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HowToCollege

In March, I had the opportunity to host the IndieEdTech gathering with Eddie Maloney of Georgetown and Kristen Eschelman at her place at Davidson College. As I wrote then, the gathering was focused on a design sprint in small teams around personal APIs. Led by the nudging of Audrey Watters, my team’s idea focused around how do we focus on a redistribution of power to students by giving them an online community guided and nurtured by students; a space where a student could ask both what seemed like common knowledge to community insiders as well as some of life’s more complex questions. This sparked Erika Bullock, a English junior at Georgetown College, to sketch out an idea of a community platform focused around both giving and receiving.

I think it’s safe to say that we were all proud of the idea and thought it could really add some value to any institutional community. Quite honestly, I think we all also felt relieved to come up with anything after struggling for most of the idea to articulate much of anything.

I left Davidson with an itch to try to flesh out the idea a little further but with no real expectation of having the time or space to do so. Luckily, Kristen and Eddie are both incredibly supportive individuals and Eddie has a very motivated student in Erika.

Eddie opened up both his office and team as resources for working on a prototype that we could start to put in front of students to gather some feedback. That led to this week where Kristen and I came up to DC to work Marie Selvanadin, Bill Garr, and Yong Lee, three of the developers in Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS). One of the highlights of this week was getting to work with the CNDLS team + Kristen as it’s a real privilege to see how other similar organizations work in action, particularly one like CNDLS which has been built and nurtured over the last fifteen-or-so years and works on a number of projects that are particularly intriguiging. I was thankful for both the developers and the other team members (Yianna Vovides, Brian Boston, Maggie Debelius, Randy Bass) who joined us as well for conversations on both this idea and Domain of One’s Own initiatives.

After spending Tuesday chatting about several different angles of the platform, I spent Wednesday morning in the Georgetown library to work on a landing page mockup in Photoshop. While I still get to teach PS, I actually rarely touch it less and less as my role becomes increasingly administrative. So easing back into Photoshop felt like putting on an old jacket you found packed away.

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No matter what title I stick after my name, I still wear the “artist” moniker quite proudly. At my core, I love getting the opportunity to create art and much of this kind of work fortunately still feels like it. When I was still in high school, I built a website with a guy in my town who was most likely ten years my senior. I remember asking him why he didn’t do web development for living and he gave me the advice of never making my hobby my primary occupation. I am still unsure as to whether that was necessarily good or bad advice, but I certainly respected it enough at the time to spend college and beyond struggling with the tension of professionalizing myself. Inevitably, I studied advertising and journalism as it seemed to offer a little of both.

All of that is to say I enjoy injecting a few creative ventures into my life every once in awhile. As Louis Armstrong said, “Musicians don’t retire; they stop when there’s no more music in them,” and I believe there’s still music in me.

Anyway, so there I am sitting in a suspiciously empty library. I had already decided that I would use Bootstrap as a common framework that we could do both design and development. I remembered that I had been really impressed with the Flat UI kit from Designmodo that I used for OU Create to bring the login box to the landing page.

I grabbed the free version of the UI kit and began to design what had come to my head based of the conversations the team had the last day. Here’s a look at the where that design is as of today:

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Working title “HowToGeorgetown”: the idea is that this page is focused primarily on getting students questions the opportunity to ask questions as quickly as possible. A big question box is calling their name out, as well as a way for them to tag questions, indicate the question’s difficulty (more on that later), ask it anonymous, and a request a “meetup” if they feel there question better suits an “offline” dialogue, which is a large part of the platform; how can we create a space that allows students to ask/answer questions efficiently online as well as encourages one-on-one conversations. A fully filled out home page might look like this:

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I also mocked up a couple other pages including a single question page and a profile page:

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From our initial round of feedback, the difficulty indicator seems to really throw students off so I’m not quite sure how long that will stay. But the purpose it was to decipher what may require a student-to-student meetup with the thought that we would see ultimate success of an application being peer mentorship.

One of the main focuses of this project was to create something small that could run on a Domain of One’s Own server, so I’m hopeful that whatever gets created continues to be openly documented, discussed, and shared. I’ll end with noting that there are the majority of open questions lie beyond the technology:

  • Does the notion of learning the “hacks” of your institution work if the institution hosts the application or is that fundamentally going to detract users?
  • How do you build the appropriate culture (self-governing, self-moderating)?
  • What (if anything) needs to be in place when self governance breaks down?
  • Are we just creating things that already exist (Quora, Reddit) and slapping an edu face on it?
  • Are we doing too much by focusing on a web app instead of a mobile app or texting service?

And these don’t even get into even foundational questions like how something like this would get off the ground or could even be sustainable. These, and several other questions, are certainly worth exploring further in the event that students even want to use it. Luckily, Kristen is going to be contributing by having a class at Davidson run a prototype user testing this fall, and hopefully we’ll be able to learn a lot there.

But before we go too far down the rabbit hole of how something like this becomes a real thing, I should say that I’m not quite sure that’s the most important topic. Currently, I am highly more interested in thought experiments than I am in startups. And, personally speaking, spending a week walking through this process has been highly valuable for me. It’s helped me build empathy to both the needs of users and to developers of technology. Putting clothes on a concept is awfully taxing work. Opening up your concept to potential users is also quite nerve racking.

Publicly publishing about one’s doodles (meaning writing this post) is even moreso nerve racking knowing that there’s a broader opportunity for criticism on which is mostly conceptual but appears real because one can see a physical manifiestions of that concept.

But nonetheless I’d encourage folks that may exist in team frameworks like mine to further explore these design thinking approaches if only to get yourself asking both the smallest details (UI) and broadest questions (For us: What would nurture a healthy community? Is technology even necessary?). You might even ask it on a HowToCollege platform someday. :-)