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.