Category: Tech Team

I once built a widget that had over 1 million views a day serving celebrity data. After building a several educational systems potentially serving over 500000 kids, I have to say learning just can’t compete with Hollywood. There are learning management systems that teachers love; there are classroom management systems that school districts love; there are even learning apps that funders love. However, the question that drives me and pushes the entire Digital Youth Network team is what does the most impactful integrative learning platform look like, and how can we build it?

Why Learning?

Education is a great equalizer of communities with varying resources. Many lives would change with a more effective learning cycle. (There are many models of learning cycles, but a simply version to consider is Experience>Share>Process>Generalize>Apply.) Typically public investments focus on the educational system and how to create personalized experiences for students in a one-size fits all learning environments. Contrarily, private investors attempt to influence learning in the out of school spaces by funding innovative programs targeted at specific communities, age ranges or even domains such as STEM. They all need to work together.

Young learners need a stronger, more engaged network with better empowering tools.

This network and set of tools can be described as an integrative learning platform whose objective is to create a replicable process to enable young learners that are proficient at exploring, discovering and building skills. The integrative aspect of the solution extends to the learner’s parents and caring adults. They’ll promote growth and be empowered to help add to their child’s learning portfolio. School teachers and mentors will activate and push opportunities to the learner that could start creating a formal learning trajectory. 

Our platform solution: L3. Learning takes place everywhere—in-school, out of school and online.

Design the foundation of L3: Mapping Learning Assets

Besides the learners themselves, the most important part of the network is the infrastructure that provides learning opportunities. The basic infrastructure is the collection of organizations, programs and its mentors, and the learning spaces. From the perspective of building a data architecture model, our platform has to understand and codify each of these data types.

› Organization – group offering programs with a particular purpose

› Program – a face to face activity run in a specific community for a particular cohort.

› Mentor – admin running the program working with the learners

› Learning spaces – facilities that enable learning to occur with built in resources and/or valuable community space

Pulling all of these disparate learning data together is called asset mapping. Asset mapping is all the rage these days. Smart cities have to understand their resources around the region to be efficient, effective planners. When we start asset mapping the community’s learning assets, we discover where learning happens (and does not happen) and we know who is responsible for providing learning opportunities. This knowledge alone could enable the community to make some strategic decisions, if they can gather everyone around the same table.

As the platform Tech Lead, I consider this level of detail about the infrastructure a requirement. Our platform must be able to identify gaps in equity around programs and organizations serving underserved communities. It’s part of Digital Youth Network’s mission:

DYN designs learning systems to ensure that all youth, especially the underserved, cultivate the critical skills, literacies and agency necessary to have the opportunity to create lives that are engaged, empowered and successful.

We strive for equity in each learning community we set out to positively impact. We structure, collect and package data that our clients export to influence their decisions, inform their partners, and if they work with the city’s pillars like school districts or mayoral offices, then they share reports with power brokers and start reshaping the ecosystem in the desired image. Our data are built to expose inequity and to inform decisions towards improving learning equity.

Case Study: Is transportation provided for a program?

We discovered an equity-building attribute for programs while working with one of our clients. A program for middle school girls, Digital Divas, was being offered in two locations—the second was commissioned because one location was not considered attractive to a subset of learners coming from an underserved ward according to the client’s previous informal findings. Additionally, the program administrator decided to offer transportation based on previous experiences with after school programs in large communities.

What happened?

The program administrator generated a report from the collected infrastructure data (organization and program metadata including location) and combined it with demographic information of the participants. Girls from the underserved ward attended the location that was predicted to be a deterrent. With the data generated, we concluded that organization-provided transportation in this scenario was a game changer. The after school transportation made an available program more accessible and created an equitable cohort for a program feared to be under attended by their target audience.

Organization provided transportation is now a permanent flag or an attribute to our program data object to help clients and researchers identify programs that are making the extra effort to increase equity in their community.

There’s more to it…

In our quest to build an integrative learning platform, our understanding of the community’s learning asset map was the most important step but only the first milestone. There are more data to codify, there is always the drive for improved user experience and there is content, relevance, gamification…there’s a lot for us to do.

Next time, I will breakdown something else from my experience of building L3, maybe APIs and how they extend learning opportunities.

In Profile of a Learner (Part 1), you experienced our redesign of the CCOL Profile. One update shows the achievements each learner completed and highlights in-progress activities for them to continue their aspirations. Another change allows the learner to save their interests to the CCOL Profile. Now fast forward three months, and the tech team has iterated and strengthened the learner’s experience based on those selected interests.

User Experience Research

Digital Youth Network has always maintained a strong product feedback with our users. Mentors, teachers, and students have helped shaped all of our products including iRemix and Chicago City of LearningWe invested some valuable time to understand how learners were using their new profile, and whether it matched up with our pre-launch research. Our assessments came in the form of tools like CrazyEgg and old fashioned f2f user observations.

Our first research technique for this particular feature consisted of unstructured observations.  These observations were designed to avoid impeding a learner’s workflow. The team wanted to see what the learner’s mental model was when they interacted with a new experience. (sorry about the technical jargon)

The primary outcome was quite positive with many learners successfully self registering to any of our programs and exploring thousands of activities. However, the question of ‘What now?’ or ‘What do I do next?’ did arise several times.


As a complimentary tool to our observation, we employed Crazy Egg. This UX tool allows us to see a heat map of what learners were doing when they returned to this page. Many of our call to actions were taken as expected. Learners updated their interests, continued their in-progress online challenges, and registered themselves to activities and badges.

Per CrazyEgg’s site: Crazy Egg is like a pair of x-ray glasses that lets you see exactly what people are doing on your website.

Crazy Egg Heat map of CCOL Profile Image

Crazy Egg Heat map of CCOL Profile

One area stood out: our learners hovered over their interests…quite often. We did not design the interests themselves to be interactive. But the evidence presented on the heat map combined with the user research feedback suggested an opportunity for a focused call to action. The action was to make the interest icons interactive by presenting 3 activities as options for what to do next.

How did we convert research into “impactful value” for our Learners?

In the screenshot below, the application presents three Top Picks based on the learner’s Game Designer interest. These picks will be a mixture of face to face and online activities. With this enhancement, the CCOL Profile allows learners to dive into activities based on the interest they want to pursue right now.

This engagement-based update creates a valuable feedback loop that encourages learners to update their interests when their interest in subjects or professions shift. And because those can change as often as their avatars, CCOL can present new and challenging activities for our Learners to explore.

Top Picks on CCOL Profile Image

Top Picks for Interests on CCOL Profile

See More Posts

In March, our team introduced 1-Click signup for CPS students. This highly focused feature allows current CPS students to register in CCOL in a single step.

1-Click CPS Signup


Quicker signup allows first time learners to start exploring activities sooner. Quicker exploration allows for simpler CCOL integration into in and out of school learning activities such as Hour of Code. Teachers can introduce CCOL and students will still have time for signup, exploring their interest and claiming their badge.


  • Teachers can reliably onboard students at consistent pace.
  • Learners have more time to personalize their profile by setting interests and preferred location.
  • Learners can pivot to discover activities suggested by Top Picks or related to an awarded badge.

1-Click allows students to signup in seconds. We’ll see the impact in the next few months as CPS continues their efforts to increase online learning.

See More Posts



At Digital Youth Network, we work with dozens of organizations across the nation on numerous campaigns. As DYN has shifted to a more data-centric strategy, the need to monitor the popularity of our campaigns is increasingly important. Sometimes we use Constant Contact. Other times we communicate with end users or stakeholders through one of our numerous platforms. And of course, social media allows links to point to anything from anywhere. This keeps tracking from being simple.

For our Chicago City of Learning (CCOL) messaging campaigns, we created our own url shortener. CCOL is composed of primarily user-generated content from our network of 100 plus organizations and partners. Campaigns point our audience to content such as organization pages, workshops and online challenges.

By creating custom links, message owners can see how many times their link has been clicked. As a content owner, we can see how many times a page has been viewed separately from the incoming links. So we could have a different twitter, handout, and email links that point to the same content. Much simpler to determine what works best for a given audience.

For instance, our most popular link in February so far is a playlist for Digital Learning Day —

See More Posts

Engagement is important for any platform. Understanding when and how valuable users engage your product separates good and bad user experiences. CCOL is a multi-sided platform — three or more user types engage our platform in order to accomplish one or more goals.

To make the DYN team’s collective lives easier, I integrated a webhook that sends a message to a Slack channel whenever an organization performs a valuable action in CCOL. For example, if an org adds a new program for the upcoming quarter, the platform alerts our team. Of course, that’s nice, but what’s the impact?

  • From there the CCOL Support Crew will reach out to see if they need help with the next expected steps including digital badge creation.
  • And we can discover if there were any issues and create a valuable feedback loop between development and social practices.
  • And our customer experience aka marketing team can thank them for contributing more learning experiences for the youth of Chicago.
  • We can even automagically tweet out that program to everyone or send an SMS to all teens that have expressed interest in this type of program.

Just from pushing data and activity forward to the right (slack) channels. Impact.


The Chicago City of Learning started with complex but connected objectives. These objectives included building a platform that enabled every youth organization in Chicago to add their programming, creating a framework for identifying and badging skills in those programs, and designing an exploration interface for parents and youth to find programs to fit their schedule, skills, and interests.

This alone would make two valuable apps.

But another beneficial need pushed to the forefront once these features meshed: Highlighting the learner’s activities and skills. Helping the learner explore their interests with pathways.

Appropriately, we built CCOL for the learner with community organizations as the primary opportunity broker. The tech team waited to iterate on the learner profile design. After so many ambitious organizations added over 17k programs and learners earned over 130k badges, the design team shifted focus to redesign the two year old user experience of the learner’s profile.

First requirement: Recommend activities based on their interestsMy_Profile

We had our work cut out for us. DYN Tech started simple. Get each student’s interest with a visual icon-based selection process. These interests came from our ground team that works with teens in the classroom and in afterschool programs.

The images had to convey more than just the simple label beneath it. They each had to capture our learner’s imagination and hopefully spark their interest.

We didn’t stop with three interests. By designing a low friction process, we hoped our learners would be charitable and provide roles that captured their future interests as well. Roles are notoriously difficult because teens don’t always know what they want to be…when they “grow up.”  However the process is quick enough that they can (and do) update it every time they change their mind. And just like that CCOL offers recommendations based on those selections.

What I Like / Want

Second requirement: Show the skills and dispositions young people have developed in and out of school.

Things I’ve completed. For our learners, we display badges they earned from our organization’s programs and our platform’s online challenges. As part of identifying their skills and dispositions, we show the learner programs or events they have attended. Now our users have a repository of things they have done or earned. The landscape of learning is evolving and digital badges will play a big role in the documentation of that learning.

What I’m Working On. Our profile’s true call to action is nudging the learner to continue working on their skills. If a learner bookmarks a challenge, we have a card to remind them when they come back. Same reminder for a started challenge. If our learner starts a self-paced challenge but leaves before they complete it, we’ll add that to the Working On section as well.

Our design increases the visibility of activities they want to do or started but didn’t finish. Finish these and our design shines light on your accomplishments which usually result in digital badges.

Big step yet this is only step 1. Part 2 – engaged recommendations.




Yay! Message sent.
Error! Please validate your fields.
© Copyright 2016 Digital Youth Network