Monthly Archives: October 2013

From coffee to 603 chalkle° classes

Silvia Zuur, chalkle° co-founder, presenting to #net2welly meetup

Chalkle° offers proof that if you’re prepared to ask provocative questions, you will get some amazing results.

The question chalkle°’s co-founders Silvia Zuur and Linc Gasking sat down over a coffee to ponder on was: “what does enabling life long learning in all communities look like?”

Just over a year after having that first cuppa, the chalkle° adult learning program in Wellington has run 603 classes with 4,500 people participating.

Silvia expanded on the answer to the confounding question with participants at NetSquared Wellington’s October meetup.

At it’s core Chalkle° connects willing teachers with people who want to learn. Technology supports new ways of unlocking knowledge otherwise inaccessible within communities.

Seven weeks after the now infamous coffee, the pair set up the beginnings of a learning network. The core of this is supporting teachers to run classes. Chalkle° handles all the non-teaching parts of the process, such as room bookings, registrations and promotion. Plus gives vital support and encouragement.

Anyone can be a teacher. Chalkle° leaves it up to the learners to decide whether a teacher knows their stuff.

Anyone can sign-up to receive alerts about new courses. Now 8-10 classes are run each week, with 10 people on average participating. Fees charged are low, to ensure everyone can access learning.

The topics have been many and varied: ukele, new economics, computer coding, makeup for beginners, and Spanish en el restaurant.

Venues are often outside the formal classroom. Learning has taken place everywhere from an organics shop floor (out of opening hours), Deloitte’s boardroom, Innermost community garden and in the Wellington railway station lobby.

That chalkle° has achieved such an enormous amount in short is clearly due to the determination and passion of Silvia and her co-co-founder. It’s also down to the philosophy they’ve adopted: start simple and go for there.

A good example is collecting fees and paying teachers process. It started on paper, moved to a spreadsheet in Google Docs and will soon be handled by a custom-built platform.

Having come up with a working model, the latest provocative question for Chalkle’s chiefs is to find a way of keeping things going. A new software platform is being built, and a social franchise model is being explored.

The NetSquared Wellington meetup session with Silvia was very inspiring and provoked much discussion. In the end, we didn’t talk much about the technology as we were too interested in the learning revolution going on.

Chalkle° on the web:

BTW: the name chalkle° is a made-up word: it’s a verb from “chalk” used on blackboards and street art to share ideas.

Software options for understanding outcomes

 "Understanding Software for Program Evaluation" book cover

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was possible to dump a bunch of figures about your organisation’s work into a clever system, push compute and then be told what outcomes you’ve achieved.

From what I’ve learnt, it just doesn’t work like that.

In a recent report by the every reliable Idealware on “Understanding Software for Program Evaluation”, the authors make this caveat early on: working what you’re achieving is not about the tools.

“…software is not a requirement for a successful [outcomes reporting] strategy, merely a way to make your process easier, and many organizations complete them with little to no technology to assist them. That’s entirely up to you.”

Most of the tools they describe in rich detail don’t stand alone. Typically using software for reporting relies on more than one layer of software. This could include using a core database, surveys for specific activities and some means for presenting this attractively.

A set of five categories are included to describe the different ways software can support program evaluation:

  • Central Hub of Program Data
  • Auxiliary Data Systems
  • Proactive Data Gathering
  • Pulling Existing Data
  • Reporting and Visualizing.

The report offers something of a pick ‘n mix approach that can helps organisations grasp the full range of options.

As with other reports from our distant colleagues not all the software described is available in Aotearoa. Even if the internet does allow us to theoretically download anything that’s available, it won’t necessarily fit here without adaption. The reported $500,000 cost of customising Penelope – case management software from Canada – funded by Te Puni Kōkiri is a case in point.

And there software options available in New Zealand that are not listed. Benecura, DoView and Whānau Tahi Navigator are some of the homegrown tools available.

Exploring what tools will help a specific organisation determine what’s working (as the team at Community Research like to describe this challenge) can only start after an organisation is clear on what they’re setting out to achieve.

So if there is no killer app, the where to start. At risk of pre-empting more detailed work in this area that is relevant to Aotearoa (watch this space), I’ll point to what I think is a useful guide from the well-established charity evaluation services (CES).

CES’s 2007 workbook “Using ICT to Improve your Monitoring and Evaluation” is still relevant, technology continues to stand still so it’s already somewhat dated.

Instead I’d suggest looking at “Assessing change: Developing and using outcomes monitoring tools” (2010) which places in the role of technology in a wider content. As much effort is paid to framing questions around outcomes as it is to tools.

Not surprisingly there isn’t an easy option: some tool that will collect data and export results. Fortunately, there is lots of good help.

Does the mail always get through?

Boarded up post box, by Ellie Brown.

After putting a tonne of effort into producing an email newsletter we want absolutely everyone to read it.

There’s always a nagging doubt that the latest bulletin has been snagged somewhere. Marked as spam. Banished unread.

To avoid this cruel fate it’s worth double checking that any email blasts you prepare can get through.

Before sharing a few tips and resources, can I offer some sources of consolation.

You can get an idea of whether people are receiving a newsletter by looking at open rates (though only if you are using an email service providers like Campaign Monitor, MailChimp, et al). If the open rate is zero, you’ve got a problem. If it’s 25% or higher you’re doing pretty good.

Statistics in web analytics packages, such as Google Analytics, show whether people are clicking on links to your website in an email newsletter. If you can see this happening, then messages are getting through.

If people follow up with bouquets and, heaven forbid, brickbats, or ask questions, you know that not only is the content getting through but people are actually reading it. This is something the open rate alone can’t tell you.

According to a new training course on email newsletters, content within an email newsletter causes just 17% of spam triggers. The remaining 83% of triggers arise from the technical layer of email distribution.

These ‘invisible’ barriers to delivery are related to the trust worthiness of your domain, and the digital service from which your email is sent from. If you or your email service provider are tarred with a spam brush, this is hard to shake.

So it’s best to stick with reputable services and don’t get marked as spam in the first place. Idealware’s article on “Understanding and Improving Email Deliverability” covers this in depth. MailChimp, who are not exactly unbiased, also have some helpful and detailed guidance, see “Avoiding the spam filters”.

The more your content looks like spam, so it will be treated like it. To avoid being a spam look a like, here are tips that offer:

  • Send high quality content, with valid coding, alt-text and correct grammar
  • Use more words than images
  • Punctuate and format in a professional way. Avoid SOLID CAPS, big fonts, !!!, $$$, etc
  • Use a clear, accurate headline and don’t repeat words
  • Avoid spammy words like cheap, buy, offer, free, win… But don’t worry too much: vocabulary is a minor concern.

Encouraging subscribers to add your email to an address book and to whitelist your messages can also help.

Now, to get people actually engaging in your enewsletters, that is another story altogether. As the folk at make plainly clear, it’s about the basics of any effective communication: writing compelling content and refining this based on feedback from your audience.

Photo credit: Ellie Brown.