ATD Blog

Designing a New E-Learning Identity for Upwardly Global

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

At ATD TechKnowledge 2020, I had the opportunity to facilitate ATD’s first hackathon. In a typical hackathon, professionals with various expertise work together to develop something (often software or hardware) by the end of the event. This hackathon took on a design challenge for the nonprofit organization, Upwardly Global.

Upwardly Global is the first and longest-serving organization focused on helping immigrant, refugee, and asylee professionals rebuild their careers in the United States. There are about 2 million immigrants and refugees currently in the United States who have college degrees from their home countries but are unemployed or working far below their skill level. Upwardly Global works to eliminate employment barriers for these skilled immigrants and refugees and integrates them into the professional U.S. workforce.

To start the hackathon, Liz Derr, national manager of curriculum and instructional design for Upwardly Global, described her organization’s challenge. “Over the last four years we have published 100-plus e-learning courses developed internally by various contributors using various tools, resulting in an inconsistent learning experience from course to course,” she said. Upwardly Global needed consistent branding, improved user interface (UI), and user experience (UX) for this growing library of content.

The goal for those participating in the hackathon was to create learning templates that would standardize and streamline the process for content updates and additions. Successful outcomes would be added capacity for a learning “team of one,” increased scalability of learning solutions, and an optimized learning experience for immigrant job seekers to access relevant information in the moment of need. Of course, the goal was the placement of more newcomers into skill-appropriate jobs in the United States.

We kicked off the event with a high-level overview of Upwardly Global and a discussion of the project design requirements: modern interface, Upwardly Global branding, and various content layouts and interactions (scenarios, gamification, quizzes, tabs, and so forth). The learners for this content were identified as immigrant job seekers, mentors, employers or hiring managers, and supervisors.

Hackathon participants formed teams based on their self-identification for skills they wished to contribute, such as instructional designer, e-learning content developer, graphic and visual designer, technical writer, project manager, manager and supervisor, observer, or multirole individuals. Teams accessed a digital folder of assets, including project analysis documentation, guidelines for logos and branding, and existing examples of e-learning content and resources.

Thaddeus Tsohantaridis, the son of an immigrant, described how gratifying it was to take part in the TechKnowledge Hackathon and help Upwardly Global. “The primary thing that struck me about the event was how it reflected the very practical and people-focused nature of our profession,” he said. “Forty odd people, most of whom had just met, sat down in a congenial environment to define the problem and create solutions. The Hackathon displayed that particular question of training and talent development: What do we want to enable people to do?”


In a short four hours, seven different teams submitted a wide range of collateral, including templates, design guidelines, journey maps, and implementation guides. Many of the participants were surprised with what they were able to achieve in one night, and the approach that each team took provided Upwardly Global with a unique perspective.

Sky V. King is a senior instructional designer with FIU Online who participated in the hackathon. She notes that she has always embraced Muhammad Ali’s quote, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” That’s why “service projects in any form are attractive” to her. King notes that while she was unsure initially as to the level that she would be able to contribute, she was pleasantly surprised to see her “input reflected in the results—even if through a team’s effort.”

The following day, Liz Derr joined me in debriefing the event during a morning session at the conference. She reviewed each of the team submissions and selected the winning team, Team UpGlo Ninjas. Thanks to ATD, all teams were awarded for their hard work with prizes such as travel projectors and gift cards.

“I could not be more grateful that Upwardly Global had this opportunity to leverage the amazing and varied expertise of ATD attendees to hack out solutions for improving our learning content,” said Derr. “I am super energized from the conference and looking forward to applying many new solutions, ideas, and approaches to improve the learning experience for UpGlo Job Seekers!”


King adds that she “loved learning about Upwardly Global and its mission. The experience was validating as a professional, feel-good, and one I’d recommend others to participate in for the future.”

I was honored that ATD invited me to facilitate this session and would like to thank the advisory members and volunteers who helped make this event happen: Justin Brusino, Melissa Milloway, Jake Gittleson, Tim Slade, Matt Pierce, and Simon Blair.

See you next year!


Image: Justin Brusino, Liz Derr, Sarah Mercier

About the Author

Sarah Mercier, CEO at Learning Ninjas, specializes in innovative learning technology and strategic implementation of learning solutions. Her innovative learning solutions have been recognized by winning industry awards, such as Best of Show at FocusOn Learning DemoFest for xAPI for Interactive eBooks, and Best Performance Support Solution at DevLearn DemoFest for Critical Success Factors training and assessment tool.

Sarah is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and business events in the areas of instructional strategy, learning technology strategy, and learning solution design and development. She is a national facilitator for the Association for Talent Development, and her work has been published in ATD’s 2020 Trends in Learning Technology, The Book of Road-Tested Activities, TD Magazine, Learning Solutions Magazine, CLO Magazine, and a variety of other training and workforce publications. Connect with her via Twitter @sarahmerci or LinkedIn at

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