TechChange is the “The Institute for Technology and Social Change”, and they are at the forefront of combining technology and education to facilitate social change across the globe.
TechChange.org has been successfully leveraging technology in educational applications to help groups of people throughout the world bring about social change where it is needed. TechChange President and CEO Nick Martin was kind enough to make some time this week to answer some questions about the organization's inspiring work.
The TechChange website's “About” page gives a good overview of your organization, but one thing that I was curious to understand better is the statement about TechChange’s work to “strengthen technology enabled communities of practice”. Can you elaborate on that?
Since our mandate is technology training for social change, we see training communities as a more potent way to change the world than just focusing on improving individual skills, especially since the Internet has allowed global communities to catalyze around crowd-friendly tech. For example, there’s the Ushahidi platform which has been used in Haiti, Egypt, and many other countries, which has provided the opportunity for anyone to report incidents, verify them, and put them on a map for others to act upon. While individuals and organizations can setup their own Ushahidi instances, where the platform has been used most effectively is when large communities of thousands have been trained to process information quickly in times of crisis (including standing networks like the Standby Task Force).
So where we see our role in this process is to go to organizations like Ushahidi and find out what skills and best practices they want to convey to their users. Then, we design a syllabus with their input and expert advice, and finally we target the communities they want to reach through our trainings. This is exactly what we did with our recent course, Ushahidi: Frameworks for Effective Platform Management.
With such a mobile and socioeconomically challenged constituency, do you find students struggle to access course content? If so, how do you deal,with it?
Every student learns differently, which is why we’ve built such an interactive platform with so many touch points between our facilitators and students. We’ve optimized our platform for asynchronous low-bandwidth areas such as Pakistan and Sudan (where we’ve taught courses), but also built in higher quality video/audio live streaming for students with better connectivity and access.
But that’s just it– in most cases it’s not just a technical problem, but a pedagogical problem. When we do custom courses such as in Pakistan, we also immediately reach out to local partners to help us with course design and content. You can’t engineer your way out of this one — you have to work with local partners on the ground and do your best to customize the experience for each student. For example, in Pakistan rolling power outages caused far more issues than connectivity or issues with the platform.
One of the things that intrigues me about the evolving ability to deliver effective online courses is the way in which many technologies can overlap to increase engagement, enhance assessment, and much more. Have you experienced the same observation?
Definitely. We don’t just have one platform, but a combination of technologies all operating together. Our video streaming is different than our chat [which] is different than our forums [which] is different than our game system.
The technology is always going to change. That’s why educators looking for a tech solution are always going to be frustrated. I think the key is that you need to know what kind of learning experience you want to create, then you can integrate appropriate technology as it emerges into your overall platform to create the best possible experience.
These platforms are tools, not solutions. And most have trade-offs somewhere, so it’s important for organizations to understand how they want these tools to overlap and intersect.
I'm interested in the integration of gaming mechanics into course delivery and assessment. What sorts of gaming mechanics is TechChange using, and how are they being used?
The light-touch sort. Gamification – use of game design techniques to improve a non-game context – is a hot topic these days, but we find it’s often being done poorly in ways that are not natural to the user. We try to use it for two main purposes: incentivizing user participation via TechPoints, and using a map/treasure hunt technique to help familiarize users with course content and structure. The map creates a non-linear “Super Mario World” type curriculum where users are nudged toward each learning module, but they can ultimately choose where they want to go.
Since the course is asynchronous with the possibility of students (many of whom are mid-career professionals) to not engage with the course, we use TechPoints to gauge activity in the forums and live discussions and publicize a leaderboard. By making the TechPoints visible to all participants (along with rankings), we provide subtle encouragement to keep up with the class, less the disparity between students grow too noticeable. Since there’s no grade in the course (rather a 35-point minimum and accepted final project), this model of starting from 0 and building up along the class helps reward participation without the awkward situation of us deducting points or disciplining professional students as though they were in grade school.
The map and scavenger hunt are more about user interface. We try to take a very rich, detailed syllabus and provide it in a simpler visual narrative that makes it more of a journey of discovery — new areas of the map are revealed leading to new content, and the scavenger hunt makes learning your way around the site a shared exploration of the platform.
What are some of the most surprising things you've learned as a result of your work with TechChange?
How important it is to have students involved in the creation of course content — not just as consumers of information but also as producers. We found that less is more for interaction with experts. Polished and produced studio interviews were interesting, but students weren’t nearly as engaged [by those as they were] during an unscripted webcam chat. How-to videos and manuals never saw the [same level of] interest as collaborative exercises and simulations. And some of our best attended events are the participant panels where students present on course topics to the rest of the class.
I’d say to all the teachers out there that the best way students can learn is from and with each other. We’re still learning new ways to think about this with each course.
I have to imagine you've had some inspiring results from your work. Is there a story you'd like to share about how Tech Change has helped to change lives?
I guess I’d look at both the individual and group changes.
Joseph Owuondo was one of our first students in Kenya and commented on this recent Economist post about our work, “Geeks for Good”, explaining how he is now, “in the US and still [training] community organizations on the technologies they trained me in. I am honoured to be part of the team”, and we’re honored to keep working with Joseph.
In Haiti, we had a community come together after our first course in Mobiles for International Development when one of our students, Thomas, traveled to Haiti as part of the Notre Dame Haiti Program to conduct an assessment. In preparation, he decided to look up a few of his classmates who were already in Haiti.
“Through the TechChange blended learning environment, Twitter chats, Skype calls, etc…I was able to meet “like minded souls” already working in the social change space in Haiti.”
But after making a few calls: “…what started with three or four for an informal lunch, turned into 17 individuals, representing five continents and eight countries – and a full blown FrontlineSMS meet-up luncheon at the Babako Restaurant in Port-au-Prince.”
(Read the full story on our blog: TechChange Online Course Planting Seeds of Change in Haiti)
We’re still following up with Thomas, but we’ve heard of a few other examples. The amazing thing about having an interactive platform to push students towards engaging with one another is that the learning doesn’t stop when the course does. Some of our enterprising students have used it as a starting point for forming their own learning communities.
What recommendations would you make to online educators as a result of what you've learned through your work?
1. Content is important, but not as important as direct access to the right educators. If students want to know something, they can look it up pretty easily in forums or elsewhere. Less important than having one omniscient professor is having a network of experts that students can contact and exchange with directly.
2. Online education is very different — forget everything you know and start anew. Some skills for teaching are transferable, but not all. I think what we’re seeing right now is that online education is considered an IMPROVEMENT in education — making it more scalable/interactive, but we haven’t seen teaching doctrine/pedagogy shift to treat it as it should — a REVOLUTION in education that requires a whole new approach.
What does the future hold for TechChange?
Every day is an adventure and the way we’ve gotten to where we are is staying agile and pivoting constantly where we see the best potential for improving online education. One way to keep punching above our weight is through the right types of partnerships. We’re hoping to move more towards developing custom courses and serving as an online learning partner for established firms with proven content expertise. That way we can take those who are already making a difference in the world and give them some online firepower to help them continue doing what they do best.
Thanks Nick, and continued good luck with your exciting and inspiring work at TechChange!