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Interview with Nick Martin, President and Co-Founder of TechChange

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    Profile photo of Craig Zelizer
    Craig Zelizer
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    Interview with Nick Martin, President and Co-Founder of TechChange

    Ironically, I first met Nick Martin one and a half years ago. At the time, I was headed to his office to drop off a deposit for the University for Peace. When I met him, he seemed familiar to me. Then again, if you hang around Washington, D.C. long enough, everyone starts to seem familiar.

     

    Our idle chatter seemed on par for an ever-intertwined Washington lunch and our connections suspiciously numerous. (One Christmas, I purchased a starfish Santa Clause at a neighborhood craft fair and hung it proudly on our Christmas tree.  Guess who made it? That’s right—Nick).

     

    Nick Martin is the Co-founder and President of TechChange. He’s also an educator, technologist, and self-proclaimed nerd. Like any social entrepreneur mastermind, Nick wears multiple hats: he’s an adjunct faculty member at four universities and the founder of two innovative and award-winning digital media and conflict transformation programs (DCPEACE and PeaceRooms), And if that wasn’t impressive enough, in 2009, Nick was selected as a Global Fellow by the International Youth Foundation and as a Washington, D.C. Humanities Council Scholar for his leadership and track record as a young social entrepreneur.

     

    TechChange will celebrate its second birthday soon. Congratulations! What was it like launching the organization?

    It’s been a really incredible experience. I’m very grateful to have had such strong support early on from my graduate school University for Peace (UPEACE) and Vice Rector Amr Abdalla who asked me to teach TechChange’s first course at UPEACE on technology and peacebuilding. I’m also thankful that the U.S. Institute of Peace asked us to plan a conference on the use of mobile phones for peacebuilding in Afghanistan. These were formative early experiences that helped pave the way for our subsequent work in the technology for social change space.

     

    Our mission at TechChange is to train leaders in how to leverage relevant technologies for sustainable social change. We do this by teaching courses in topics like tech for emergency management, mobile phones for international development, digital organizing, educational technology and more. We teach courses at a number of universities, but we also believe in leveraging the power of technology to enable new types of pedagogy so that’s why we’ve chosen to focus primarily on online learning.

     

    What does a typical course look like?

    Every course has an average of 50 students from 30 countries and features a number of international experts. We’ve built our own custom learning environment using the WordPress framework to equip participants with tangible tech skills. Participants can take a class from anywhere they have an Internet connection without the cost and time of an entire semester or degree program. We’ve got features like real-time small group interaction, live expert video discussions, simulations, case studies exercises and more. But perhaps most importantly it’s fun. We spend a lot of time integrating things like game mechanics, point systems, visual maps, and great graphics into every course. After all, if we’re asking a participant to spend hours in front of the computer learning, we know we have to make it as engaging as possible!

     

    How did you go about forming your advisory board? What were you looking for in your board?

    Our advisory board has been really instrumental for our growth. I started with people I knew in my networks and folks I really trusted. I tried to build a board of people that represented different skills: financial gurus, educators, technologists, peacebuilders and development experts.

     

    I remember sitting down with Dr. Zelizer over coffee in the spring of 2010.  He gave me a list a mile long of folks to talk to, many of whom later joined the board. Between that list and a dream team of trusted colleagues like Dominic Kiraly, Rebecca Harned, Roshan Paul, Daryn Cambridge, Kat Kinzer, Sean McDonald, Mohit Mukherjee, Anand Varghese, and many more, we settled on the name TechChange, got the domain registered, got a great logo designed (in India!), and started to develop a strategy.  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a great team of advisors to get a young organization rolling.

     

    Walk me through an average day at TechChange.

    We have an office on Capitol Hill. It’s a converted loft with skylights. We have five full time staff and five part-time. The team consists of a mixture of computer programmers, educators, content experts, graphic designers and animators. I like to tell people we have more computer screens than humans in the office. We spend our days collaboratively building curriculum for our courses, coding new features into our custom online course platform, and looking for new partnerships. We have a big open common room and two smaller offices.

    The TechChange Team 

    How do you deal with disagreements?

    Office architecture is important. Having a big room for open discussions and collaborative exchange has been one of the mainstays of our success. There are just so many decisions that new organizations have to make and I work hard to make sure my colleagues have shared ownership over the overarching vision of the organization and the many projects we work on. It also helps that many of us have negotiation and peace building backgrounds, so when disagreements do arise we make sure lines of communication are open and honest.

     

    What’s your proudest moment in your TechChange career?

    The day we finished teaching our first online course in tech for emergency management late last summer – that was a pretty inspiring moment. It was a sprint to build out our own platform, develop the curriculum, and deliver the course. It took our whole team working around the clock, but we did it and proved to ourselves that we had a powerful model. We’ve now facilitated eight or so courses and it’s exciting to see our model evolve over time.

     

    What about the most difficult one?

    Teaching online is really, really hard! Sometimes people think that online teaching is simply taking a classroom syllabus and a curriculum, uploading it online, and viola you’re done. That’s probably one reason why most online learning is so bad. Teaching online is so much more complicated than that. A good online educational experience has to seamlessly combine content, pedagogy and technology. Great graphics and engaging game mechanics are also important and this is one of the many things that distinguishes our courses from others.

     

    What do you think could be done to improve the role of technology in preventing conflicts?

    That’s a good question: we often say that technology is only 10% of the solution and that the focus should really be about creating the human infrastructure and processes around that technology, rather than developing shiny new tools. There are a number of promising efforts underway with cell phones, early warning systems and election-monitoring tools like Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS but it’s important to build communities around these tools and platforms and ensure that they are used appropriately.

     

    At TechChange, we’re focused on training people more efficiently and effectively. The field is very young but we believe the key is supporting individuals to develop the tangible skills and know-how to apply available technologies in their communities.

     

    What are some ethical challenges you face in your work?

    Our trainings span many disciplines: development, peacebuilding, citizen journalism, academic research, educational technology, social entrepreneurship, etc. But with any work in development and peacebuilding, there are always some important ethical considerations that one should take into account: how do we focus on community driven development? How do we create lasting and sustainable infrastructure for projects? How do we build capacity effectively and inclusively?

     

    Currently, we aren’t involved in any actual project implementation. Our work is focused on the virtual training and capacity building side. We aim to democratize access to education and create a social environment where people from around the world can learn effectively from each other as much as they learn from our curriculum itself. For us, it’s about facilitating learning, rather than imparting a top-down, static curriculum. Training on these complex topics shouldn’t simply be about someone from a global North context going out and imparting knowledge. Because our model is built upon a lateral and horizontal exchange, where every learner brings something unique and valuable to a course, we deal with all kinds of challenges. Creating trust and comfort among learners, dealing with the diversity of language backgrounds, and negotiating varying internet and digital literacies of our participants, are just a few examples.

     

    What is the innovative nature of your business model?

    We are a bunch of non-profit folks who decided that we wanted to build a socially responsible enterprise with TechChange. In the early days, we did some consulting to sustain ourselves, but now our financial model is driven entirely by revenue from our open enrollment and custom online courses. We’re excited to no longer have to deal with the unpredictability of relying on grant funding, and believe our current model, done right, can provide us greater flexibility and sustainability.

     

    At present, individuals and organizations pay tuition for our courses. We’ve had a lot of interest in licensing our online learning platform so we plan to do this in coming the months. We also work to provide value for the wider community in a number of ways through our blog, website and social media presence.

     

    What do you think are the most important skills for younger professionals to develop in this area to have a successful career?

    I’d recommend that all young professionals develop some tech skills: graphic design, programming, videography, video editing etc. We ask that everyone at Tech learn a little computer programming, even if they’re not going to be coding a site from scratch. Likewise, all the tech people in our office make efforts to learn about the content we teach (peacebuilding, education, development, etc). When team members have familiarity across disciplines like this, it allows us to have more productive collaborative course design sessions. Grad schools aren’t necessarily set up to do this, so the onus is on the young professional to developing complementary skills.

    Nick, this has been wonderful. Before we leave you, what can we expect from TechChange in the near future?

    Thanks, Nura. We’ve got some great upcoming open enrollment online courses in Digital Organizing, Conflict Prevention, and Ushahidi, a popular mapping platform. We’re also looking for organizations that might want to cut down on training costs by having us design custom courses for their staff or target audiences. Finally, we’re always on the lookout for “tech nerds” or anyone who is passionate about social change and education to join our ranks. Submit your resume to our database today!

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