The launch of Story Xperiential.

Over the past few months my partners at X in a Box (Tony DeRose and Elyse Klaidman) and our team launched a brand new educational product/program: Story Xperiential in partnership with Pixar Over the past few months my partners at X in a Box (Tony DeRose and Elyse Klaidman) and our team launched a brand new educational product/program: Story Xperiential in partnership with Pixar Animation Studios. In simple terms, our idea allows anyone to try their hand at working in different industries by building a prototype that industry would recognize – a kind of virtual apprenticeship open to all. With Pixar we used the storyreel (animated storyboard) as the prototype the students work on while Pixar employees assist as mentors. This program allows any student to mimic working in the real-world at top companies: it’s collaborative with weekly deadlines, ongoing peer feedback and culminates with a final online exhibition. I see it as a great prerequisite for pretty much everything students might do after.

Here is a 2 min overview of the program with actual product shots from the last 2 months:

The results of this program exceeded even my own rose coloured projections when we set out to build it. It has been an exhausting yet exhilarating learning experience. There is nothing quite like inventing a new experience from scratch and watching people walk through the door for the first time. We went live Oct 4th 2021 and our first Pilot wraps today with our first ever public exhibition of student work. The results of this program exceeded even my own rose coloured projections when we set out to build it. Over 90% of registered students completed the program with a final prototype (this involved 40 hours of work across 8 weeks with multiple weekly submissions). This kind of retention is unheard of in our industry. But the inevitable question arises: would it scale… ?

A NEW NARRATIVE

In February of 2021 while brainstorming with my team, I was struck with an idea of blending a course, exhibition, internship and field trip all into one big linear experience. As with Art of the Problem or my Khan Academy work I like to imagine big linear narratives people travel through (I loved making haunted houses as a kid). This was spurred by a frustration with what I saw being done in the world of “online learning” during the lockdowns. What annoyed me most was seeing my own kids being forced to use technology backwards ( zoom school ). Not as a tool, but as a hurdle. I also saw people in the online edu industry  ‘pivot’ to more ‘live learning’ now that everyone was stuck at home (live workshops, etc.).  But the big realization for me is that many industries now operate almost fully remotely – and so taking advantage of that and  peeking behind the scenes would be easier than ever.

This spurred me to think of how to use the best of the online and offline world to create a totally unique learning opportunity. One idea I kept coming back to was the anti-Masterclass. I see the original Masterclass concept as a bait and switch, they sell access to celebrities and finding your passion, but what you get is paywalled videos with a comment section. I was browsing user reviews of the platform and one comment jumped out at me: ” best part of Masterclass was in the comment section where somebody gave good feedback on my work at the end…”. To me this felt like a golden nugget laying on the ground waiting to be picked up. Rich user to user interaction, which powers most online products, was largely missing from online education or ‘bolted on’. Almost everyone I worked with always thought of the “online community” as a secondary to something else (the lecture, the multiple choice question, the interactive simulator.) The proof was in the pudding, even today no online courses can retain more than 50% of users through a long form educational course. I remember back when 10% was state of the art in terms of user retention…why didn’t kids want to watch videos and do multiple choice tests…even when we add bells and whistles? The problem was the goal post. People were designing for ‘engagement’, ‘virality’, ‘session time’, ‘stickiness’, ‘curriculum/standard alignment’, but ultimately it was about telling.  In our approach we would like to shift the focus onto doing. So our ideas is simple: what if we designed a program entirely around making your work better? To focus this point slightly, what if our program helps you make industry grade prototypes. In a world where your portfolio is much more important than a resume, this seems like the obvious right direction. That’s it. Start from scratch and build something that focuses on doing this well. Do we need badges? probably not. Do we need a point system? na. Do we need ‘cute profile pictures’, nope. So what do we need?

THE PITCH

The first napkin sketch of this idea

I love artifacts, such as when a company is still just a pitch deck. Here is first pitch deck from day 0 (Makeworks was a working title that became Xperiential). Here are a few key slides from that presentation back in Feb 2021.

The first was the idea of taking the best of school and work, and finding that intersection…that’s kinda the lifeblood behind what we want to do at X in a Box (jumpstarting your future). And this would be the first original product/ program for the company.

The second idea was using the “industry prototype” (such as a business pitch, or a game prototype or script) as the goal post. So that our user builds a mental model for how prototypes are designed and made in various industries, included the various roles involved.

The third is that real world work happens in teams (at some or all levels), requires feedback and iteration and is eventually consumed on a deadline (exhibition). These would act as pillars for whatever we designed.

What the product/program would do is push people ahead towards being excited about making X AND knowing what role they enjoy most in its creation. Giving all young people access to this kind of guidance/mentorship, as early as possible, brightens the future for all.

We imagined users would walk out of the program with something tangible in their hands (a strong prototype) and the knowledge they gained making it.

THE PRODUCT

In the past few months we rapidly built a new platform to accomplish this, and it acts like a simulated company (www.storyxperiential.com). People log in everyday, interact, and create and share their work. Everyone always told us “don’t try to be a platform” it’s “too hard” and “too much competition”, I’m glad we didn’t listen, because existing platforms didn’t do what we needed.

Each week you meet a different industry host helping you towards a goal. These weekly deliverables lead to a final prototype (in this case a storyreel) and follows actual industry processes.

We follow a weekly pattern, with a Monday live sessions where a the industry host speaks to the week ahead and takes live questions

livestreams

During the week users work asynchronously with (and across) teams. This leads to a Friday deliverable which is submitted for weekly user review. This mimics the work week in an online word. By doing this program users are experiencing the pressures and dynamics of working professionals.

Every Friday all teams upload their work-in-progress to our system. That leads to the engine of our program: the Weekly Gallery. A firehose of work which shared with everyone in the program.

And every user in the program reviews to several other submissions each week. Our #1 rule is everyone gets multiple pieces of feedback every week. Nobody is ignored (we are experimenting with various approaches to equalize feedback). Every user wakes up on Monday morning with their own dedicated page, with their work-in-progress at the top and feedback at the bottom. I like to say that “everyone is a youtuber” in this program. Instead of handing in work to their teacher it goes out to peers from other schools.

Watching the Galleries evolve has been fascinating. The biggest surprise was the power of the “gallery as the teacher”, as peers absorbed the work of many others. People borrowed and shared ideas of hundreds of others (both technically and conceptually). I have a new motto “the gallery wants what the gallery gets” written on my wall.

That leads to the best part at all, the final exhibition which acts as the program capstone. All users get a dedicated page in a public gallery (Netflix style), along with user choice awards and a celebration video featuring industry reaction videos to top entires. The quality of work was incredible (“this is equivalent to what we’d see in Pixar story boards”)

The work exploding out of this program is very exciting, a firehose of raw talent. I keep thinking what we are making started as an online school, but ends up looking like a virtual, crowdsourced production company… And the potential becomes enormous when you imagine creating many of these Xperiential programs in other industries.

Finally scale. This is where things get exciting. Most mentorship programs make the mistake of physical mentorship (1 mentor to 10 people), and high cost (often over $1000). Our model is designed to allow 1 mentor to N (many) people at very low cost (the dream would be ~$1-2 per week for under 18). This so far has required some clever design and technology such as AI to help with content moderation…but I’m convinced it can scale based on our pilot. That’s what we are going to do next. We are offering this program again (with many improvements and a larger cohort!) in early 2022 for youth AND adults, please join our waiting list if you’d like more info.

The feedback coming out of the program has been strong.

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