Having Targeted Goals in Open Source with Diana Chen

Introduction

At erxes, we’re dedicated to supporting open source projects grow. We do this in a couple of different ways. First, we help open source projects grow through the use of our own open source marketing platform

Secondly, we work hard to educate open source project founders and contributors on a wide range of topics relating to marketing open source projects. From time to time, we interview leaders in the open source space for our blog, about their experiences managing and scaling their projects. 

Today, we had the opportunity to chat with Diana Chen about her involvement in the open source education project Oppia. Make sure you read on, if you’re working on an open source project focused on social issues, such as access to quality education.

The Interview

Hello and thank you for taking the time to chat with us today about Oppia. Can you kick off the interview by telling us a little bit more about Oppia’s history?

Sure! The Oppia Foundation started in 2015 as a non-profit. We aim to foster the creation of effective online lessons, and to make these lessons freely available to students around the world. Our main focus is on students from underserved backgrounds who typically do not have access to quality education.

We tried to differentiate ourselves in the market by ensuring that our lessons and framework were effective, before scaling up. Many of the resources that our target students have access to are not effective in helping them improve their skills, and we didn’t want to add to the noise that was already happening in the education market. We wanted to ensure that we truly contribute something valuable to these communities before “going big”.

A snippet from the Fractions lesson on Oppia.

We also believe in the importance of working on this problem together, as a community. Oppia was created as an open source project because we believe that everyone can take part in a meaningful way, even from the comfort of their own home. The Oppia community has over 100 open source contributors today, including developers, artists, marketers, voice-over creators, and more. We are very fortunate that we’ve been able to meet and work with a lot of cool people to get to where we are now.

On your website it says educators have created more than 11,000 lessons on the platform and they serve 430,000 students. However, where you are today, isn’t where you started. Can you tell us a little bit more about your early milestones? What did your early milestones look like and how did you go about questing towards them?

Actually, we’ve grown quite a bit since we listed those numbers on our site! Today, we have more than 23,000 lessons that have served over 1 million students. That said, it took some course correction to get there. 

One of the first challenges for us was choosing the correct problem to solve. At first, we just wanted to make it possible for people to learn anything they wanted to on our platform, and the primary way we did this was to rely on crowdsourced lesson creation. However, after careful reflection, we realized it wasn’t very useful to make lots of lessons in many different topic areas, because the lessons had varying levels of quality and it was sometimes hard for students to find the good ones. We realized that it was important to provide creators with clear guidelines for how to make their lessons effective. 

So, we decided to narrow our scope to figuring out how to teach a particular topic effectively. We considered starting with something like Algebra or Computer Science, but, on further investigation, we found that students struggled with even basic prerequisites of Algebra, and that there were already many pre-existing, freely available Computer Science materials. We had also assumed that there was little work to be done in basic mathematics, and that it would be easy for students to learn these skills with the resources currently available. But when we went out to these communities, we found that even some adults struggled to work with concepts like fractions. 

Further evidence from the UN made it very clear that there is, and continues to be, a severe lack of access to high-quality basic education in many communities. We were shocked to find that access to basic education is such a big problem worldwide, and that many people aren’t even aware of this. 

Since then, we’ve been focusing on the creation of a set of lessons on basic mathematics that are both enjoyable and demonstrably effective, and that have been validated through more than 50 sessions with students. Once these lessons are fully completed and published, we hope to expand this approach to other subjects and lessons as well, and also share our learnings with our community of creators so that they can create such lessons too.

Can you tell us a little bit more about project momentum? Was getting your first 100 lessons uploaded harder than it is today to get 100 uploaded? What would you credit as the main factors that have helped you build and maintain momentum?

Interestingly, we don’t necessarily consider the number of lessons on our platform to be a measure of success. This is because the community-created lessons are of varying levels of quality, and lessons that aren’t useful to our students do not help us achieve our mission. 

Instead, we are focusing more on ensuring that the lessons we offer are effective. This can be much harder to achieve than uploading 100 additional lessons to the platform. The experience we’ve gained from doing several studies around the world (e.g. India, Palestine, Zimbabwe) has helped us validate our approach and enabled us to make the lesson creation process smoother and more structured.

A volunteer in Ghana using Oppia with a student.

Nowadays, the main thing that allows us to maintain momentum is our focus. If we tried to solve, head-on, the broader problem of ensuring that everyone can learn anything, it can be difficult for us to know what to do next. Having targeted goals ensures that we know what to focus on, and what to work on next.

One of our most effective ways of gaining momentum has been through word-of-mouth and localized advocacy in the targeted communities. Especially in underserved communities, there are often barriers to entry that we simply aren’t aware of. By partnering with local leaders, we develop targeted strategies to help address these. We also ensure that we create two-way communication channels which allow us to continually reframe and improve our lessons for the community members. These community leaders also tend to advocate and recommend our work to other community leaders, which helps us grow through the network effect.

In terms of time investment on growth, what advice would you give to other projects who want the work they do today to have a continued impact on their project in the following months?

We are still learning and developing our growth strategy. But I think one of the best pieces of advice we can provide both from a growth and strategic perspective is this: choose one focus area (or small set of focus areas), and execute on it well. I think in the past we’ve spread ourselves thin on a variety of channels, without looking into how we can make one of these approaches really effective. Especially as a non-profit that relies on volunteer contributions, it can be difficult to have enough manpower to focus on every area in a given time period. By focusing on a select set of channels for the short term, we can dedicate more of our time to creating a better-informed and more effective strategy. This allows us to work smarter, not harder.

What were some of your biggest growth obstacles early on and how did you overcome them?

The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “early on.” Before 2019, we actually didn’t have a dedicated marketing and outreach team (now named the “Growth team”). Instead, we focused simply on making lessons that worked. During that time, before the Growth team was formed, our community grew very organically, and we’re not exactly sure how that happened. We believe that, up until now, the project has grown on its own because it is a project that people find worth contributing to. Everyone in our community joins and helps out of their own accord, and we’re very fortunate to have gotten this far simply because of that.

Since we started looking more systematically into growth, we have faced other obstacles that we had to adjust and adapt to. For example, our approach to partnerships has changed several times as we have gained more experience within this field. Education is such a vast field that it’s virtually impossible to make a substantial impact on our own, so we knew we had to partner with organizations or teams in the communities we aimed to serve. But, initially, we weren’t sure how to find the right organizations to work with. 

In the end, we’re still learning and growing. We’ve had to go through a lot of experimentation and remain open to new opportunities, even if they weren’t always what we expected!

What are some of your current growth obstacles and how are you overcoming them?

At the moment, we’re still a small but growing organization with limited bandwidth to work on marketing-related projects. So, we’re continually adapting our strategy to try and get the most bang for the buck. We’ve been fortunate enough to get a lot of guidance and feedback from marketing strategists since the Growth Team was formed, but their guidance can sometimes vary dramatically or demand a lot from our team. We’ve learned to take each of their pieces of advice in stride, and triage this advice based on timelines that we can accommodate. We also try to take a data-based approach whenever we have to make larger strategic decisions, so that we can choose the path that objectively seems the most impactful.

Who are some other leaders in the open education space (individuals or organizations) you’ve drawn inspiration from?

Though our approach and target audiences are a bit different, we admire the vision behind Khan Academy, one of the most prominent leaders in this space. Another notable inspiration is Sugata Mitra and his work in demonstrating how students are able to learn through self-guided approaches.

Once you started onboarding learners and teachers into the platform, how big of a role did they end up playing as part of your overall community growth campaign? Do you have any examples of growth from unexpected activities based on the behavior of your users?

We did encounter some unexpected growth from learners, relevant stakeholders, and even volunteers who shared and advocated for the use of our platform, even though some of our lessons are still in development. Although it’s hard to say exactly how much of a role our users have played in our growth over time, we have generally seen a pattern: people tend to use Oppia more in places where we have very passionate volunteers and community leaders who actively let other people know about our platform as an educational resource. 

We are currently working on streamlining this practice through our local advocacy program, described a bit earlier. The key for us was ensuring that these passionate people had easy ways to find and communicate with us. From there, we plan to collaborate with them in order to identify the best ways to help other learners in their communities.

Where would you like to see Oppia in 5 years from now? What steps are you taking today to help you get there?

For us, we think less about where we see Oppia and more about where we would like to see the world. We want a world where every child has access to at least a basic, effective education and in which the state of education continues to improve over time. In order to get there, though, we have to ensure that we create a universally accessible resource. It should be truly effective at improving education for the world’s most underserved learners.

Although we are currently developing a specific set of lessons, we are actually more focused on universal accessibility of education in the longer term. As such, we don’t necessarily aim to develop X lessons in 5 years. Rather, we want to ensure that the lessons we create are accessible to all who need them. For example, many of our target users do not have regular access to high-bandwidth internet. So, we’re developing offline solutions to be able to reach these students in a way that we simply cannot today. For similar reasons, we’re also working to build out robust translation and audio voice-over pipelines. This will better serve our non-English-speaking and low-literacy learner target users.

Additionally, we are building out programs to ensure that we’re continually bringing the lessons we’re creating to our target users. This way, we can identify potential areas for improvement in our platform, lessons, or overall organization, and fix these for the benefit of future learners. We’ve also found that working closely in partnership with organizations that directly serve learners is one of the most important ways to ensure that our approach is actually effective at helping them.

Lastly, in the immediate term, we are working on finishing our initial basic mathematics curriculum and publishing it, so that it can become a publicly-available resource that continues to improve over time.

Lastly, if you could go back in time and do three things differently when you first started Oppia, what would those three things be and why?

It would have been extremely helpful if we had known from the beginning what to focus on. At first, we thought we had to design our platform around assisting lesson creators, and it took us a while to figure out why this approach didn’t work. Because our initial focus wasn’t on the eventual end user (the learner), we had a somewhat disjointed user experience that wasn’t as helpful or effective as we would have liked for either audience. Instead, if we had focused our energy on the learner’s experience from the start, we would have designed a much more cohesive experience. We likely would also have come to our final conclusion to focus on the quality (rather than the quantity) of our lessons earlier on.

Other than that, we are pretty happy with how Oppia has developed so far. Our open source approach has allowed us to work with a variety of amazing and talented people who have dedicated their time, passion, and energy towards improving the state of education. We’ve also been fortunate to work with so many wonderful volunteers who care deeply about helping underserved students around the world. Instead of focusing on the past, we are looking forward to the future, to seeing where Oppia will go next!

Thank you for taking the time to chat with erxes today, Diana. We really appreciate it. Many of our blog readers are currently scaling their own open source projects. Insights like this can help them get from where they are to where they want to be.

To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about Oppia, you can visit their website here.