was inline with my original question so I was happily on board. I think our biggest roadblock came when we started to create the survey. There was so much information that we wanted to gather, but we had to cut it down. In contrast to our team, most MOOC providers are sitting on an embarrassingly amazing wealth of knowledge about their users and doing nothing with it. All we wanted to do was extract the tiniest bit of information from our classmates to make their relationships “better than random”.

Working with my own team and hearing feedback from other students about their group experiences helped me think about group dynamics in a more salient way. We weren’t talking about random people on the Internet; we were grouping our classmates and ourselves. Currently, our project is in a good place. The deadlines forced us to hammer out details that we could probably spend another semester discussing and debating. I was a strong supporter of having more visual cues that would help people find teammates to form more diverse groups, but this got cut to make our profiles sleeker and more digestible. In the end, I came to a surprising realization. Maybe the big MOOC providers aren’t entirely ignoring user interaction; maybe there are just too many ways to do it. When Anant Agarwal spoke at Harvard he basically said that there were thousands of improvements they could be making to their platform right now, but only so many they could focus on at one time. This experience has made me slightly more sympathetic to that notion.

Jeff’s Reflection


I’m usually writing about online courses, not designing them. I’m on leave from a newspaper where I’ve been covering MOOCs, so this course was a chance for me to go gonzo and be on the inside of designing an online course. I originally thought I could help build a journalism MOOC in a single semester. And one with more of a focus on students than on the professors. After all, I’d be part of a team with a mix of skills including coding, design, and education research. But what our team ended up building taught me more than I had ever expected.

I was able to stick to my original goal of focusing on a more student-centered approach to MOOCs, which I still think is an important research area and which our team agreed on. But the rest of the group convinced me that before building a specific MOOC, it was worth focusing on the broader problem of forming teams in online courses. That’s a bigger and more interesting problem than I had realized. One professor I talked to at the Harvard Ed School recommended a classic text on learning in groups, Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills, by David W Johnson and Roger T Johnson. I had to hunt around in the stacks of Ed School library to find the beat-up old copy. It was written before the Web existed, and I’m sure Johnson and Johnson never imagined MOOCs, yet it did offer some wisdom for our digital project. In fact, one of the biggest things I learned by reading parts of the book was that the important thing is to forget about technology and think about the broader goals — in this case, getting a few strangers to work together on a project so that they teach each other and guide each other through the material of the course.

I’m not a big fan of group projects in general, but I feel that the five of us in our group really did guide and teach each other. Someone suggested thinking about spirit animals. Another found the group roles framework we used. Sristi always reminded us that eventually we had to build something concrete, with a sense of what was possible from a technical standpoint. Everyone had ideas, and we actually found a way to mesh many of them together, or least try to.

I think our tool is worth building and trying out. I know the course is over, but I think we’ll all continue to work on this project. I hope we do settle on a specific algorithm to try for the Learning Creative Learning MOOC. Even if it’s not perfect, that will give us a starting point to iterate from in the future.

Katherine’s Reflection


I came into this class knowing that I was interested in working within the MOOC space. I had been intrigued by MOOCs for some time, and I was excited to try to tackle some of the challenges that they were facing. I felt strongly about gaining a better understanding of the “massive” aspects of these online courses and how we might shape meaningful learning experiences on such a large scale. Within our team, we had many wonderful conversations about all of our experiences and opinions, and we came to realize that we all believed in the idea that popular MOOC providers are underutilizing their most valuable resource: their users. This motivated our work for rest of the semester.

Attempting to answer the question of how to make meaningful groups that are better than random was incredibly daunting. We had many meetings that consisted of talking in circles, getting discouraged, and feeling like we were taking steps backwards. But we kept coming back to this idea of spirit animals, an idea that we felt had the potential to capture this “intangible” element of a good group. I am of the opinion that the best solution is the one that allows our users to choose exactly how they want to be grouped, but within some constraints. Coming up with the appropriate compromise between this notion of personalizability and digestibility is tough, but I think we are definitely on to something. We have a lot more work to do if we actually want to realize this tool (which I think we all do). But I am excited for the building, iterating, testing, data collecting, and editing process.

Srishti’s Reflection


At the beginning of this semester my strong interest in the space of open learning motivated me to undertake the Labx course. Having started this fall as a Master’s student, this was my first course at the Media Lab. Before joining this course, my knowledge about the MOOCs was very limited and I had no idea about the existence of different types and forms of MOOC platforms. Initially, when we were grouped in teams based on our skill set and themes of interest, I was worried that being a developer, I would be expected to build a web platform in a short span of time and thus wanted to quit the group, but Philipp explained to me that while working on this project, we need not necessarily build something concrete; it could be a mockup, a solid project idea or maybe a working prototype. I got convinced of this and decided to stay with my initial group. [To be honest, that was the best decision ever! I love my fellow MOOCsters!]

It was exciting to see that all of us in the team shared a similar vision and that was to build a digestible, engaging and empowering MOOC platform. I actually was quite intrigued by the brainstorming procedure adopted in the Labx class to divide students into project teams and I pondered over this broad idea of building a similar kind of collaborative brainstorming platform online, where people with different skill set, diverse interests, learning styles and culture could meet together to find their right match for working on a project/ idea/ subject matter. We discussed thoroughly on this for a while, came up with different if and buts and then thought of a more generalized platform (not another Coursera/ Udacity/ edX) that each one of us could apply for different use cases. For instance, I shared my vision of applying it for the Learning Creative Learning Course at the Media Lab for spring 2014.

We collectively watched the survey results of Learning Creative Learning Course (which grouped people based on the time zones). While going through the responses, we were quite surprised to know that most people expressed that their small group interactions were not significant. Majorly from this, we took our “how might we”, and began exploring the ways to encourage the legitimate peripheral participation in online communities, and incorporate better means to declare, network and cluster within an already existing MOOC platform. Initially I was not much convinced about using the concept of spirit animals for creating user profiles, as I thought it would be an American-style of grouping people but when Katherine and Mila made me take a bunch of spirit animal and Myers Briggs personality tests, I got really fascinated by the results. In our group itself, we started discussing the results, assigning each one of us different roles based on our spirit animals. All through this course, I played the role of a clarifier. My team members must have heard these sentences quite often from me, “So here’s what we’ve decided so far”, “I think you’re right, but we could also add….” We are still in the process of solidifying our vision and the tool to group people based on their personality traits, learning styles, goals for the course etc. We have quite big challenges ahead but still we would love to carry out our first test soon through the Learning Creative Learning Course which will take place in the Spring of 2014.

Griff’s Reflection


In choosing to be in the MOOC group, I was primarily interested in fostering informal learning and dialogue between students. Having taken a few MOOCs in the past, I felt like the greatest resource, the users, was being severely underutilized. My supposition was that, in harnessing the energy of the students, MOOCs could become a far more powerful tool than they are. It was surprising to me the discipline that users continually showed – I’d never heard of a MOOC hijacked by students who disagreed with the content or classes that had any fluid structure to deviate from the syllabus as prescribed at the beginning of the class. I firmly believe in the power of face-to-face interaction, yet I felt that MOOCs could do far better to create meaningful collaboration between users.

Over the course of the semester, our research prioritized ways in which we can foster deeper learning experiences for students in MOOCs. Given the diversity of MOOC contexts and rigidity of certain providers, we determined that developing a third party platform that could both foster student interaction with one another and offer better-than-random grouping would be the most meaningful way for us to engage with the problem at hand. I don’t think any of us realized just how poorly the large MOOC providers (Udacity, EdX, Coursera) were doing with user collaboration, to the point where there was no way to even message other users. The only interaction was through the one discussion board. In speaking with representatives, it was clear that measurement of deep learning was not only not being done, but not a priority. Therefore, we had to present our finding in the context that they understand – retention and revenue.

Ultimately, grouping tools need to be tested and improved upon. We’ve gone through two iteration with our MAS.S70 class and feedback received during our Berkman Center meeting. We’ve received a lot of valuable feedback, a few notable bits I’ve included below:
· Move beyond self-reflection to include what type of people you’d like to work with
· The gap between how people perceive themselves and how they actually are is very real, but there are a few projects now that seek to minimize this (having your friends assess you, using metadata to tell you that even though you say you like Radiohead, you listen to the Glee soundtrack a lot more).
· Any opportunities to gamify the experience are worth following up on. For instance, is there is there a way to ‘test’ how people interact rather than just asking?
· Once the profile is created, we still have work to do in visualizing the ‘social mixer’ What if you followed it up with something like speed dating? What if there was a jungle of animals laid across a plain/plane based on parameters you set (such as sort by weekly commitment and distance from me)?
· There are others, including elementary school teachers, who use animals as a tool to group people and encourage certain roles. We should learn more about what they have done.

Curious Learning

Curious Learning – Qazi Fazli Azeem, Helen Poldsam, AJ Sakaguchi, Dan Sawada, Molina Warty

We are interested in how mobile applications and technology can ignite curiosity in learners in situated learning contexts.  We are creating an application which allows users to collaborate with other learners in question based interactions. We hope to engage these learners through crowdsourced evaluation of these questions and then rewarding their engagement with a badge system. Collaboration here leverages a user’s existing network as well as builds a network based on common areas of interests of locations.

 Video 1: App walk-through

We are aiming to solve the issue in an informal educational setting through a mobile application that promotes curiosity through a just-in-time, peer-to-peer question and answer platform in the field of one’s interest. Through geo-tagging, the application allows people to be experts and learners about everything and anywhere in the world.

User Case 1

For example, let’s consider Hiro, a 19 year old Japanese male student who is visiting a friend in Boston. Hiro has been fascinated by MIT Media Lab for a long time and finally has a chance to visit it.

Figure 1. User opens the app and indicate their interests. Users then finds open discussion threads based on their interests on a map.

He wanders around inside the Media Lab and notices an interesting piece of art next to the entrance. Because it’s hard to describe it, he snaps a photo, posts it to Curious Learning and asks “What is this made of?” Soon people start discussing the question and based on more than 50% of the answers, it seems like the interesting piece of art is made of silk. [Figure 2]

Figure 2. Users have the option of answering to open discussions or providing new prompts based on their location and interests.

User Case 2

Next, let’s consider Annie, a thirty year old Chemistry PhD student at MIT. In her Curious Learning mobile application, Annie has identified architecture and monuments as his interests. As she approaches MIT [Figure 3] , she sees four questions about MIT in the application. Because she spends so much time at MIT, instead of checking what other people have responded to those questions, she decides to take a quiz [Figure 4]. The quiz focuses on architecture – one of her interest areas. The question is about one of the buildings at MIT: what style is this building?

Figure 3: Phone alerts that there is a question at a location

Figure 4: Quiz based game

Figure 5: App shows the number of people who agree with the user’s answer

Figure 6: User “rallies” friends to help answer questions

Annie reflects about her knowledge of architecture. She remember studying t about architecture in high school. She notices the columns of the building are like the columns of the Greek Pantheon. She answers the question, “Greek style.” She sees that 90% of other users agree with her and so she receives 9 points [Figure 5]. However, Annie is very confident that the answer to this question is Greek, and wants to receive more points (if 100% of the other users agree with her she’d receive 10 points),  so she “rallies” her friends who know a lot about architecture who are also using the app to answer the question too. [Figure 6]

Because she has taken that type of quizzes about architecture at other locations as well, Annie is extremely excited that she has earned a Bronze Architecture Badge! By having interesting architecture related conversation with like-minded people from anywhere in the world she has developed what she calls an ‘architect mindset’ – the new badge is an indicator of the progress she has made.

User Case 3

Finally, let’s consider John, a retired Geologist. He can’t travel a lot anymore because of his back and knee problems. But, he uses the Curious Learning application to look at the different Geology category questions from around the world. He sees somebody posted a question from Yosemite National Park. The person took a picture of a rock and asked, “what kind of rock is this?” The Geologist does not know what kind of rock it is just by looking at the picture, but asks a question back to the person, “can you describe the texture of the rock?” He hopes that by knowing more about the colors and texture of the rock, he will be able to help the person discover what kind of rock it is.

Our design decisions

Learners are increasingly relying on and overwhelmed by the information in online learning environments. Curious Learning is a geo-located and game-based mobile application which encourages learners create learning webs by collaborating in question based interactions.

We are becoming increasingly dependent on today’s open, online environments for knowledge and information, and in doing so, “we are increasingly becoming cyborgs, relying on devices to augment our memory, decision making, learning, etc.”  (Maes 2013)  As we become symbiotic with these devices, we grow into “interconnected systems” (Sparrow, Liu, Wegner & Clark 2011) and increasingly offload to technology for information instead of to others (Maes 2013).

How does learning manifest itself outside the classroom? We define curiosity as an intense desire of knowledge or information (RSA Social Brain Centre, 2012). Curiosity is imperative for cognitive development and authentic learning (Engels 2011, Schmitt, F. F., & Lahroodi, R., 2008) We were interested in capturing daily interactions outside the classroom and using these opportunities to inculcate a culture of curiosity emerging from everyday surroundings. We believe in encouraging people to expand beyond their immediate network in pursuit of learning. We were also interested in creating a platform for learners to showcase the diversity of their knowledge.

We designed Curious Learning, a lateral counterpart to MOOCs. While MOOCs have been immensely successful in addressing topics within the virtual walls of a classroom, Curious Learning focuses on socratic, collaborative, and inquiry based discussions. Curious Learning is about intercepting the knowledge life-cycle by creating tangential learning pathways emerging largely out of mass consensus and interests. Here learners design learning experiences for each other through prompts and responses are curated on the basis of popularity.

If learners are increasingly relying on technology for information how might we keep learners engaged and active through their phases of interest through active engagement and collaboration? Furthermore, if technology and its applications are creating passive learners, how might we inspire curiosity in learners through question based and collaborative interactions where learning is not “delivered” to learners, but rather emerges through learner experiences? (Dewey, as cited by Maes 2013).

The vision for Curious Learning is to connect learners through common interests and places around the world. It will challenge the concept of learning and broaden opportunities by turning places, artifacts, monuments, and nature into triggers for learning through peer-to-peer interactions. The app will be spark discussions, engage learners and facilitate curiosity. This situational “in the moment” and “at the place” application enables the user to create a geo-located learning environment, triggering and further sustaining the learner’s interest and engagement with a curiosity (Arnone, Small, Chauncey & McKenna 2011).

MOOCs are:

Confined to virtual classrooms, Relies on facilitator evaluation, Have limited peer-to-peer learning, Draws from academic curriculum

Curious Learning will: Open the world as your campus, Rely on crowdsourced evaluation, Depend on peer-to-peer interactions, Broaden parameters of learning

We want people to be curious about their surroundings, more importantly to share knowledge that might be relevant to other learners. We expect the app spark these interactions.

 The goal is to virtually tag every learning object in our environment as an object of learning and generate key concepts for each. Responses from each contributor will be limited to 50 characters and a consensus of at least three people will enable visibility of the response in the app. There can be multiple responses to a particular “prompt” as long as each receives a consensus of at least three.  This will promote collaboration and propagation of diverse thoughts. While the desired aim is to seek factually correct responses, the app will expose generally held perceptions surrounding concepts. This enables deconstruction and rebuilding of knowledge if necessary, in order to create dynamic learning webs.

The app encourages collaboration and peer involvement by rewarding consensus. Crowd sourced evaluation methods are employed to define discussions. Responses will be ranked on the basis of consensus with contributors receiving points for popular responses.  Overtime points can be exchanged for badges based on proven expertise in a certain area: city, history, architecture, biology etc. This will be an incentive for learners to not only share their expertise in a given field but also be curious about developing proficiency in different areas. Curious learning is thus a way to explore personal learning interests as much as it is to explore one’s environment.

Video 2: Feedback that we received:

We received feedback during user testing and our final presentation. These included

– How do we create meaningful conversations on the platform in a limited amount of space?

– Should answers given by real “experts” in the field be given special priority?

– There are already companies that are trying to “geo-tag” every location in the world. Could we work with them?

– Perhaps look into the mindfulness movement and see how they are getting people to stop and look at different places.

Our next steps:

CSCW 2014 – we will be presenting our position paper at Designing Futures for Peer-to-Peer Learning Workshop at the CSCW 2014 conference on February 15, 2013. We hope to get more user testing and feedback before then and perhaps make another iteration of our app.


Arnone, M., Small, R., Chauncey, S., & McKenna, H. H. (2011). Curiosity, interest and engagement in technology-pervasive learning environments: a new research agenda. Educational Technology Research & Development, 59(2), 181-198. doi:10.1007/s11423-011-9190-9

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having  Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776-778. doi:10.1126/science.1207745

Maes, P. (2013). Just-in-Time Learning [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from MIT Media Lab X Website:

RSA Social Brain Centre. The Power of Curiosity: How Linking Inquisitiveness to Innovation Could Help to Address Our Energy. (2012). London : Jonathan Rowson.



Team Members: Erica Deahl, Chris Graves, Jen Groff, Lisa Kim,  Hiromi Onishi


We believe…

We wanted to help people learn from one another and share skills more easily in real time. But to build something capable of success and impact, we felt that we needed to start with what we believed:

  • informal learning is important and possible

  • this already happens to some degree in the lab

  • people partake in exchange when relationships are more personal


So we started brainstorming–lots of ideas of needs and opportunities, platforms and tools to build, communities to engage. But the scope was too broad. Through weeks of discussion and pushing on ideas, we finally whittled it down tremendously. Some of our initial ideas and mock-ups were awesome, but none all of them made the final design–not yet anyway.


After a lot of pushing and pulling and whittling, we ultimately decided to build a lightweight platform that served the Media Lab community specifically–with the idea that there was a benefit in focusing on a specific and bounded community, and if it is successful here it can be scaled or replicated beyond the lab.

So, How might we better facilitate knowledge and skill share across the lab?

Our Methods

To start the process, we first asked the question, “how can you find the right person to help you with your learning need?” So we began with the idea of metadata, which can be a powerful tool for seeing connections in complexity and turning information into knowledge. We created a metadata framework that, as simply as possible, outlined the key pieces of information about an individual’s knowledge and skill strengths, and their learning interests and needs. Our team filled out our own metadata first, but later we collected metadata from many more individuals in the lab.

Data Collection

We Interviewed “experts”  in the Media Lab community–particularly people who were pointed to as partaking in informal learning and exchanges. Our interviewees ranged in year, lab, and sets of knowledge and interests. We asked them generally about the ways they go about soliciting help for new skills, and how they are often approached to teach. We collected this data here.

Based on our interviews with “skill-sharing” experts at the Media Lab, we developed a series of questions for the broader Media Lab community. We sent this through the mailing list, and hosted a free coffee morning to solicit more responses.

We then went on to participate in different forms of skill-exchange. Most  of this involved very casual one-on-one conversations around an area of interest. We also participated in existing networks of skill exchange through up and coming platforms like LearnTo:

 What We Learned

  • people already do this in the lab: they exchange within known networks, but need more information to get them to connect to new communities

  • there’s skill-trading currency and courtesy: people are busy! there’s a balance of etiquette in asking for directed, defined help, with the informal potential to be generous with your assistance/time in the future

  • limitations to the current tacit system: limited to known networks, and the busy factor is a barrier for some

  • more formal mechanisms and ‘compensation’ would ruin it for most

  • approach–opportunity for light infrastructure

  • coffee felt like the right incentive structure for most

It’s Just Coffee!

We wanted a light infrastructure to help support skill share, and coffee was a valued context–it’s low commitment, everybody likes it, and the lab has a problem with lack of access to good free coffee! We’re looking to facilitate this even further, by setting up a free coffee lounge and supporting “coffee dates” funded by the Media Lab over quality brew. That means we help set up two experts and send them off on a skill exchange. The learner comes and gets a token from Joi’s office, which gets both individuals free coffee from the Clover truck.

Making the Connection

We need a simple site to set up the dates and find the right connections, but we want to build on existing infrastructures. The Media Lab already has a directory, but it isn’t very good and isn’t really used. We’re hoping that in time our platform can merge with this.

We’ve set up a prototype of the site at A screenshot is below.

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 10.29.49 PM

In time we hope to get a new skin on it, as depicted below. We will start working on this fully featured website over the Winter break and IAP and will probably be using Django as a base web framework. On this slide we have the homepage, which will feature a subset of SkillGrindrs whose interests and expertise compliment those of the users.

01 home01

While some users will just want to browse and see what is available, other users will have specific subjects that they need help in or want to talk about. Thus, they can use the search feature to find relevant SkillGrindrs.

02 home02

Setting up and maintaining profile information is almost always a pain. We will make a strong effort to make setup as painless as possible and we want to try to make profile maintenance as fun and as engaging as possible. We will introduce some fun, subtle pop-ups that will suggest the user to some subjects and ask the the user for their feelings about them.

03 home03

Each user will have a profile page which will display not only the standard information (affiliation, email, location), but also the skills that the profiled user can teach, likes to talk about, and needs help in. We will also provide a little scale, which allows the profiled user to display how much experience they have for each subject. Also, visiting users will use this page to check out the profiled user’s availability and to get in contact.

05 profile01

One key feature we will be adding to the site is recommendations. We will encourage users to vouch for other’s skills. Also, we will allow users to publicly thank their teachers. We will only allow positive, public feedback out of respect to the SkillGrindrs. We hope that these features will make user profiles more useful to users who are browsing while both encouraging and rewarding teachers.

06 profile02

Goals & Next Steps

  • setting up lots of analog dates: we wanna play matchmaker—for a little while

  • nailing down the coffee exchange

  • building in testing: follow-up to see how participants felt about the exchange

  • other feedback mechanisms?

  • building out the MIT directory











Creativity Final Remarks – UnTeach



Today’s world is very competitive, firms and organizations have better access to information that in the past, this makes easier for the companies to imitate their best practices; in this regard, differentiation on each firm is harder to maintain. Strategic thinking let us believe that a firm needs to have dynamic capabilities to reinvent themselves from period to period; this activities will help leading firms to maintain their advantage, or followers to claim the top spots. Furthermore, we can transfer this analysis to countries’ economics. There are some capable of imitate pretty rapidly, decreasing the gap with the most developed; only to find themselves stagnated in their inability to innovate (e.g Japan in the 80’s). It is, without any doubt that are the core of any firm, organization, and country’s capacity to be a leader, we can find one common capability: CREATIVITY.

Ultimately any group’s competitive advantages relies on the people forming it. It is then, when the question of how creative we are is important to tackle. My source of inspiration comes when observing the world of adults, and finding their struggle towards the exercise of the creativity muscle. Disregarding people that make a living of being creative (advertising, product developer, etc…) we find a gigantic amount of people that are, somehow, intimidated by this creativity muscle.  As Tom Kelly nicely presents, there is a lack of creativity confidence in adults; and this creativity confidence is key to unleash the potential in this area.

How can we teach, or at least create scenarios for practicing creativity among adults? Can we spark their creative muscle? Do we have people that believe creative brings a competitive advantage? Can we transfers creativity challenges into real life problems?; In other words:  is it possible to facilitate creative confidence in group of people that does not believe they are created? All these questions (and more) sparked our initial hypothesis:

How might we generate creative confidence in ADULTS via the practice of collaborative interactions?



Sloan Fellows Class 2014: Average age 39, Average working Experience: 14 years, 34 nations and 33 industries represented.

The Sloan Fellow (SF) class is a cohort of high accomplished people; most of them come from the business world, where they have reached high management positions; their confidence in terms of strategic decisions, executions of tactics, financial performance is very high; yet, there creativity confidence is low. Furthermore, the SF program offers little in this regard.  I was fascinated by the idea of exploring way to boost creativity levels; the proven ability to deliver results of this group, together with a potential raise in creative will give a very high competitive advantage over other peers.

We were launched to the task of observing this class (full disclosure: all team members of this project belong to this cohort). In our field incursions, we wanted to analysis their behavior in different aspects.  Different settings as classrooms, outdoor activities, and social drinking gave us the opportunity to talk to them and inquiry about their creativity thinking process.

We were able to divide the class in three distinctive categories:

  • The group with a high creativity confidence (10%)
  • The group that does not believe in creativity, therefore it is not interested in improving it (20%)
  • And finally the group that believe they are not creative enough and would like to boost this confidence level (70%)

The latter will constitute our target group.

We conducted interviews with our target group; interviews were done in a dialogue format. Some insights and observations can be found hereunder:


On creative experiences in your life (personal and professional)

  • Read, look, compare; building a new deck in the house (research, observe other decks, compare the results, observe again)
  • What folks have done in the past – imitate
  • Building confidence from the beginning – demystifying the work (if this person can do it, then I can do it too)
  • Creativity has flourished in extreme experiences; extreme scenarios where constrain are visible and the rewards/stakes are high
  • Rank and position in the organization help with boosting confidence
  • Prior success is necessary – sometime we are not aware that we did something good creatively. AWARENESS
  • Let people fail and be sure they understand why they fail
  • Biggest success in creating something new came when looking long term

Times where I have more confidence

  • When there was no right or wrong.
  • When the situations is on the go. When there is no time to think whether I am creative or not
  • When there is no FRAMEWORK
  • When situation is complex
  • When people will appreciate the outcome

On situations were creative experiences are blocked

  • When we learn our limits and are constrained by them
  • When levels of details on areas of no expertise are high and stakes are low
  • When there is a right and wrong answer
  • When the refinement process is too complex. When working in teams where everybody is going to have a different opinion
  • Listen capacity is low

On creative references/leaders and their characteristics

  • People that is able to put bits of information together in new ways
  • Fast thinkers
  • Good use of other’s ideas
  • People that is able to execute. Ideas are cheap. Execution is the real creativity challenge
  • Experts in changing perspectives/paradigms

On designing challenges for others to exercise their creative confidence

  • Team needs to trust
  • Designing complex situations with high stakes
  • Scenario thinking – different outcomes
  • Use a coordinating device: goal is important
  • Create excitement and push back
  • Create competition
  • Reward people when achieving something – but do not reward that easy
  • Train in not ideal conditions
  • Bring off line experiences to on-line tools. The real creativity is learn in real life
  • Give tools to the people to observe others
  • Challenge them to put pieces together
  • Learn by doing – not think
  • Creativity is build step by step. Show progress constantly
  • Destroy current mental models

On resolving specific challenges with others

  • It is important to understand the group dynamics, create clear rules and guidelines
  • Interaction – do not let people work on silos
  • Inclusion of all the members
  • Reward system – reinforcement loop
  • Recognize hard work

After the field observations and interview insights, we decided to redefine out hypothesis to:

How might we inspire creative confidence in the SF community through creative challenges that are fun and engagement?


We chose two frameworks in order to design those space to inspire creativity in the SF cohort.

The first one is based on the paper presented by Mitchel Resnick “All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten” (2007).

This frame of thinking lays out a solid base to apply the insights we obtained. The loop of Imaging to Imaging covers the need of providing the space to create, and later play with those creations. By letting the SF adult play with their creation we will obtain some engagement into the process.

Once the adults are ready to share with other adults their creation, we will encourage them to do so; by having the chance to share we will expect them to have fun and be challenged to improve their initials creations. Furthermore, the act of sharing provides another re-thinking space; this space will be encouraged in our tool by having the chance to reflect in some feedback and start the process again.

The framework covers the creation process and the linked to the concepts of rewards and awareness. Moreover, following the initial insights we will not explain the process. This virtuous cycle needs to happen almost automatically. Initially we will not seek for try to rationalize the creation process. (In other words, they do not need to know the frameworks).

The second frame that supported this work belongs to the English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. His works is based on the uniqueness of playing. This is very useful when analyzing this interaction in adults; Winnicott thought that when adults are playing (thorough making art, sports, humor etc…) their authentic self comes out, because when people play they feel real, and spontaneous and alive; Playing help adults to be more interested in what they are doing ( ).


Before jumping into any web-based platform prototype, we designed and tested 3 creative challenges among a sample of the SF class. This testing will give us additional insights about the power of the exercises. We were very interested in observing the engagement and fun level that they will have.

Sports Creation /  Instructions


(once you finished the exercise)


Story Telling / Instructions


Individual Exercise / Instructions


These 3 activities gave us a good sense of how the platform could look like. Some Insights about the activities:


Creating a game provided a much better space to play for the groups, as they could test, touch, and learn as they were experience their own inventions. The photo sequence constrained to defined the story and just find out it made sense by telling it.  Both exercises engaged them plenty. The story telling game created more pre-excitement. The fact that they saw people on the pics helped a lot. It would be more different if the pics were more abstract.

When the exercise is made on groups, the level of engagement is bigger. The feedback is expected and makes it more fun to build on.

Just by playing the game they will discover the room for improvements. Too much blue print does not lead to create (hands on). It takes 2 persons to create and test a game. Also the game approach seems to be competitive per se, therefore the need of at least 2 to test (interesting that none of them design games for one person). Creating a game could be a more concrete exercise that satisfy certain conditions (obstacles, score, winner, losers etc..) as oppose to create a story.

Creating a story is an open end question, there are not (in the surface) conditions to it. Although, most of them satisfy the sequence introduction-challenge-resolution; however, the story end can be difficult for all of them. The stories presented were more robust in their introduction and challenge part that in the resolution. The stories were built in previous history on stories watch. There is a potential place for defining topics and ask them to build on (e.g. same images comedy vs drama).

There is a trade off when co-creating with someone else. You have to be willing to let ideas go and welcome others. There is a forming phase in the groups were the ideas are 100% respected. Creating a game could be a more analytical exercise. It needs to satisfy pre-conception observed in games playing today. It is easier to take off in the imagining phase.

In both exercises participants are not aware of any phase. Participants are going with the flow. Intuitively every of them knew that there must be a brainstorming, a prototype, a playing-telling, and a moment to hear critics. The imagination phase takes more time in the image sequence. Perhaps, because they are less accustomed to create out of a white space, and that they know better the rules of what a good game must be (past experience).

Sharing the idea outside the group/person is a great step. Everybody was aware that their game, story wasn’t perfect. This suggests that feedback can be hard to take (they always had a response to most of the critics, implying I thought about that already). On the other hand there is some excitement in sharing the idea. Sharing the idea is another step for creating!

During the game in the imagination phase, there was a group of 3. This took more time for them to decide what to do. They had a lot of discussion. However, the resulting game was very complex and almost ready to play.

Important factors to in take into account into a potential creative learning platform are: set of tools at their disposal to play and built on, not to ask to build from a white space, having chance to reflect, have the chance to show their video, have a time frame, and add potential sources of inspiration (e.g. Music).  The future platform will need to have a data bank of tools, images, and scenes; the challenges will require a goal and time frame. There is potential to post feedback and likes with other participant’s work. There is a potential for a zone where people that has participated in the platform and have earned some credit can propose day to day challenges, and other participants (also who have earned credit) can help solve the challenge. We should not have the platform open for one-time users; we could have game zones (Olympics of challenges) and other spaces to encourage sharing.

In summary, and after observing the interaction of our participants in the activities, the future platform should be:

  • Open to everyone
  • Selective for giving feedback
  • Rewarding
  • It should not make explicit the underlying frame – it should be implicit
  • Non-intimidating, simple with max 3 different activities to perform. All the activities must have some kind of instructions to define goals


  1. Prototyping in a web platform the 3 types of challenges explained above
  2. Select another set of potential users from the SF community to play with the prototype
  3. Receive and incorporate feedback from the users
  4. Re-prototype the platform
  5. Open the platform  (in a Beta mode) for all the SF class; encourage testing and giving feedback (be creative in the marketing of the tool)
  6. Analysis feedback and incorporate changes possible
  7. Let the platform run again, and start designing and testing an APP for model devices.

The main objective of this tool is to prove, for a given set of adults, that there is room for online creative challenges. The platform and perhaps the challenges will grow along with the users signing in. The platform could be run along for other groups of adults, including upcoming classes of the Sloan Fellows program. Scaling up to needs of individual firms or organizations is possible.

The capabilities of this platform need to be dynamic, it means that the challenges should be adapted and evolve from time to time, or else there is a risk for the users not to get back to check their creations.


The power of the IDEO process when creating a product; field observations and feedback will change, and will lead to the improvement of the original ideas. The real creation process needs a hands on approach, and the most powerful source for taking decisions are potential user’s feedback.

On the other hand, educational online platforms are a real alternative today. These platforms are democratizing the learning, reaching out to a bigger audience. Recreating the off-line experience in an on-line tool could be a mistake. Online activities merit an approach based on the real life, but at the same time with autonomy enough to invent and imagine different experiences.  Creativity constitute an online challenge, it is not easy to engage an audience for transferring learnings on-line.

into their day to day; the main motivation for users to improve their creativity should be ex-ante coming to the platform.



Creative Confidence

Our prefer song is the classic THE WALL from PINK FLOYD. If you don’t remember the song (shame on you) here it is a link to listen/watch it again: (The Song)

We are a group of Sloan Fellows student interested in sparkling creativity in everyone! we believe the creativity gene is in everybody and it is screaming to be released.

The Team: Ayesha Khalid, Stephanie Rowe, Andrej Danko, Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio, Diego Mendez Canon.

What would make us happy?

Generate creative confidence in adults, letting participants come up with their own creative solutions to tackle challenges.

Who is in scope?

Adults that follow one or more of the following characteristics:

  • “I feel that that I cannot be creative in my job”.
  • “I want to learn how to be creative”
  • “I want to try new things in a platform where I am not criticized”
  • “I want to exercise my creative potential to solve problems”
  • “It would be amazing to have a platform where I could train my creativity”
  • “I consider myself creative but would like to also build ideas from others”

The Essence

Imagine an online platform that provides you a basic framework to tackle creatively any challenge. In other words a CREATIVE GYM where you can generate CREATIVE CONFIDENCE through a range of tools, online and offline activities, what if scenarios, imagination exercises, diverse sources of inspiration, etc.

Imagine an online platform that gathers a community of people that are engaged with others to learn how to exercise their CREATIVE FITNESS.

Imagine a space where different people are grouped to resolve different creative problem solving challenges in a period of time and the same community judges the winners of each contest.

Imagine a space where stories of creative confidence and its respective impacts applied to daily life are shared and used as a source of inspiration for the community.


Just in Time – Curious Learning

Opportunity Framing:

Today, we often see people walk in front of beautiful trees and rocks in national parks, snap a picture using their smartphone, and then walk away, never to think about the trees or rocks again.  People are more comfortable with looking up information on Wikipedia or Google about the trees or rocks instead of trying to learn more about these natural phenomena by touching, observing, smelling, or even tasting what they are seeing. We’d like to explore how we can inspire adult learners to think and act like geologists or botanists again, especially in the outdoor setting.

We would like to initially leverage existing platforms like Twitter and Instagram to capture succinct questions and provide comments or pictures.

Ideally, end goal would be that the user gets a JIT generated word cloud of their curiosity quest over the past month and this motivates them to explore diverse learning opportunities across spaces and media.


How might we inspire curiosity in adult learners outside of the Media Lab through question based, collaborative interactions

How might we promote fluid learning (fluid intelligence)  across disciplines, experts, boundaries, and imaginations

Potential Idea:

Open Platform Scavenger Hunt / Trivia Application

User has the JIT application on her smartphone. When she arrives at Half Dome, the JIT application sends her a signal – there is already a question that another person had left when he or she was there. She opens the JIT application and looks at the question. She can virtually respond (character limit tbd) or upload a related picture as a clue/response/collaborative effort.

 3 User Profiles:

All looking at Half Dome at Yosemite. All three users are looking at the same Half Dome Rock at different times, different dates.

1. Travelling Professional

Incentive to go to Half Dome:

Female travelling professional, 35 years old. She works for NASA as an aeronautical engineer. She is travelling to California for a conference and decides to visit Yosemite on the way for a day. She is an avid photographer but prefers travelling light. She rents a car and goes to explore Yosemite for the day with her backpack, Nikon D90 DSLR camera and iPhone and a light snack.

After Visit to Half Dome:

She takes approximately 100 photographs of Half Dome and then goes on a walking trail. After she leaves Yosemite, she saves the photos on her hard-drive and uploads some photos on Flickr and her Facebook page. Her college friends, NASA colleagues, and family all see the post. After a week, she receives a comment from her colleague, “I’m going to Yosemite too!”


2. International Student from Japan

Incentive to go to Half Dome:

Male student 19 years old that just came from Japan to pursue an undergraduate degree in English Literature from UCLA. He’s heard rumors about Yosemite being a “must-see” park before classes start so he decides to go on his own with a tour bus. His hobbies include video-games, comic-books, cooking, and zip-lining. He hopes to take nice pictures of Yosemite to put on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

After Visit to Half Dome:

He uploads pictures to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. He has a large following both in Japan and in the United States. He likes to put filters on his pictures so they will look more artistic. He captions the photos using witty statements. Many people, even people who he’s never met before, “like” his photos or retweet his photo.


3. Retired Scientist

75 year old professor of paleontologist, has hearing disabilities, likes to walk around outdoors, digital immigrant, has flip-phone but does not use SNS.  He has an iPad that he received from his family but he’s still learning how to use it.  He documents what he sees and experiences with note pad and sketch pad, voice recorder. He like to read National Geographic. He hopes to just relax and get fresh air.

After Visit to Half Dome:

He shares the sketches with his family after dinner. He talks about the colors and the history of the rock with his children and his grandchildren. He also talks about his past experience at the rock, which he visited 3 years ago, and contracts the differences in the colors of the rock. He discusses with his children the next places he’d like to visit but also encourages them to visit Half Dome as well.