About five years ago, Kris Chinosorn and Vince Leung were working on a social networking project they called Big Groups, and almost as an afterthought, they added a button called "Mentor Me"—a button that would pair newbies in a given subject with those in the know. It was a fateful moment: "We realized early on, ‘There’s something here,’" Chinosorn tells Fast Company. "Within a week and a half, we completely pivoted the company." Today, their revised vision comes to its fruition, with the launch of MentorMob.com, a repository of crowdsourced step-by-step lesson plans.
The logic of MentorMob is simple enough. The site posits that there already exists out there, in the tangled and sprawling World Wide Web, the materials to constitute excellent online courses in an array of subjects—home beer brewing, salsa dancing, guitar playing, you name it. The only problem is, it takes tedious hours of aimless hunting and pecking to find the good content. Also, strictly Google-dependent autodidacts might be reading these materials out of proper sequence—for the home-brewer, studying an article on yeast preparation well before even checking out an article on the standard beginner equipment.
MentorMob seeks to create communities that organize all this content into a curated, directed experience. Its volunteer editors—many of them enthusiastic hobbyists themselves, who have already done the hard work of stumbling through wastelands of content to find those occasional diamonds in the rough—have put together, for instance, a 34-step "learning playlist" that will walk you through home brewing, from a general discussion of beer and brewing philosophy up through the process of bottling and capping. These learning "tracks" were already out there on the Internet—on sites like beeradvocate.com, howtobrew.com, breworganic.com, and YouTube. Only, nobody had organized these materials into a step-by-step course—until now.
MentorMob's philosophy of more efficient self-education is laid out in this video ("Unfortuantely that is me," says Chinosorn, adding that this was shot at about 4 in the morning):
MentorMob has playlists in about a dozen categories (Arts and Crafts, Health and Fitness, How-to and DIY), each of which are broken down into more specific sub-categories or "mobs" (Piano, Knitting, Music; Yoga, Cycling, Medical; Auto Repair, Home Improvement, Money Management). The site has been in private beta for several months, with its team coasting on $100,000 of bootstrap funding that Chinosorn will only say they’ve been operating on "for a really long time." The team has recently swollen from three to 12 members, and MentorMob is currently drumming up seed money in a proper investment round. The site eventually intends to make money through hyper-targeted, hopefully-non-annoying advertising (an ad for a guitar tuner that pops up at just the right moment, for instance). The site could also make money off of corporate clients who would like to use MentorMob for corporate training; it already has a few paying clients.
Given that MentorMob draws its content from a wide range of sources, and mostly from non-scholarly websites, how does it remain assured of its quality? MentorMob will largely follow the Yelp and Wikipedia model of engaging an elite crop of users, for whom curating quality on MentorMob is inherently rewarding. "What a lot of people don’t know about Wikipedia is that 95% of it is controlled by a couple thousand people," he says. Community management and building a self-policing system is a central concern for MentorMob, adds Chinosorn. "We don’t want to be a content farm," he avers.
"I find their model of intermediation very interesting," says Shane Greenstein, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management who is writing a case study on MentorMob, having previously studied Wikipedia. "Structured mediated aggregation is the way most [user-content generated] sites are going.... MentorMob is built with the understanding, as many others have recognized, that not all users are alike, with some being readers, others being light contributors, and others being heavy contributors." He adds that MentorMob goes further by developing a site which recognizes "different roles for the same contributor, in some contexts as a mentor and in another as learner."
Undoubtedly, for the time being, some of the content on the site is stronger than others. The beer-brewing playlist, a favorite on the site, appears thorough enough, and moves in what seems, to this brewing neophyte at least, a logical sequence. But why is a list of workouts from Shape magazine the ninth and final step of a playlist called Healthy Eating?
Currently, MentorMob favors the hobbyist—the person wanting to learn salsa dancing or rock climbing (Chinosorn is an enthusiast of both). "We wanted to focus on passion-centric subjects," says Chinosorn, "because we want to get people to get addicted to learning again." The site isn’t so good for someone, say, wanting to ace college calculus. But Chinosorn says he foresees a time when MentorMob branches out into more academic or traditional content. He says that the site already has a lot of professional educators who were among the private beta user base, and that his site has been used in a course at Columbia College in Chicago. MentorMob’s use of the word "playlist" for learning smacks of another recent experiment in digitally-enabled learning, only one that occurred in actual, physical classrooms: the "School of One" experiment conducted in 2009 in New York.
"Right now that hopscotching through the Internet is what we’re trying to teach people" with the site, says Chinosorn, but he has plans for something grander. "Eventually we want to be the Pandora of learning, to personalize learning. So we’d see what type of learner you actually are: We’d see you are a visual kinesthetic learner, and know you need video and Flash games to learn." MentorMob would then optimize your very own playlist.
"We know that this isn’t better than going to college yet," Chinosorn admits. "But this could be the beginning of something really big."
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[Image: Flickr user artonice]