How Yahoo! Contributor Academy Built Free Educational Courses

By: Guest | September 17, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is by Jelena Woehr

Say you’re a teacher developing next semester’s lesson plans, when the principal walks in.

“I’ve made some changes,” he says.

“Instead of giving you a student roster, I won’t be telling you anything about your students—not even their grade level—until they’ve completed your teacher evaluation form.

Oh, and, by the way, you have 10 seconds to catch and keep their attention.”

That’s what developing free educational modules for an online community is like.

The good news? It’s also been one of the most rewarding projects of my (admittedly short) career.

Yahoo! Contributor Academy launched in July, and we’ve already seen moving testimonials from users—my personal favorite was, “I feel like I’ve been writing in the dark for three years and finally had the light turned on.”

Much as it’s been rewarding, but it’s also been quite a learning experience. And many of the same steps and processes that helped me create educational modules can be applied to a community manager role.

Start with the Perfect Student

In developing Contributor Academy courses, we took time to think about all of the archetypes that fall into a broader “ideal user” schema. Do you know your ideal community member? Do you know his or her name? What do they do for a living? What are they hoping to learn? What information do they need?

When writing the level three courses (covering personal branding, social media, and more) I conjured up a passionate female home decorating expert hoping to develop both an audience and a niche. I imagined her feedback as I went along, and wasn’t satisfied with a course until she’d learned something really useful from it.

Burn Your Ph.D

It’s hard to learn to use a complex, community-based platform. As community managers, we each already have a Ph.D in our platforms. I’ve sometimes caught myself thinking, “Why doesn’t this user know that X is true?” before realizing that to know X, the user would have to read A, B, and C, do D, ask question E, and have experienced F. Helpful documentation can solve problems, but most users won’t touch it until a problem occurs.

Education, on the other hand, improves a user’s experience before a problem occurs. It shouldn’t just provide answers to potential questions or concerns. It should ask those questions first, and also stimulate creativity, critical thinking, and innovation. Check your Ph.D at the door and convince—don’t expect—your users to learn everything you know.

Focus on Intrinsic Rewards

People aren’t motivated effectively by extrinsic rewards. If you want to, in Dan Pink’s words, “sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity,” you can’t incentivize hurrying through an educational activity to get a reward. Instead, design curricula to reward what you really want from your educational offerings: Learning and creativity.

There’s no extrinsic reward for completing Academy. We don’t even force “students” to take courses in a particular order, or to complete all of them. We do offer lots of rewards for being a creative, expert, polished web writer who publishes excellent content. Academy also contains intrinsic rewards designed for our ideal students: Useful information, plenty of “Ah-ha!” moments, fun illustrations, and quite a few laughs.

How’s that Workin’ for Ya?

So glad you asked. So far, Contributor Academy appears to be useful to students, and even to our staff. We’ve fixed a few typos (including an embarrassing one in a course on proofreading) and started developing new “elective” courses. We’re also working on applying feedback from Academy to improve other aspects of our platform, such as help documentation and editor comments.

The best part is it’s generating conversation—not around how to get a better score or finish faster, but around course topics such as headline writing and social media ethics. We’re watching creative people delight in developing new skills and enhancing old ones. For a project team composed of passionate writers and editors, that’s one heck of an intrinsic reward.

Jelena Woehr is community and social communications manager for Yahoo! Contributor Network. Before she took the “Punctuate Proficiently” course in Contributor Academy, she enjoyed baking her family and her pets. Today, she enjoys baking, her family, and her pets. You can find her on Twitter at JelenaWoehr.

  • Oh Jelena, I adore you. 
    What stood out for me is the emphasis that you put on audience archetyping and “getting into their head”. Such a critical piece, especially when shaping educational programming. 

    •  @jasonkonopinski I adore you too, Jason! I’m a sucker for a good avatar exercise, like any literature geek… and I think it’s really important, even in other aspects of community management, to go to great lengths to see things from users’ points of view. It’s SUCH a different perspective, much more so than it seems on the surface, to be new to a platform with no existing body of knowledge about using it!

  • jelenawoehr

    @ginidietrich Days when I get to borrow your audience are the best kind of days.

    • ginidietrich

      @jelenawoehr I’m late to the Twitters, but super good blog post yesterday. I’ll be by to comment later

      • jelenawoehr

        @ginidietrich I’m totally envisioning you in a gown telling the limo driver “DRIVE, I’m late to the Twitters!”

        • ginidietrich

          @jelenawoehr I totally would do that!

  • Actively contributing to YCN is one of the best resources an aspiring writer or blogger could do to learn online writing style, and to get some basic experience at working with an editor. I haven’t looked at the Academy stuff, but one of the things that I was kind of bummed at losing in the fire was my copy of the Yahoo! style guide. (It is available online for anyone interested) It is possibly the most useful text related to blogging that I’ve ever read, and using it as a reference will take any blog to a whole other level of professionalism. 

  • What a cool project – and long needed. “Burn your Ph.D” — really important to remember in all kinds of situations. You can’t expect people to know or understand, you’ve got to build a case and understanding will follow. 
    Did you find that teaching this stuff gave you a deeper understanding of the material? 

    •  @barrettrossie Absolutely! My high school had a poster with the proverb, “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand,” but they’d added, “Let me teach and I will know.” 
      We’ve even encouraged our editors to brush up by taking the Academy courses. Everyone needs a (literal) refresher course now and then.

    • Maybe they should brush up by teaching an academy course! 

  • It is interesting to hear the perspective about the minds behind the courses. I have seen Yahoo’s development guide and it is one of the best out there. Actually, a lot of the Yahoo guides are top-notch for learning and has to have been through the hard work of people like you Jelena!
    I just had an embarrassing typo in the first word of a post about copywritng. It is beginning to sound like why even the best writers still have grammatical errors is a great post topic.

    •  @susansilver I love that topic! I might actually do something on that for our corporate blog, if you don’t mind my borrowing the idea. I had someone submit content this morning with a grievous spelling error in the title. She’s one of our best and most thorough writers. It happens to the best of us!
      Thanks for the compliments on Yahoo!’s various guides. I’m admittedly a “bleeds purple” person, so I’m hardly the most objective judge, but some of the Yahoos I’ve met are among the most expert and skillful Web writers in the industry. 

  • Love your bio, Jelena. Your family and pets are probably a lot happier after Punctuate Proficiently, lol! Your work sound very exciting, and as @susansilver says, it’s nice to hear from the people behind these online courses.

    •  @ShakirahDawud  Thank you! It’s a reference to an excellent graphic that was produced for the “Punctuate Proficiently” course. I’m sure you’d find it amusing. (It, in turn, was based on an unfortunate real-life headline about Rachel Ray, IIRC.)

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  • DerrylWilliams

    jelenawoehr ShakirahDawud is it still possible to get the Yahoo! academy information even though the Contributor Network is gone?  I loved referring back to it every so often and now I cant.

  • DerrylWilliams jelenawoehr ShakirahDawud Hey Derryl, i don’t have all of the courses saved but I have a few I could send you as Word docs. has a form to email me.

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