For more background on The Future of Stuff, see the prequel to this post, the imaginatively named 4 lessons I learned while running an online course.
In spring 2013, I was the lead designer and implementor for the online component of The Future of Stuff. It was a 14-day challenge run simultaneously online and in studios in New York and Detroit.
5. Plan creative ways to gauge how the course is going
Just because you don't see activity doesn't mean it's not there. Think of ways you can collect data during the course other than check-ins, deliverables, and other planned tasks.
How we learned this: Several days in, not many participants were posting their work in our discussion forum. I began to think nobody was actually doing the challenge! But Juliette, who was running the NYC studio, thought to put together a tagboard, which aggregates social media posts by hashtag. The #makerbreaker tagboard was blowing up.
Here's the #makerbreaker tagboard – way more exciting than the official discussion board.
6. Short doesn't mean superficial
A tweeted quotation or musing, an Instagram photo – even tiny signals can be provocative. What's more, they fight the sense of isolation that comes with working online.
How we learned this: Just looking at the tagboard and watching it update made me feel connected and excited. They pushed each other by tweeting photos of coffee mugs late at night. They gave each other ideas by instagramming photos of computers covered in post-it notes.
Many of the exchanges were nonverbal, which was not what we'd initially expected. But interviews with participants confirmed that these nudges, photos, and glimpses were provocative, exciting, and momentum-building.
7. Your phone is the computer you have with you
Fitting an online challenge in with real life means carving out time to spend staring at a gadget. Make it easy on participants by designing mobile-optimized experiences.
How we learned this: To call futureofstuffchallenge.org a product of crunch time is an understatement. Optimizing for mobile was far from my mind. I gave the site a perfunctory check on my iPhone and a friend's Android phone and figured it was all good.
Imagine my embarrassment on launch day when I saw that people at our launch event were viewing the site on their phones (of course), and that an overlay I hadn't noticed was blocking users' ability to scroll down. I made a quick fix for the 40% (!) of our users on mobile, removing all responsive features so that the site was at least functional.
8. You probably need a bigger course team
Written responses to comments, emails, and deliverables take longer than teaching in person – and you still need to proactively post, tweet, or blog. Consider bringing in extra people to help facilitate.
How we learned this: I love to teach, so hard. Chatting with students one-on-one is pretty much my favorite part of teaching. One student in my Design Thinking Bootcamp last year said that if he wanted a one-sentence answer, he'd go to my co-teacher, and if he wanted an essay, he'd come to me. (He meant it as a compliment. Mostly.)
But typing is slower than talking, asynchronous conversation saps some of the energy, and none of us were particularly enjoying typing emails for hours. And that was just responding to participants!
Being proactive and provocative on Twitter and in our discussion forum took energy I didn't have. Next time I organize the facilitation of an online experience, I'm going to think harder about the facilitators' experience; how can we keep them motivated and connected, and let them use something other than a keyboard to express themselves?
I'm sure The Future of Stuff won't be my last time designing a hybrid learning experience like this. I'm excited to put these hard-won lessons into practice.