I wrote this blog post last week when I flew back to Barcelona after spending a week with an Aspen Institute “circle” in China. The seminar connected three of us from the Henry Crown Fellowship with fellows from other programs based in India, the Mid-East, Africa, China and the United States. Here’s my summary: (1) I’m not worried about ISIS anymore; (2) China is scorching the earth and their citizenry can’t last much longer; and (3) Circles is a good idea that people working on a variety of social problems would like to use.

Circles is having some issues that I’d like to share below. They are resolvable, with some help. I’m not sure what to do about the air in Beijing.

While I was away, the team did a good job. The first two circles finished their second meetings, and our trial with IESE starts this week – adding three more circles for a total of five alpha tests. We finished the third development sprint for the web app and video meeting website. We’ve written manuals for the circle guides and for creating and publishing content.

Some stuff is working with the two alpha circles, like jelling. One circle has nice chat banter going and is supporting each other. Self-timing works. The meetings flow. The guide role is emerging clearly. It seems to take a smart person about three hours to create each learning journey's "content drop” (our term for a learner's assignment) – that seems sustainable economically. Even better, the learners are already volunteering material to each other. “You teach me, and I teach you.” I’m looking forward to what comes out of the IESE tests because those circles add a missing element – the live in-person kickoff.

The first challenge: Video

The video website we are building is improving, but early crashes have shown us just how essential reliability and quality are. For me, this is a big flashback to M5 Networks days as a VOIP office phone pioneer. At Circles, we're using a peer-to-peer protocol called webrtc and OpenTok, a platform built by TokBox. Right now, our implementation is too sensitive to each user’s bandwidth, computer, and possibly their headset. We need stability to have a decent learning experience. But we want to serve the workforce primarily, not the typical executive education student that locks these things in. Can we depend on video for this population? The good/bad news is that the features and experience we built (even slapdashedly) work better than existing tools for our use case. When they work.

The second challenge: Engagement

The learners in each of the alpha circles aren’t reading the material on the web app, they aren’t answering the challenges, and they aren’t engaging around the learning journeys between meetings. When we ask, they say their commitment level is about 30 minutes a week (some more).

Thoughts on the first two challenges

Maybe learners don’t want to do a little every day; maybe they want to batch the assignments? Is it human nature to want to cram? We switched one circle from Slack’s message-style platform to an SMS messaging group to further experiment and test.

The third challenge: Our team

I’m preaching but not practicing! Doh. The problems in the earlier “rugby ruck” blog post have worsened. We’ve got a “hot mess” of excellent, well-intentioned freelancers working in a distributed fashion. Interesting, but fixable.

I haven’t had enough time to keep the advisory team in the loop and get feedback. I’ll be reaching out to schedule phone calls. In general, I’m pleased. We are right where we should be: obsessive about proving to ourselves that the guided peer group experience can be sticky, people learn, and there’s a model here that will scale. As an aside, there is a lot of potential corporate customer interest. We shall see!

Photo Credit: Travis Wise