Sponsored Contests

Online challenge platforms give self-identified problem-solvers and innovators a chance to compete with others to come up with the best solution to a given problem. Models vary from platform to platform, but in general, a sponsoring organization or group of institutions presents a specific challenge to be solved, and participants develop and submit solutions in an attempt to win a monetary prize — and pride — as a reward. Challenges tend toward the near-impossible and the spectacular, rallying problem-solvers around issues from ending poverty to landing a robot on the moon.

When we began thinking about how we might use sponsored contests with TD4Ed, our idea was that educators could compete for a monetary reward by trying to develop the best solution for a specific, predetermined, large-scale challenge, such as addressing the Common Core “implementation gap.” The TD4Ed platform and curriculum would give participating schools, districts, and individuals a rigorous process for exploring and solving the challenge, and in doing so, give teachers authentic ownership over solutions.

Initially, we were curious about how organizations such as HeroX, InnoCentive, OpenIDEO, and Ashoka’s Changemakers ran challenges, and whether we might want to partner with one of them or even hold our own sponsored contest. In our research and conversations, we found that the majority of platforms, as one might expect, are geared explicitly toward fostering competition, but there were also a handful that offered opportunities for participants to collaborate with others on ideas and solutions. Changemakers, OpenIDEO, Innovation Exchange, and IdeaConnection all offer either team-based or otherwise collaborative options. Since collaboration is at the core of the TD4Ed experience, this model was particularly compelling to us. Similarly, some of the platforms offer the ability to give contest participants feedback on their submissions (Changemakers and OpenIDEO), while others keep the content of winners’ solutions private. Each platform has its own personality, audience, and features, as detailed in the chart below:





Ultimately, we decided against running our own sponsored contest using TD4Ed — the administration and management necessary to engage participants meaningfully would be too big of a lift for our small size and short timeframe for this particular project. What we found, though, at least for TD4Ed, was that we were defining the category a bit too narrowly in focusing just on sponsored contests. Once we started thinking about engaging teachers in large shared challenges more broadly, things got more interesting, and this is an area that seems to be garnering more and more attention in the education community recently.

There are several pertinent questions and considerations around such challenges. The first, very much in line with our user-centered orientation, is how to make them valuable to teachers so that they feel that they are getting something out of them that can make a positive difference in their day-to-day practice, like implementable ideas, solutions, or skills. Part of the beauty of TD4Ed is that it allows educators to choose and tackle challenges they are passionate about. This relevance is key (Learning #4): teachers are eager to work together to take on big challenges when these issues are meaningful to them (Learning #3). To make large-scale shared challenge work similarly engaging, teachers need to be involved from the very beginning, so that they are not only creating the solutions, but helping to drive the conversation regarding problem selection, too.

Challenges should also allow for multiple levels of engagement to accommodate a range of interest levels and desired time investments (Learning #1). In doing so, challenges can bring together separate groups of teachers, and foster the type of cross-pollination that can have a transformative effect on our education system and on individual teachers’ practice (Learning #5).

Convening teachers around large-scale challenges is an intriguing path, and since we have seen teachers use TD4Ed to create compelling solutions to the problems they face and very much believe in teacher-driven solutions (Learning #3), we’re excited to work in this area. To this end, we partnered with 100Kin10, a nonprofit organization committed to improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education, and are launching a free STEM-focused version of TD4Ed (called Teachers Design for STEM, or TD4STEM) so that educators can collaborate to tackle shared challenges in the STEM field. This partnership even caught the attention of the White House, and we’re looking forward to seeing how it can help teachers transform STEM education at a national level.

Beyond TD4Ed, we’re interested in continuing to explore the shared challenge space and see how it can engage teachers and invigorate their practice. Stay tuned for more!

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