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Crowdfunding Meets Webinar: How One Organization Uses Slack to Tackle Global Challenges

Crowdfunding Meets Webinar: How One Organization Uses Slack to Tackle Global Challenges

As anyone who reads the news can tell you, the world is facing an increasingly complex host of social, civic and environmental challenges that will require people from a wide range of backgrounds to collaborate with each other on. Now that we’ve assembled international crowds of motivated, smart people online in MOOCs, it’s time to think about harnessing their collective intelligence to tackle these urgent cross-boundary issues.

Some new online courses like The Active Citizen in the Digital Age from Stanford University are already moving us in this direction, helping to foster informed civic participation following the 2016 election. At +Acumen, we wondered if we could go a step further and actually close the loop between learners and the real world—connecting nonprofits and social enterprises to online students who could help generate new ideas while learning about the issues.

To facilitate this, we’ve landed on a new format for synchronous online learning that’s a mashup of a webinar and crowdfunding platform. Like a webinar, we invite participants to log into a platform at the same time. But instead of using a tool like WebEx or GoToWebinar, we use Slack, a mobile messaging platform. And rather than of having participants tune in to listen to a narrated powerpoint, we push them into the driver’s seat.

Sourcing a Challenge

To develop the learning experience, we reach out to an existing organization and ask them about a challenge they’re facing where it would be helpful to receive input from a global crowd of participants. In particular we’ve looked for challenges that are open-ended so that they can benefit from a wide cross-section of ideas, but also specific enough that students can come up with implementable solutions. For example:

  • We worked with Siembra Viva, a social enterprise in Colombia to help them figure how to incentivize smallholder farmers to give them data about their crop inventory so that they can improve agricultural practices across the country.
  • We collaborated with Kiva, the microlending platform, to help them test out a process to evaluate loan applications.
  • We worked with OpenIDEO to help students learn to lead difficult conversations about issues of race and diversity.
  • We’re currently working with Green Energy Biofuels, a company in Nigeria that produces fuel for clean cookstoves to help them find new ways to communicate with their customers.
  • And we’re working with Amal Academy, a social enterprise in Pakistan that provides employment training to young Pakistanis to help them figure out how they can incentivize students to complete their programs.

We take these real-world challenges and write them up in the form of “Challenge Briefs” or short readings that provide students with background on the organization and the problem that they’re facing. We invite up to 1,000 students who have previously completed two or more of our free MOOCs to apply to participate in these challenges. Before logging in for the event, participants are encouraged to conduct their own background research on the topic, geography and business so that they come into the live online event ready to actively contribute.

We assign all students to a team of about 8-10 participants and give each team a dedicated channel for discussion on Slack. Then, we set a date and time and ask everyone to show up in Slack for this dedicated two-hour window. They post introductions and pictures of themselves so that the vibrancy and diversity of the community becomes immediately visible.

Participants introduce themselves to each other in the Kiva Challenge

Platforms like OpenIDEO have pioneered the idea of scoping challenges and inviting a global community to submit ideas. At +Acumen, our experience running MOOCs showed us that some students might be eager to contribute to these types of challenges, but need more instructional scaffolding and coaching to deliver results that will be useful. To meet this need, we’ve layered our knowledge of instructional design and pedagogical best practices onto the challenges and pushed them into a real-time, fast-paced format.

Adapting an Existing Online Course for Synchronous Delivery

To design the instructional content of the challenge, we take the curriculum from one of our existing online courses and break it down into a series of instructional videos and activities. For example, in one case we introduced participants to each stage of the human-centered design process. In another challenge, we introduced students to the methodology for conducting due diligence on an investment

We create a detailed “show flow” document where we script instructional prompts in advance, much like a lesson plan that a teacher would create for a project-based class. When the challenge starts, we drop the first set of instructional prompts and videos into a community channel on Slack where everyone can read them.

After reading the directions and watching the short video, participants connect in small groups in their team channels to discuss the ideas and, in some cases, start doing work offline—like sketching out an idea or starting a prototype—that they can then share back with their group online.

Two Hours of Rapid Learning

Typically these challenges push participants to rapidly pivot between learning something new and then immediately applying it. By the end of the two hours, each team on Slack should have collaboratively developed their own solution to present back the social enterprise or nonprofit organization.

Towards the end of the challenge, we set up a Padlet board for them to submit their ideas and, as submissions from around the world start popping up on this interactive space, the energy in the online crowd is palpable.

The Padlet board from the Siembra Viva Challenge where participants submitted all of their final ideas

We’ve realized that for all the enthusiasm around on-demand, asynchronous models of learning, it is still important to host learning events that connect people for real-time interaction. This synchronous format pushes people to have real conversations and collaboratively build upon each other’s ideas in a way that feels different from the static discussion boards found in most MOOCs.

Once the challenge concludes, we sift through all of the submissions and identify the most promising to forward to the nonprofit or social enterprise. For example, Kiva used the ideas generated by participants to help them rework their new crowdfunding site.

Where We’re Going Next

The Slack and Padlet platforms aren’t perfect for facilitating online learning. It’s hard to capture data on the backend about participation, and we still end up with a high volume of submissions to sort through. In the future, we’ll need to design new ways to help participants vet each other’s submissions and potentially upvote or evaluate them. We’ll also be experimenting with tools like Dropbox Paper, Zoom, Flipgrid, Discourse, and even Google docs to continue to test how we can best facilitate synchronous learning online.

As educators and instructional designers, we shouldn’t let the hardwired architecture of a Learning Management System or online course platform limit our pedagogical imagination. The best teachers hardly ever teach directly from the textbook. Instead, like all craftsmen, they are experts at deconstructing and repurposing tools and materials to best serve the needs of their students.

It’s time we looked at the technology that people are testing across sectors and workplaces—everything from Github to Medium to Slack to Snapchat—and think about how we can use these tools to enable students to co-create their own learning experiences and connect their work to real-world needs.

Examples of submissions from the Siembra Viva Challenge

Amy Ahearn (@amyahearn11) is a Senior Innovation Associate at Acumen, where she builds online courses.

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