Where Einstein Meets Edison

For Every 3 Things We Try, At Least 2 Will Fail

For Every 3 Things We Try, At Least 2 Will Fail

Feb 23, 2011

After 4 months of research and development, this was the moment we had been waiting for – a twelve-year old kid in Phnom Penh grinning widely and listening to our first audio story shared on Cambodian soil, Ratha’s Dengue Fever, a cautionary tale about the consequences of not sleeping in a bednet at night.  

The only problem is that we couldn’t tell if the moment was a success or a failure.  

When we first conceived of Stories to Share, an educational initiative incubated in MIT’s D-Lab, we thought that we may have discovered an interesting model to leverage the power of media to scale up and distribute educational content in a resource-starved context like Cambodia.  Armed with 23 educational stories in Khmer crowdsourced from our growing group of volunteer storytellers, we departed Boston with high hopes of sharing stories with every single kid in Cambodia (yes, all 6 million or so of them!).

Twenty-five hours, two layovers, eighty degrees with humidity, and a culture shock of difference later, we were quickly reminded of how out of water bright-eyed MIT students can be in a place like Cambodia.  Not only did we not speak the language or understand the culture beyond what we read in Wikipedia — but we had to quickly shed our jetlag and awkward Khmer phrasing and penetrate one of the most personal and complex issues in a country — their education system.  

It was that first morning at the Goldiana Hotel that we collectively echoed a sentiment known to entrepreneurs everywhere: “For every 3 things we try, at least 2 will fail.”  

And fail we did.  Our historical first story shared with the twelve-year old kid in Phnom Penh started with a wide grin and ended with a polite exit.  No information that helped us understand if he actually enjoyed and learned from the story itself — or was just enamored with the fancy mp3 player he was listening to.  We visited a local playground to play our stories for a wider, impromptu audience only to have kids physically run away from our stories (and from our team!).  At least we knew that our stories ranked below playing on the swings.  One unnamed and fairly desperate team member even interrupted a nighttime foot massage to test the stories on a local masseuse, who smiled at hearing her own language stories played by a foreign tourist.    

In the face of failures, we also enjoyed our fair share of successes.  We met with our story donors, among the best and brightest university students in Cambodia, many of whom friended our project and were eager to help share more stories.  We visited dozens of classrooms in Siem Reap and not only shared our stories but also received valuable feedback on if the children understood and liked what they were listening to.  We met with a teacher at of one of the best schools in Siem Reap, the Jay Pritzker Academy, who advised us to focus our stories on science, an area where the curriculum in Cambodia and many developing countries is lacking, and sat in on a high school chemistry class in a remote village called Angkor Chum whose lesson for the day was on radioactive decay.  

In that remote village, we found a radio in that leapfrogged the CD, having a slot for both a cassette and an SD card.  Based on the ubiquity of radios, we purchased prime time air-time on one of Siem Reap’s hottest radio stations, 102.5 FM.  After remixing a 10-minute radio broadcast (that would be played 3 times in an hour) from the comfort or our motel room, we were on the air from 3-4 pm for two consecutive weekends.  During our inaugural broadcast, 7 callers dialed-in to express their interest in the stories.

You can listen to that live broadcast here.  

While we are confident that this model of education may not be the panacea for the challenges facing Cambodia, our three-weeks of testing in the field convinced us that crowdsourcing educational content is a very promising idea.  While some stories stood out more than others, our first collection of stories donated from the best and brightest Cambodians simply reading into a microphone or a video camera was well-received in almost all contexts in which they were played.  If those lucky enough to attend the best universities in Cambodia shared their knowledge with a broader audience through stories in their local language, imagine how quickly a child sitting in a rural village with no teacher could learn the latest in science, law, or international affairs.  (Imagine if we did the same in the United States).

In practice, crowdsourcing content in Cambodia (and perhaps other developing contexts) is not yet as scalable as uploading a video on YouTube.  While internet access is available in the main cities, it is still spotty and expensive.  Many emails were exchanged and several Skype calls were conducted for every story that was received.  The greater challenge, perhaps is the distribution of content.  Classrooms follow strict curriculum guidelines, radio broadcasts are costly although perhaps not cost-prohibitive ($25 per hour), and significant marketing would be required to build awareness for this new resource on the ground.  New distribution channels like the internet may be helpful especially if Cambodia urbanizes at a similar rate to its Southeast Asian peers and creative modes like tourists’ ipods may be an interesting way of engaging the 2 million and growing tourists that visit the temples of Angkor each year.    

For every three things we try, at least two will fail.  Which means, we simply need to try more.