OpenIDEO Future of Higher Ed Challenge

How might we reimagine high education for the needs of tomorrow?


I designed a concept for an adaptive software application that uses real-world experiences as shared learning contexts to build intercultural knowledge, empathy and engagement.

What did I do?

With the support of OpenIDEO collaborators, I had the opportunity to lead an ideation workshop at IDEO Headquarters in SF with 30 UC Berkeley students to prototype and test my concept through a thoughtful design experiment. Read my OpenIDEO article

The Problem

Rigid Education System vs Increasing Student Diversity

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. Despite the differences in experience, students living in affluent communities may suffer a similar degree of helplessness when exposed to larger 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.


The Concept and Goals

Establish relevance and trigger curiosity

Stories become lessons when they speak to us and our experiences. Emily Style, leader in educational equity and diversity, believes an ideal curriculum has the same function—both as ‘window’ out into the experiences of others and as ‘mirror’ of the student’s own cultural reality.

The idea is developing an adaptive learning platform that marries culturally and personally relevant content (e.g. stories and arts) with useful tools of learning and thinking. This integrative curriculum aims to afford students with both the tools to drive deep learning and the flexibility to adapt and affect meaningful changes in the world.


  • 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.

Student information is broken down into three “brackets”: 1) Student’s personal interests and experiences (“The Super Familiar”); 2) What she is familiar with (“The Familiar”), e.g. her neighborhood and community and 3) What the she finds unfamiliar (“The Unfamiliar”), e.g. other people’s cultures. The system uses this set of data 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.


The Inspirations


The Solution

Match what I don’t know with what you know


Students are creative storytellers, using multimedia tools to capture issues about their lives and the world around them. They product original creatives (including essays, poems, photos, discussions, video, audio clips, etc.) and upload them to their “Storyboard”. The system aggregates these artifacts and auto-selects them as learning materials for other students’ self-directed curriculum.

The system guides the learner through the content, as she learns about other students’ experiences including challenges they are facing and issues affecting their community. The curriculum is adaptive, organizing the chronology of learning materials based on the learner’s responses and changing interests.

Liza learns about Indonesia's urban problems through Brian's stories.


1. Storyboard

The Storyboard is a personalized media platform of student’s published projects. Like Pinterest, students can upload, save and sort media content in the way that tells a compelling story. They can browse other students’ produced work in the main global community feed. The pieces of media content (called “Pins” for convenience’s sake) is grouped and organized by tags, manually input by the students with the assistance of the platform’s recommendation feature. Tags allow the platform to source relevant learning content from the platform’s global reservoir of creative materials.


2. Learner’s Profile

The Learner’s Profile collects tags generated by students through their media content and sorts them into the three different brackets of information on interests and experiences (I&E):

  • 1) The Super Familiar World
  • 2) The Familiar World
  • 3) The Unfamiliar World

The student can manually add or make changes to their I&E configuration by clicking “edit”, sourcing content from the work they have created or saved from others’ Storyboards. This profile is used to set up his or her personalized learning dashboard.



3. The Matching Algorithm

The system finds a match based on two students’ given sets of I&E data. Basically, it matches what Liza finds unfamiliar or is curious about with what Brian already knows from his environment and experiences. Then the platform uses this match to curate a personalized learning experience for Liza.



Use case model: system automatically assigns learning content based on student's interests and experiences.

The Challenge

Borrowing real-world experiences

I imagined associated questions and learning activities that adapt to each piece of student-generated learning content. For example, Liza might respond to the following questions after listening to Brian’s stories:


By tackling this type of contextualized questions, students build not only cognitive skills, such as interpreting sources, making inferences, and justifying an explanation, but also empathy. Reflecting on others’ experiences is an opportunity for self-reflection and articulation of personal values, understandings of certain ideas or lack thereof.

My goal is to come up with more specific and useful tools for student to interact with the multicultural spectrum of learning content in meaningful ways. The main challenge is defining the roles in which data and technologies play in enabling such interactions.

Another challenge is identifying the data, conditions and criteria needed to determine each student’s personalized learning path. One idea is that the system assesses student’s level of engagement with the content topic, and after each learning session, uses this metric to adaptively improve the Learner’s profile, which then updates and feeds her personalized resource path. Self-assessment by the student is also an alternative way of obtaining student data to improve the learning experience.


My current concept assumes that students will engage with the platform on their own initiative. But unless they are naturally curious and motivated, they might be unwilling to participate in this highly active and collaborative learning environment. Ideally, the learning platform will be integrated as part of the school curriculum and teachers are the ones encouraging students to share their stories.

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.

If this was an independent learning tool, it is wise to consider different incentive methods, such as interactive games and social-emotional benefits (e.g. penpals). Essentially, the goal of the experienced-based adaptive learning platform is to build authentic motivation by tapping into their natural curiosity and interests.

Learn more about the concepts, design process, and results on OpenIDEO: