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This Online Class Helps Designers Solve Real-World Problems

In this unique course at the Open Online Academy, 5,000 students team with local organizations to go head-to-head developing ideas for the developing world.

The typical design competition tends to result in a lot of fantastical ideas that are far from realistic. But the Open Online Academy had set up real-world contests to solve world challenges with an unusual structure: The participants who compete are all enrolled in a MOOC (or massive open online class).

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“We’re basically using education as a way to promote change and build a better world,” says Ivan Shumkov, the school’s founder.

In one recent class, the Open Online Academy took on the challenge of building resilient schools in the Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan destroyed 4,500 schools there last November. Other class challenges have included designing emergency shelters, smart mobility, and infrastructure in the developing world.


For each class, the school partners with international organizations and specialists that give feedback along each step of the design process, ensuring that designers get a better sense of the problem than a simple brief could ever provide.

“This way the final results are much closer to a tangible solution, and much closer to being implemented,” Shumkov says. “We incorporate the end user, too. For the schools, the principal and local government were involved.”

Around 5,000 students took the class on designing resilient schools–mostly architects and engineers, but also educators, policymakers, journalists, and others, all grouped into multi-disciplinary teams that spent six weeks learning about resilient design and developing solutions. Each team learned from the others.


“We were able to share information, share research, and develop a solution much faster than if we had just been working on it ourselves,” says Hugo Martinez from MAT-TER Design and Build Studio, an architecture firm that helped develop one of the four designs that eventually won first place in the competition.

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MAT-TER’s design uses a modular grouping of buildings made from bamboo, a material that’s naturally as strong as steel and also something that local builders already use. The basic shape in the design can grow or shrink to be a desk, a classroom, a library, or a gym. Everything is built up above the ground to protect it from flooding.

Though it’s meant to be tough enough to survive major storms, the design tries to disguise that fact. “We wanted to create an environment that doesn’t look like a bunker, that’s always reminding you that you’re in danger,” Martinez says. “This is an inspiring space.”

Other winning designs included a group of dome-shaped buildings also made from bamboo, a large round school made with reinforced concrete columns and bamboo beams, and a group of modular hexagonal buildings. Each design is shaped to resist typhoon-strength winds, earthquakes, and floods, and uses low-cost materials.

Open Online Academy is presenting the designs to the local government, and will be sharing all of the plans online for others to reuse in disaster-prone locations.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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