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Learn and understand each other better through stories

An online platform that uses real-world experiences as shared learning contexts to build intercultural knowledge, empathy and engagement.

Photo of Ning De-Eknamkul
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The Context

Increasing racial, socioeconomic and cultural diversity meant that students enter the classroom with a diverse range of backgrounds, needs and goals. Students living in marginalized areas may struggle academically and emotionally due to the effects of poverty and discrimination. While students living in affluent communities don't share the same negative experiences, they may suffer a similar degree of helplessness in the face of challenges outside their comfortable environment. A curriculum focused on testing and academic achievements alone cannot bring forth grit, understandings and purpose for students with increasingly diverse experiences. 

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The Problem

"As a student myself, I can definitely attest to the fact that the formal education system tends to have a narrow perspective and can often overlook the life skills that can be gained from interacting with a diverse set of peers."

1. Formal education system provides limited space and opportunity for diversifying perspectives and developing intercultural knowledge and empathy.

2. Social culture of school (e.g. Lunch table cliques) is often not conducive to connected learning, collaboration, and interaction with a diverse set of peers. 

3. School learning is often disconnected from the contexts of relationships, shared practice, culture, and identity where young people find meaning, social connection and empathy. Students are not engaging.

My solution is to provide an adaptive and collaborative platform that uses real-world stories and experiences as shared learning contexts to build intercultural knowledge, empathy and engagement.

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My goals are to:

1) Create the intellectual sweet spot -- a space that enables meaningful interaction and collaboration between learners by leveraging the compatibility of their different interests and needs.

Based on my prototype experiments, this is where two learners share a common vision (e.g. improving education) and exchange similar or different perspectives on that particular area of interest. This connected learning enables learners to develop "21st Century skills" such as systems thinking, problem solving, critical thinking, adaptability, self-direction and empathy.

2) Marry culturally and personally relevant content (e.g. stories and arts) with useful tools of learning and thinking. The long-term mission is to afford students with both the tools to drive deep learning and the flexibility to adapt and affect meaningful changes in the world.

Concept: Tap what is important in students’ diverse worlds to establish relevance and trigger curiosity

True learning happens within the optimal zone between what we know and what we don’t know–where unfamiliar experiences validate or challenge our own familiar beliefs.

Based on this concept, the platform meets learners exactly where they are in terms of their interests, knowledge and experiences. The system provides each student with appropriate learning materials by establishing a connection between her interests and learning goals. 

The system uses this intellectual sweet spot to set up a self-driven learning framework in which each student learns about new things she's curious about in the context of what she already knows. 

The hypothesis is that once students identify how new information applies to existing knowledge structures, their knowledge or lived experiences, they are inspired to question current assumptions about their world, engage with the observed issues, and work out ways to improve them. 

How it works: Match what I don’t know with what you know

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You can read more about how it works in the original submission of my idea here.


User Journeys

System and Curriculum Modeling

UX Overview and Features

Design Exploration

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Envisioned Use Case Model


In higher ed settings, I envisioned the idea being used in several ways. Here are some examples:

  • Provide interactive contexts for group or individual project sessions and classroom discussions
  • High school may offer a "Reading the World" class which immerses students in the understanding and evaluation of new different perspectives and sharing of stories/experiences.
  • Teachers use learning data derived from the platform (e.g. what topic are my students most engaged in, what real-world examples my class have been exposed to) to tailor instruction and design lesson plans.
  • Teachers facilitate student's self-directed learning, for example by recommending how their interests and goals can shape their learning path and what courses or action they might take to further their understanding.
  • High school advisors/mentors and students can use the platform as a foundation for discussing student's potential academic or professional career e.g. in what areas might you see yourself making an impact and for what reasons.

Design and Implementation Challenges 
The OpenIDEO community has helped refine my idea by raising potential design and implementation challenges. Issues include:

  • Accessibility
  • Incentivizing contribution
  • Credibility of platform and moderation of content
  • Assessment Methods
  • Algorithms Tuning
  • In person vs online interaction

I plan to address these challenges through future user tests and prototypes. You can read more about how I plan to address them here.

Light Weight Prototypes

Prototype #1: Field Interviews - Summary and Insights

During the first two weeks of the Refinement phase, I set out to talk to a diverse set of 18-24 years old students. The main goal of the conversations was to get more insight into a variety of student experiences and challenges and validate my hypothesis that the incentive to interact with others at a deep level is the key to building intercultural knowledge and empathy.

Prototype #2: Interactive Storytelling - Demo

As part of project development, I had the opportunity to connect with one of OpenIDEO's community prototypers, Daniel. During our talk, we exchanged our ideas, backgrounds, stories and goals. The conversation made me realize that we are the two different ideal users for my platform. Just as we were brought together by OpenIDEO, my platform aims to connect and facilitate interaction between students with shared vision and potential. So in this prototype I tried to capture and imagine the experience of live interactive storytelling.  

Prototype #3: Cal x OpenIDEO Ideation Session

In collaboration with OpenIDEO SF Chapter, we invited 30 UC Berkeley students to the IDEO San Francisco for a Design Thinking workshop. The purpose of the session was to introduce a new perspective on how students can take part in social causes they care about and pursue lifelong learning even after college. During the session, we captured the experience to gain insight into how they learn and interact with other students.

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Through this opportunity, I was able to test two of the main three hypotheses proposed by my idea:  

1. The Intellectual Sweet Spot: You learn best at the space between what you know and what you don’t know. Learn from people who are different but have something in common (commonalities as bridge to new knowledge).

2. The Power of Empathy and Storytelling in Learning: Empathy bridges the gap between pre-existing knowledge and new information or perspectives.  

Activities, Results and Insights

Summary of Insights

What target learners need 

During the field interviews, I mentally divided up the students I talked to into two categories:

  1. Students from particularly difficult socio-economic, familial, cultural or educational backgrounds who may or may not be in college.
  2. College students or recent graduates who have struggled at home, in school or community in some ways.

In each interview, I asked the student to tell me their story up to this point in life. I let them go into detail when it comes to their educational and transition experiences. Finally, I asked them to talk about their goals and what is next for them.

Blue represent Group 1 students and yellow Group 2. 

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Who the early adopters are

Self-motivated learners who might:

  1. Know what they want
  2. Don’t know what they want
  3. Love helping, teaching, sharing
  4. “Absorb” people - love hearing stories and seek connection
  5. Be feeling defeated, dejected, disconnected in school
  6. Come from a unique background and seek social-emotional integration

Where the Intellectual Sweet Spot is 
Based on the prototype experiments, we found out that students are the most engaged when interacting with partners who share a common vision and exchanging similar and different perspectives on that particular area of interest. Very similar learners are the most engaged but only when discussing deeper topics. Learners often connected and engaged when they gain a new perspective after interaction.

Insights from Self-Reflection Activity

Empathy and Storytelling fosters Learning and Action

“Almost everyone seems to agree that experience & interaction are the best teaching tools.”
    1. Emotions are important because they motivate us. Knowing that something is important is helpful, but it can’t compare to feeling that same knowledge.
    2. Empathy can foster prosocial action, or action focused on helping others.
    3. Stories can be used to cultivate the awareness that superficial differences like race are nothing compared to our commonalities, to break down bias and foster inclusiveness.
    4. This mindset helps learners develop a sense of connection and improves learning experiences and outcomes.

Read how I plan to iterate my solution based on new insights.

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

For every student, especially learners seeking new perspectives with little learning support at home or in school. It reimagines higher education by 1) Recognizing a student as a whole human being with a unique set of learning needs, trajectory and potential 2) Using real-world stories and contexts to diversify pathways to opportunity and meaningful social participation 3) Utilizing diversity and global interconnection to make learning relevant to everyone regardless of their background

This idea emerged from:

  • An individual

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

I would love input and guidance in all aspects of design and development, especially technical functionalities. What is the most practical and efficient way of making this concept work? Pedagogical input would be tremendously helpful in testing and validating my vision. Experts in technology implementation and curriculum design can suggest ways in which my idea can be implemented in school, homeschool or other learning settings. What are possible challenges and ways to overcome them?

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Do a physical pilot test in a classroom where a small pool of students from different backgrounds mimic my proposed steps: Create Learner's Profiles Write stories and create Storyboards Storytellers and seekers match, meet and share content Assess their learning experience (if they meet their learning goals) Find out: 1. What significant factor(s) could impact a learner's choice or motivation to learn 2. The nuances of matching learners in real life and how it affects the algorithm.

Tell us about your work experience:

Recent graduate in History and German from UC Berkeley, now a Product Designer exploring the intersection of education, technology and culture in San Francisco.

How would you describe this idea while in an elevator with someone? 2-3 sentences.

An online platform that uses real-world experiences as shared learning contexts to build intercultural knowledge, empathy and engagement. It's a place to learn and understand the world better through stories. The platform enables meaningful interaction and collaboration between learners by leveraging the compatibility of their different interests, experiences and needs.

What is the specific problem your idea is trying to solve? 1 sentence.

Formal education system provides limited space and opportunity for developing intercultural perspectives, empathy and the life skills that can be gained from interacting with a diverse set of peers.

How is your idea different or unique from what is currently on the market?

My solution combines personalization with contextualization and is focused on learners. It addresses multiple dimensions of student reality, not only academic performance, and meets learners exactly where they are in terms of knowledge, environment, experiences and learning needs. The platform uses holistic student data to align learning purpose, activities, assessments and outcomes -- offering an opportunity for long-term curricular innovation.

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

During pilot tests, I plan to assess the student's progress and engagement in different ways: - Improvement in the quality of Storyboards and Learner's Profiles - Degree of interaction with the platform - How they perform in self reflection exercises (e.g. ability to connect the dots between old and new ideas) - Are students meeting their learning goals they've set up? (alignment of their learning outcomes, learning experiences and learning goals) - Student, parent and teacher feedback

How might your idea be transferable to a large number of people?

The solution will be web/app based and built to work across all platforms and browsers for accessibility. Students can download content to their mobile device through an app when they're connected to Wi-fi and use it offline. A lightweight/low-bandwidth alternative will be made available with prioritized features and low data requirements.

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

Examine how to use insights from prototyping to inform design and future prototypes, High-fidelity design and iterate solutions, Address design and implementation challenges through more prototypes, research and tests, Build a team - gather a small team of dedicated designers, engineers, education innovators and experts.

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This is the best idea

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