“Tabloids Headlines”: Jumpstarting Learning Interest?

A fantastic discussion on Wired.com, I think they nailed it: yes headlines matter immensely, in marketing, education, or other written content. Highlights:

“The headline is our one chance to reach people who have a million other things that they’re thinking about, and who didn’t wake up in the morning wanting to care about feminism or climate change, or the policy details of the election,” says co-founder Peter Koechley. “The difference between a good headline and a bad headline can be just massive. It’s not a rounding error. When we test headlines we see 20% difference, 50% difference, 500% difference. A really excellent headline can make something go viral.”

“Subject lines matter a ton,” Rospars says. “As campaigns especially, but also organizations and brands more generally, become prolific content producers themselves, they’re paying much more attention… The key is to keep finding new ways to engage people with your content by being playful with the creative and ruthless with the testing.”

Whether it’s headlining material to come or a hook for interest, this is oftentimes the single chance to grab the audience for more. People are increasingly accustomed to saavy headlines, the bar is high… let’s not be boring.

Great examples:

  • “I will be outspent,” “Some scary numbers,” and “Do this for Michelle.”  (President Obama’s presidential campaign)
  • “Who Gives A Crap – toilet paper that builds toilets,” “Ministry of Supply: The Future of Dress Shirts,” “Penny Arcade Sells Out,” “Oculus Rift: Step Into the Game,” and “To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure.” (crowdsourcing campaigns)
  • “Move Over, Barbie — You’re Obsolete,”  (an article at Upworthy, which promoted a construction kit to encourage young girls to become engineers. Upworthy is a news aggregator that makes editors write at least 25 different headlines for each post, then plugs top contenders into alternate versions of of its Facebook page and website to test which one elicits the maximum reaction.

Mental barriers & task-shifting education

Last night while teaching a class I solicited thoughts on obstacles to applying what was being taught. It was a complex topic of artificial intelligence and programming in financial markets, so I expected ideas like “overwhelmed” “laziness” “looking for an easier way”. But interestingly one mentioned what I consider an under-discussed elephant in the (class) room: mental health issues. At best, for all our tech glitz, savvy methods, persuasive words and students’ motivation, ambition and work-ethic… how often do we not achieve sufficient learning lift-off because emotional or mental problems obstruct the way?

Image Psychiatrist Vikram Patel, Professor of International Mental Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, describes a process of task-shifting mental health in lower income countries – where often everyday people are not finding relief from debilitating depression and postpartum, anxiety, and so on. Task-shifting is A process of task delegation from doctors to nurses; and from nurses to other less specialized lay health workers. Task shifting improves healthcare coverage by making more efficient use of the human resources. (WHO, Jan 2008). Where mental health workers and medicine are scarce, he describes shifting tasks to lay people who are trained for specific purposes, reducing cost and increasing accessibility. This has improved the rate of mental health interventions in various areas around the world. His service delivery model is called SUNDAR (Hindi for “attractive”):

Simplify the message/communication
UNpack the treatment/service
Deliver it where people are
Affordable and available human resources
Reallocate specialists to train and supervise

Imagine empowering local people – assisted by technology and social communication – to understand core mental health issues, learn the basics of critical treatment strategies and deliver the solutions to their neighbors, while the rare doctor or professional is freed to oversee and train the operation.

How could this delivery model be applied to education with a novel twist on MOOCs and other trends we are observing? (apropos for a year now I myself have yet to finish a Coursera/other MOOC because I am busy, lazy … and at times my coping skills are overwhelmed with something or another that’s serious) And better, could we kill two birds with one stone by incorporating simple social solutions to psychological issues impeding learning?

Udemy’s getting people paid to teach anything, online

 Udemy.com crossed my radar earlier this year. It’s a slick site that facilitates anybody teaching an online course on anything, and charge for it (or do it free.) Love it.

Interesting is an article from Gigaom today: a quarter of Udemy’s instructors are tracking to make $10K a year. WOW. Udemy seems to have traction in terms of growth too: half a million unique visitors monthly as of last June. Here’s a Top 10 list of their instructors/courses as of May, & an interview with Udemy’s Marketing VP with tons of goodies and stats here.

I’m as fascinated with these guys as I am with MOOCs. I’m curious to see what Udemy does and ushers in.

Monetizing free educational resources

Tech-media-business site gigaom ran an article on “How Coursera may profit from free courses.”, supplying more evidence that the free model is alive and well! It provides teachers (& in this case learner) content and tools, while private firms are only limited by their imagination of how to provide something for free… yet get paid, as Coursera illustrates.

Chris Anderson of Wired was an early-adopter of these ideas and gave a prescient primer back in 2007 here: Chris Anderson of WIRED on tech’s Long Tail. 

Additionally, Eric von Hippel of MIT’s Sloan School of Management defined a user-led innovation model in his book Democratizing Innovation (free ebook on Amazon!) arguing why and when users find it profitable to develop new products and services for themselves, and why it often pays users to reveal their innovations freely for the use of all. He proposes that as innovation becomes more user-centered the information needs to flow freely, in a more democratic way, creating a “rich intellectual commons” and “attacking a major structure of the social division of labor,” which would tie in to educational resources multiplying as a result of volunteerism giving back via “cognitive surplus.”

With the current trend of proliferating free educational resources (even in online education alone such as Coursera as mentioned above, and including others like UniversityNow, Codecademy, 2tor, The Minerva Project, Udacity, Udemy and more) we’d expect the good news of seeing this to continue help both business as well as educators and students.

7 Barriers to Engagement for Positive Change in Society

Dave Meslin, activist/journalist and founder of the Toronto Public space Committee, has some thought-provoking ideas on what prevents people from engaging in creating positive world-change.

He argues that it’s not a lack of interest or caring. It’s not that people are lazy, selfish or stupid. But rather that it’s simply because there are obstacles in people’s path… something is too big of a pain in the butt or seems impossible or even obscured so we don’t think about it. I agree that this often happens.

Here are some obstacles with which he illustrates:

1) City Hall
Governments are known for often communicating unclearly. Consider public notices such as ones posted in newspapers. Typically small fonts, a vomit of information and bad formatting. Imagine if Nike, for example, communicated in the same manner. But they don’t, and why? Because naturally they want their target audience to buy.

If government and other similar orgs want target audiences to buy-in, we would see more notices that are simple, clear, obvious what to do to take action.

2) Public Space & 3) The Media

Another obstacle to engagement for the masses. Think billboards, signage. Whoever has the most money has the loudest voice. Because many good messages are not profitable to share, they often are not.

With the Media, it’s similar. Celebrities, scandals etc. are sexy content. Reviews typically give “If you go” details. Causes and politics coverage tends to be less, with fewer details on how to get involved. The implication is that audiences want entertainment, but not so much be engaged in their community.

4) Heroes

There is often an emphasis in stories on somebody chosen as “the one” and then saving the world mostly by themselves, albeit with help from sidekicks. Mr. Meslin believes this sends the wrong messages of what leadership is all about and that a heroic effort is a collective effort, voluntary, imperfect, unglamorous, typically doesn’t suddenly start and stop but is usually ongoing, comes from within, about following your own dreams uninvited

5) Political Parties

The idea here is that political parties tend to be “uninspiring,” alike and tell people what they want to hear at the expense of bold and creative ideas. People can smell it and it feeds cynicism.

6) Canada: Charitable status & 7) Elections

Here Mr. Meslin describes how charities in his home of Canada cannot perform advocacy, which denies a voice to many of the most passionate, and that elections “are a complete joke” and “votes don’t count in Canada.”

Added altogether, he concludes that of course people are apathetic, “it’s like running into a brick wall.” He posits that solutions include opening up city hall, reforming electoral systems, democratizing public spaces. He believes that to do this we need to redefine apathy not as an internal syndrome but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement, and identify and collectively dismantle obstacles.

My take:

It’s a great discussion, though I don’t think there’s enough evidence to support most if not all of the claims.

-City Hall obstructs involvement, yet recently I personally had a flyer on my door clearly inviting me to come to a city planning meeting the next week to discuss potential changes to my road and they wanted resident feedback.

-“Votes don’t count in Canada” – that’s it? Nothing to support this?

-Nobody is inspired by political parties, which don’t have creative bold ideas?

-Heroism is always collective? etc.)

I believe some of the problem with these is also a function of motivators (don’t expect a government to care about things nobody asks to be changed and is simply not a big deal) because in a free-market, there is usually motivation to supply what is demanded. And much of these are a result of inadequate demand. Let’s face it: life is hard and folks need a much larger supply of inane memes than they do of worthy causes.

How do we increase demand? I believe that people gravitate toward degrees of self-actualization as they have more free time, resources and knowledge of how. This is the thinking of cognitive surplus. In a broad sense I agree with Mr. Meslin and add this: let’s make “worthy” things more palatable so there is demand for them, and governments, media etc. will supply it.

I’ll throw out one example of a solution: technology. As technology proliferates and is cheaply accessible, as it becomes increasingly sophisticated and wondrous, as people learn to utilize it better… then it means needs are more transparent and easier to share. It’s incredibly motivating to watch a video on modern slavery that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It means people tend to collaborate more and connect better over causes that are important to them. It means good things are put on a competitive playing field with sexy profit-driven products, services, or media because there’s somebody out there who took the time to make that inspirational video or quote-picture. Technology feeds demand, demand feeds supply, supply feeds engagement.