In search of symmetry: Project Documentation

(by Divya Chaturvedi, Marcela Gomez, Abdulrahman Y. Idlbi, Ye-Her Wu)

Part 1: What got us thinking about symmetric learning?

The missionaries

We recognize we are in a pretty privileged position. We have been given opportunities to learn, and refine our skills, in a way many do not have. We want to give back to our community; we want to help those who are less privileged. Some of us want to teach, others start programs/ projects for causes and communities we care about.

But in helping the communities we purport to help, are we really changing things for the better for them? Are we providing them with the assistance they really need? Or are we simply imposing our ideals and world view on a community we have deemed “helpless”?

Where is the asymmetry?

So there is an asymmetric relationship between the person that gives, and the person that receives. Examples of the relationship:

The teacher and the student: The teacher holds the power, s/he holds the knowledge that student wants to learn. But does the way the teacher teach, actually help the student learn? The less educated the student, the more asymmetrical the relationship. This is particularly so amongst less literate/ skilled adult learners and those in developing communities, who feel powerless, who see themselves as passive learners in the process.

The funder and the recipient: This is probably where the asymmetry is greatest. In providing the resources, the funder also enjoys a disproportionate say about which kind of project or idea gets implemented. The funder’s ideas may be different from the reality on the ground and may not lead to the desired outcome that would benefit the very people it was intended for. The funder could impose his vision, but the recipient is the conduit for him to achieve this vision.

The volunteer and the beneficiary: In most instances this is the well-meaning person who genuinely wants to make the world a better place. However, his only reference point is the life he has had, and the only solutions he knows, are those he has practiced. So while his intentions are right, his solutions might not be suitable or relevant to the context.. When he lends aid, through his contribution of skill or knowledge, there is asymmetry as he may not know what the beneficiary really needs, while the beneficiary may not be able to protest.

How do we improve this asymmetry?

We recognized that while it is unlikely to make a missionary/ beneficiary relationship entirely symmetrical, attempt can be made to make it more balanced. While the person/organization may be well meaning and sincere about the aid they are trying to give, how can they do so in a collaborative and reflective way that allows for full engagement and participation of the communities and people being helped so that the aid and is meaningful and relevant to the communities?  Similarly, how can beneficiaries communicate their needs to those in power who sincerely want to help?  To answer these questions we set out to build an iterative feedback mechanism that could lead to a better understanding and knowledge transfer between the two groups with the hopes that it would thereby bring about meaningful and applicable solutions as well as better learning outcomes.

Finding a project to work on

We were interested in helping the well-meaning “missionary” access and understand those who are most affected by an issue. This narrowed our scope to identifying projects relating to “The funder and the recipient” or “The volunteer and the beneficiary”. Relating to the former, we explored working with a local social enterprise which received funding from Foundations (e.g., Gates Foundation) and local Government.  They wanted to help their funders understand the on the ground implementation challenges better so that decisions on resource reallocation could be made faster.

The second option was to explore improving the Open IDEO platform, at the suggestion of Ethan and Philip. The goal of Open IDEO is to “draw upon the optimism, inspiration, ideas, and opinions of everyone to solve problems. They set us the challenge of helping Open IDEO source for solutions that were “more relevant”.

In the end, we decided to work on the Open IDEO challenge given its showcasing of a wide variety of global challenges and its effort to engage the global community to provide solutions to these challenges.  Further, as representatives from four different countries (India, Mexico, Singapore, and Syria), we felt we could understand the global nuances better and be able to provide more relevant solutions.

Exploring the concept of “the bridge”

Ethan Zuckerman describes ‘bridge figures’ as people who “straddle the borders between cultures, figuratively keeping one foot in each world.  As a bridge, you are an interpreter between cultures – translating and contextualizing ideas from one culture and another.” (Rewire, 2013)  Bridge figures can be important when it comes to building understanding between different cultures, countries and people. To be a bridge figure, a person should have spent substantial amount in a culture and country that is different from their home or root culture/country, for example students from Africa or India pursuing higher education in Western Europe or America. However, there is a difference between being bicultural and a bridge figure. Bridge figures care passionately about ‘one of the culture they inhabit and want to celebrate it to as wide an audience as possible.”

For an open online platform like OpenIdeo, bridge figures can play a critical part in translating and contextualizing ideas from one culture to another.  They can provide the much needed local context to a global challenge that would enable more localized solutions/ideas to emerge that would enrich the challenge measurably. Such bridge figures can be valuable ‘contextualizers’ for any global challenge put out by OpenIdeo providing local/cultural knowledge and information that would help draw in more people from that culture/country to contribute their ideas and inspirations.  When a user sees a representation of his cultural context at the OpenIdeo site, he/she is more likely to share their own unique ideas and suggestions that pertain to their own culture.  Bridge figures as ‘contextualizers’ can truly make the OpenIdeo challenge global, by drawing in and hooking people from their own cultures in different parts of the world!

Part 2: Creating symmetric learning spaces – trying it out on Open IDEO

Open IDEO is an online platform supported by IDEO where sponsors such as the Mayo Clinic and USAID can post global challenges with the hope of solving a widespread social problem (such as, “How might we all maintain well being and thrive as we age?” and “How might we create healthy communities within and beyond the workplace?”).  With the help of its members who are part of the global community, Open IDEO tries to develop solutions to face those challenges.  The website reflects a defined challenge cycle that consists of Inspiration, Ideas, Applause, Refinement, and Evaluation.  At the end of the cycle, a number of winners are announced for the challenge.  Afterwards, there is an ongoing period of “Realization” where the winning concepts are actually put into practice.

While going through the challenges on the OpenIdeo website, we noticed that a large proportion of the participation came from the developed world, and from people who may or may not have any direct experience or contextual knowledge of how the OpenIdeo challenge and its solutions would affect the people.  Or, in other words, how a small segment of participating users from mostly developed nations affected the direction and conceptualization of ideas.

Our journey as charted by our “How might we…”

How might we…

  • bring equal attention to the problems regardless of the proposer?
  • encourage localized versions of the problems/solutions?
  • encourage people from the targeted communities to participate in the process?
  • give voice to the people affected by the issue so that their opinions are reflected in the challenge?
  • help Sponsors and Contributors better understand the context of the problem?
  • uncover the assumptions of Sponsors and Contributors for more relevant/ effective solutions?

And we finally settled on

  • encourage beneficiaries to participate in the process?
  • reach localized solutions?
  • provide context to the challenges?


Initial impressions

For our initial dive into Open IDEO, we decided to each take a challenge that resonated with us and “see” how it would play out in the communities we come from, respectively.

mexico 2 Marcela picked a challenge titled “How might we make an election experience more accessible to everyone?” Two things stood out to her; an analogous example and a winning concept.  In the analogous example, one person suggested thinking about voting lines as similar to airport security lines.  People lined up to vote in her hometown, in fact, did not resemble people lined up at airports.  Elections in Mexico always take place in July, and in the northern states that means temperatures of over 100 degrees.  In addition, one of the winning concepts involved a voting bus.  Mexico has a long history of vote buying, where people are literally paid to get on a bus that will take them to the voting booth where they will vote for the candidate that sponsored the trip.  Neither the analogous example nor the winning concept seemed applicable or relevant to her community, and she kept thinking of what information and knowledge the OpenIdeo contributors should know in order to come up with real solutions that would be applicable and relevant to her community.

Abdulrahman looked at the challenge “How can technology help people working to uphold human rights in the face of unlawful detention?” and realized that one of the winning proposals did not quite work for the targeted audience. A solution conceived at a make-a-thon in London looked very different from the ground realities.

makeaton 3 makeathon 4From this, we realized that what was missing was context. The folks proposing solutions did not quite understand the contextual environment and challenges for the very people they were hoping to help.

makeaton 5makeaton 6

Introducing context

inspiration 7

inspiration page 8 It is not that Open IDEO did not consider context. The first step of the OpenIdeo challenge process to elicit solutions is the Inspiration phase. The purpose of this stage is to elicit stories, tools, case studies, and examples that will inspire solutions – preferably through pictures. However, these Inspirations are then grouped in an amorphous whole that assumes that these inspirations are homogenous globally.

But context differs from country to country, community to community, person to person. Thus we hit upon the idea of separating the Inspiration phase into separate threads, grouped, perhaps by geographical locations. This would help solution contributors gain a better appreciation of the environment of the beneficiaries they are trying to help.

We realized that the inspiration phase is the most critical phase as it allows for a sharing of tools, examples, case-studies about a particular challenge that would help in crafting real solutions.  The Inspiration phase would greatly benefit from a deeper dive into contextual information and knowledge and the showcasing of local context would inspire more people from different parts of the world to contribute.

localized solutions


building bridges


contex and inspiration

Currently, OpenIdeo follows a linear path of solutioning for a challenge from Inspiration to Realization. We proposed a more fleshed out Inspiration phase that would include the space to add contextual knowledge. For example, contributors could add relevant and localized information that would enrich the inspiration phase and the subsequent ideation phase. The Inspiration phase would look something like the image below with the Inspiration phase having many contextual threads.

before and after process We also realized that using maps to display the context would provide an easy visual display of contextual information and would encourage contributors and contextualizers to explore, understand and relate with the context.  Further, the addition of a “connect” function would allow potential contextualizers who identified with other contexts in some other part of the world to draw this linkage, and reframe the context to that of his community. In the long run, this would give contributors and contextualizers a better appreciation of the shared global experiences, and the “markets” that specific solutions can work in.

Further, to make the ‘context’ easy to follow, add, and understand, we proposed the following framework.  The ‘context’ during the Inspiration phase would be broke down into four categories:

  1. Self: share your perceptions, dreams
  2. Community: share your community’s social, family, formal and informal structures
  3. Infrastructure: what are the tools, utilities, technologies available in your local community
  4. Space: How is space shared in your local community

example of context buckets


Proposed “new” look for the Inspiration and Profiles page

redesign 1


The added context would be easier to view on a map.  The context could have pictures or description. Clicking on a context icon will lead the user to a detailed view.

redesign 2

zoom in and out view


Suggestions for Profile page

profile sample

In addition, to involve more contextualizers and contributors from different parts of the world, we propose that the “Profile” page of Open IDEO contributors include two tools. First, it should capture the contributor’s regional experience, so readers know about the contributors experience and his or her credibility in providing contextual knowledge or other inspirations and ideas from a particular viewpoint. Second, it should also track and rank top “contextualizers”, similar to what is already being done for top inspirers, conceptors, evaluators, and collaborators.


 Other observations/ learning points beyond what we have explored

  • The more concrete the challenge, the easier it is to add context. So some challenges that are more specific in nature get much more detailed and relevant solutions.
  • In the Inspiration phase, OpenIdeo sets out certain ‘missions’ that help guide the thinking of contributors on inspiration.  The language of the ‘mission’ can be modified to gather as many diverse contributions as possible.


Next Steps: More thinking needs to be done on how might we….

  • encourage contextualizers to contribute to solutions within their communities?
  • enable co-creation of solutions between contextualizers and solution contributors from outside the community?
  • allow the contextualization phase to give a real sense of the reality on the ground, yet prevent the process from being politicized?



Some responses from friends and family around OpenIdeo’s current challenge “How might we inspire young people to cultivate their creative confidence?”

Appendix 2 Appendix 1


Learning Symmetry: Missionary Zebras

Members:  Abdulrahman, YH, Dyvia, Marcela

Our initial conversation revolved around trying to find a way to support learning symmetry within an asymmetrical power dynamic between the donor/funder-people being helped relationship.  Specifically, we wanted to look at how we might help donors and funders make better decisions by learning from the community they are trying to help.  After further discussions, we decided we could think of the same HMW in terms of skills (How might we help maintain a symmetric learning structure within skills and knowledge transfer.   Also, we’ve discussed how we might use the idea of a bridge figure to try to offset the inevitable power dynamic that comes in learning situations where there is an us and a them.

Some options for our project:
-Open IDEO remix: Working with Open IDEO to see if the current way of “problem solving” could also include a more local component (as opposed to one global solution, for all to implement).
OpenIDEO remix

-Working with Jobs for the Future: skill-sharing and mentorship.
-Working with current members of the MIT media lab: Mt. Elliot Makerspace??
-Developing a toolkit with an outline of design principles and/or resources that people would need.

Song:  Manu Chao, El Viento


Read and Reflect-Q2

As with most things I write about, I am going to have to start talking about myself. My interests and passions generally revolve around 3 things (in no particular order):

-Education:  Most teaching and learning within traditional schooling results in boring and meaningless classes.  High quality and valuable education is still inaccessible to the vast majority of the world.  The current educational landscape is such and injustice to so many people and a tremendous challenge for people that want to undertake it.  I think that is why I am passionate about education; a combination of a sense of social justice and a challenge that needs to be addressed.  Ironically, a good deal of my curiosity stems in part from having poor educational experiences over extended periods of time.  At some point I recognized that learning in a meaningful way was up to me, which is both scary and empowering. I will talk more about this balance between “scary and empowering” later.

-Literature (Colonial Literature from Latin America, to be really specific):  Exploring and analyzing narratives feels like a puzzle to me, and I love it.  I enjoyed (loved, even) writing papers on that topic.  In addition, I felt successful when I did work in that field, which only served to reinforce my passion.

-Designing better things: In most public schools, teachers get stuck using poorly designed tools, schools, curriculums, and even furniture that make their job unnecesarily difficult, and I want to fix them.  I spent many years asking myself (as well as administrators and specialists) why things were not better designed.  Nobody gave me a good answer, probably because nobody really knows.  My experiences teaching drive me forward in many of the things I choose to study.

I see a thread to why I choose to pursue my passions and interests.  They were the right combination of challenges, sense of social duty, enough reinforcement to see me through challenging times, and experiences I could draw on to move forward.  Fortunately, I’ve found a good balance of tools at my disposal to help me feel fulfilled, but also obstacles that keep me curious.  I alluded to these experiences when I wrote about my education above: resources were not handed to me, and it was challenging, which I think increased my own investment in learning.  At the same time, finding solutions to the problems I am passionate about has not been entirely out of my reach either.  Finding that balance between challenge and access has been key to keeping my curiosity alive, as scary and empowering as it has been.

The task of goal setting is infinitely more challenging.  I can’t count the number of times someone has asked me “What are you going to do with your life?” and the best answer I can give most of the time is, “We’ll see!”  I think it might be easier to imagine what goal setting could look like when it comes to content knowledge, given you probably could anticipate with more accuracy what the needs of the learners would be.  When it comes to personal goal setting, I feel like there would be a wide spectrum of needs, ranging from “I have absolutely no idea, and I may just be doing this for fun” to very specific statements with a clear path laid out.

How would we go about it?
-Supporting learners with a challenge.  I think you can still have an open ended result or product, but it is good to have a challenge to give you direction.  A puzzle, something to fix.
-Providing support in the form of a community, peer to peer learning, and a wealth of curated resources.   Enough, but not too many resources.
-Provide *something* that reinforces the benefits of learning to make sure there is enough of an incentive to keep learning during particularly challenging situations.  Maybe that something is pride in your work, maybe it is the satisfaction of doing what you love, but the incentive has to be there.

Informal, unprompted learning.

It doesn’t happen very often, but my last trip to the car wash gave me a lot to think about.  I got to witness brief interactions between two employees that got me thinking about all the teaching and learning we do on a daily basis, without even noticing it.  Reflecting on this experience inspired me to look at spaces or environments where people are learning from each other in either informal ways, or ways that we wouldn’t traditionally associate with learning.

1 everyday social interactions: Car Wash Employees

I couldn't catch a picture of the two employees talking,  so bear with me and imagine them standing right past that window.

I couldn’t catch a picture of the two employees as they were talking, so bear with me and imagine them standing right past that window, which is exactly where they were.

environment: An informal place within a workspace.

activities: People at work but also engaging in social activities.

interactions: Partnership between one Haitian immigrant and one Salvadorian immigrant.   I witnessed the Salvadorian man help his Haitian co-worker say the word “better” in a more “american” way.  They walked together to my car, when a women with a stroller walked by and waved at the Salvadorian man.  He waved back.  He then looked at the Haitian man and said with a broad smile “You can say hi too!”  He waved his hand “hi” while making eye contact with him, to communicate that it was ok to say hi to people in the neighborhood.

objects: none.

users: Majority group of Salvadorian immigrants and one Haitian immigrant.  Both use English as a second (or presumably even third) language.

The two men, right after the second conversation I observed.

The two men, right after the second conversation I observed.

My Interpretation-
People learn, even in challenging situations (in this case, where one person doesn’t speak the language), with the help of other people in their environment.  People can learn valuable information about how to navigate a new space (in this case, in the form of social norms) in informal situations.  



2 social media:  Teachers at an elementary school using social media to build an online learning community.  

 Diana twitter Ashley twitter Laura Arce twitter


environment: digital, twitter.

activities:  teachers using social media to share their work with their colleagues and with parents.

interactions: Teachers share pictures of their classroom work and activities with other teachers, administrators, and parents.  In addition to sharing pictures, they include questions which could help other teachers plan for similar lessons or activities.  Some pictures, for example, are meant to showcase something the teacher might be particularly proud of.

objects: smartphones, computers, maybe even cameras.

users: teachers, administrators, presumably parents.


 My interpretation-

People learn by sharing ideas with each other.  My theory is that, when given the choice, teachers would showcase their best work, or work are the most proud of.  Therefore, a community like this one is likely to hold exemplars of teaching and learning that other teachers might learn from as well.  The network is informal, as it is not moderated or mandated by administrators or other guidelines, and still it is a valuable tool for peers to learn from each other. 



3  play:  Students rise to the challenge.

marshmellow chalenge

environment: Harvard Graduate School Education, Askwith Lecture Hall

activities: students were challenged to build the tallest structure possible, with a limited supply of spaghetti noodles, tape, some string, and a marshmellow (which they had to put on top of the structure they built).

interactions:  students worked in groups, with no predesignated roles, to complete the challenge.  The activity resembeled much more of a game and much less of a traditional, curriculum-centered learning experience.

objects: spaghetti noodles, marshmellow, string, tape, measuring tape, smartphones to document the experience.

users: students, teaching fellows, professor.

My interpretation-

People learn by working in teams to build something.  The process of building or constructing an artifact helps people immerse themselves in the challenge.  As a result, the participants of the learning experience feel invested in their learning.  The limited number of resources helps bring out people’s creativity.