Executive orders are easy; forging legislation is hard. Executive orders are flimsy and can be dismantled by the next administration. Crafting policy takes statesmanship and compromise. Policy lasts. It takes political leadership, along with an educated and motivated populace, to turn policies into laws. There are numerous examples of successful bi-partisan legislation at the local and national level, where business, social, and economic interests were balanced with the needs of the citizens: Public Health programs, the GI Bill, the Interstate Highway system, FDIC, Clean Air and Water programs, workplace safety, consumer protections, etc. , and – along with the broad economic progress resulting from the engine of free enterprise. Through free enterprise, we have reduced extreme poverty globally 80%, but over the last 50 years, the US poverty rate has not changed. The reality is that we are – and should not be – either pure socialist or capitalist; we choose a blend of both based on the current need and context.
As informed citizens, we are more effective in supporting leaders who champion balanced and effective policy. The courses, workshops, and monthly issues forum we offer tackle the policy issues that governments and communities face every day. Let’s address two faulty beliefs and values confounding the political debate: the oversimplification of problems and the fallacy that neglect is good (or at least acceptable) in that it toughens us up and builds character.
The issues facing us today are not simple: the easy problems get solved lower down the ladder. The better we can think about and work with our complex problems, the better the solutions we will develop. Independent and critical thinking is a developmental journey. We start as simple children: everything is either mean or nice, good or bad, happy or sad. This dualistic thinking is not a very good starting point for forging life’s necessary compromises. This worldview produces teasing and taunting, personal attacks and bullying; not reasoned responses. The next stage is multiplicity, the idea that we’re all entitled to our opinions and that each opinion holds equal value. This is an appealing safe haven in a worldview that produces a measure of self-respect, but only in the isolation of one’s thoughts and one’s tribe. But what happens when the context requires compromise or a comprehensive solution? Now we’re in the realm of necessary conflict; the realm of policy and governance (and, by the way, of managing, parenting, and teaching). We grow to develop the capacity of balancing competing interests; where the rule of law is preferable to the use of force. This is work that moves to the murky space of relativism. Some ideas are better than others – given certain requirements and a specific context.
Viewed in this context, criticisms of “elites,” appeals to fear, and childish personal attacks are revealed merely as undeveloped thinking. Our education system, the press, our public figures, and our social media cater to this worldview by using simplistic educational strategies, emotionally triggering news, personal attacks, appeals to fear, and free-for-all unmoderated and unguided debates. We continue to lower the bar on our culture; it’s time for citizens to raise the bar on our institutions. The answer is in education: help people develop their appreciation for intellectual development by pushing back on simplification and isolating strategies. We can do better. We promote interactivity as a necessary requirement in education, the development of soft skills and independent thinking, and moderated social media and news information flows.
Our public debate is hampered by citizens and leaders who are stuck in dualistic and multiplistic models of thinking. To compound this, we have political rhetoric: emotional appeals, personal attacks, and simple sound bites which reinforce our entrenched positions. To be an effective citizen, we are each challenged to develop our capabilities and to learn to work with the cognitive dissonance of competing, viable alternatives. We’re responsible for riding out our emotional triggers, listening to diverse viewpoints, and responding with our hearts and our minds.
As long as people will accept crap, it will be financially profitable to dispense it. – Dick Cavett
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are our inalienable rights, but a fool hopes that we will solve all of our problems and find eternal peace in our lifetimes. It’s a pursuit; the journey. Pain and suffering are part of life, and will always serve to toughen and to produce wisdom in those that chose growth over stagnation. The rationale that inflicting pain or that withholding relief “builds character” is a misguided rationalization. There is a significant body of research demonstrating this. Here are a few resources on adverse childhood experiences, the impact of early adversity of development. Crying it out to develop independence is a failed 19th-century parenting style along the tragic lines of eugenics.
The aphorism “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” reflects an outdated and damaging leadership style. Is this left-wing snowflake fluff? An alternative conclusion – based in science – is that those who intentionally ‘toughen up’ their kids, their spouses, their employees, their citizens, are acting immorally based on faulty beliefs. If this is you, take a hard look in the mirror. The bottom line is that a healthy population is a productive population and produces a healthy and productive society and economy. If relieving pain and suffering while promoting the dignity of meaningful work is within our capability, we should do so.
Wicked Policy Problems
Competing dynamics and limited capacity confound numerous policy issues. Here are a few to ponder: increasing economic opportunity, improving health care, and addressing climate change. Others await the intrepid facilitator: the rural/urban split, globalism vs. nationalism. If you are a subject matter expert moved to build a program or moderate a forum on these topics, let’s roll up our sleeves, sharpen our quills, and get to work.
Increasing Economic Opportunity
Economic security is the bottom-line issue. People fall into crime without a means of feeding themselves, and societies fall when citizens lose faith in the current system to provide achievable economic opportunities. Economic security and opportunity are the first issues. We take an in-depth look at the current factors impacting opportunity: the dynamics of competitive pressures on the marketplace, citizen’s ability to develop financial independence, business consolidation and antitrust, the impacts of globalization and automation. We then look at different proposals and their merits to establish consensus on next steps and policy ideas.
Improving the Health Care Model
A healthy population is a productive population. The US is the only first world country without universal health coverage and has the most expensive health care in the world. From a citizen-consumers perspective, this is a terrible value. Don’t you think if the consumer really had a voice, this would stand? It’s in our interests to assure everyone has access to reasonable health care. It seems the primary beneficiaries of our model are Health Care R&D and insurance companies. We are funding our competitive advantage with our lives; we are collateral damage. We take a look at alternative health care models, survey approaches from other countries, then knock around competing ideas to come up with next steps and policy recommendations
Addressing Climate Change
The most significant wicked problem is climate change and the prospects of falling behind developing adaptations, new technologies, and protocols that follow from accepting these changes. The impact of climate change is far-reaching on energy and solar innovations, agriculture and fishing, transportation/electric vehicles, insurance and healthcare. If you think turmoil is a good economic strategy – if you profit from chaos – there is no better game. We know the issues and are working on solutions, but the problem is technical, it is the FUD factor: the fear, uncertainty, and doubt deliberately perpetrated on our children. My children. We have taken a huge gamble bowing out of the Paris accord. There is a lot to lose in rejecting the 97% consensus of global scientists for what seem only to be short term gains. We risk falling far behind in developing solutions the world will need. Are we short-sighted? What is the long-term strategy in defunding advances to adapt to a more volatile climate? The deniers have no end game. The wicked problem here is the needed immediacy, confounded by noise, in the face of a slow creeping disaster. We explore the truthiness of the competing claims, strategies to reach consensus, overcome roadblocks, and move constructively forward to a healthier environment.
The call to action is admirable: pay attention, take charge, and get involved. But portraying all government as lousy government is irresponsible and sets up an intractable position. The better way to look at this is not good government vs. bad government, but by assessing the effectiveness of government. Effectiveness is a conversation; good vs. bad kills diplomacy and takes us back to the drawing board of bridging divides. We should be discussing ways to create opportunities while improving wellbeing, not fighting over gerrymandered districts and the electoral college.
Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, defines government as a necessary evil: an evil that must be allowed for a greater good to result. Governments are the recognition of our human tendencies to be corrupted by power: the same recognition behind the separation of powers; and Democracy is the worst form of government, except all others.
Thomas Friedman, in his book, Thank You For Being Late, makes a case for “applied hope.” In a healthy conversation, there is good faith, an exchange of ideas, and compromise. The end of all wars is either diplomatic or autocratic; and since we strive to sustain a government of, by, and for the people, we will vote for diplomatic.
We have more common ground than we think, and we have a demonstrable track record of working together, across our divides, to move our way forward to a more perfect democracy. The easy problems get solved, the tough ones take work. If we are emotionally triggered, or morally intransigent, we can’t show up to do the job. Those that marginalize us – that build up and then push our triggers – demean us. Cast off the shysters, propagandists, and gossip mongers and show up to do the work of community building.
We, the voters, established the government and empowered our institutions to act on our behalf. Institutions are empowered authorized with decision-making authority; it is the Institution’s responsibility to adapt: they hold the locus of control. But institutions can’t do this alone. We are the government: we decide how the government works, so it’s up to us to articulate the requirements and protocols. This is the gap we need to address: the ever-evolving need to synchronize citizen needs and institutional performance.
When asked why the government doesn’t innovate, Michael Bloomberg argues that we have not given the government the authority:
“The public,” Bloomberg says, “insists, and arguably has a right to insist, that it knows where its money’s going. [They] have a very high expectation of results…. That is not the way innovation works. Innovation–the essence of innovation–is you don’t know what you’re going to build, what it’s going to be called, how much it’s going to cost. You cannot use public monies unless you can answer virtually every one of those questions, which is why government tends not to innovate. The public wants that accountability in advance, that justification in advance. But that’s not going to work for certain things. What’s Next for Michael Bloomberg.
Power in a democracy rests with the people. When we allow ourselves to be marginalized, to become emotionally compromised, we give up that power. Anyone (hucksters, con-men, autocrats) or any organization (propaganda machines, conspiracy theorists, gossip rags) that attempt to usurp our power is working against us. It is our responsibility to assert our authority, ignore the trolls, educate the uninformed, and work constructively to express the public will.
We live in an age of immediacy; we’re all working long and hard, so we default to trusting the system to work it out. In the 18th Century, only landed white males, enabled by social structures (patriarchy, slavery, etc.), had time and energy for the “higher pursuits” of education and civic service. The Leather Apron club, or Junto Benjamin Franklin’s progenitor of many service clubs, spawned lending libraries, fire departments, and the volunteer militia. In today’s world, where everyone is an earner, leisure time is at a premium and typically reserved for recreation and recovery. As a result, civic participation as a normal way of life is fading – replaced by organizational affiliations and donations to the cause. Service clubs and organizations are dying off, and attendance at religious services is declining. This is not from a growing spiritual bankruptcy but is a failure of leadership along with parishioner availability and priority. This broader experience, community connectedness, and rewards of service are outsourced while we attend to GDP.
Arthur Brooks, in The Conservative Heart, argues that there are four pillars to a happy life: faith, family, community, and meaningful work. Service is a localized, community activity, the spawning ground of ideas and solutions, and a key to lifelong happiness. We all need to make time to be active citizens, staying informed and refining our positions in the company of a trusted community.
All Politics is local. The architecture of change moves from individual to community, to local, state and then national. There are a few promising projects which local leaders should consider.
The Participatory Budgeting project works with government organizations and citizens to decide together how to spend public money.
Community Rights works with communities to pass locally enforceable laws protecting people and nature from destructive corporate practices.
Warm Cookies of the Revolution, led by Evan Weissman, has been running the world’s first civic Health Club in Denver running delightful programs since 2012.
Doing the Work
Why is our public dialogue perceived to be rancorous and polarized? This perception is based on a limited range of experience. With only news media and insubstantial social media, we have no forum for more profound understanding to develop. We have a distinct lack of public venues and healthy conversations: a community participation gap. Remember that the anger we perceive is a secondary emotion: the primary emotions underlying anger are usually fear, pain, and shame. Community groups mitigate those feelings by providing forums to air and explore our ideas feelings before they deepen and take hold. There is only one way to get through these: spend the time and do the work.
There is a growing field of specialists in the broader field of Dialogue and Deliberation focusing broadly on the skills of facilitation and mediation. These specialists are working with government agencies and community groups to implement processes and structures to enable healthy, constructive dialogue. The National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation (NCDD) is a membership network of over 700 individuals and organizations helping communities of all sorts have more productive conversations on what matters most.
The Public Square Academy, a member of the NCDD network, is developing to provide an alternative to declining service clubs and aggregate innovative community-building programs under one brand. We are interested in working with subject matter experts to build education programs and communities around the following topics:
Economic and Opportunity Development
Dialogue and Deliberation
Citizen Oversight (Leadership and Analytics)
Community Empowerment and Development
Being an effective citizen takes more than eternal vigilance; it takes a personal commitment to engagement and support. Given economic freedom of choice, we all want to live in a peaceful, beautiful place, with abundance and access to a vibrant community. We would all want time to raise our families, participate in school outings, support our parents, grandchildren, and grandparents, and to be civically engaged. Make time for community and become civically engaged.
This article is part three of a six-part series that surveys topic areas of civic and consumer education. We assess the needs and opportunities for adult civic and consumer education, then present a few ideas for individuals looking to enhance their knowledge. If you are interested in participating in a program with The Public Square Academy, you can view our courses here. If you are a subject matter expert in a relevant area and interested in designing a program, please contact us to discuss program development opportunities.
With the proliferation of products and services and the magnificent rise in the global standard of living, it is easy to ‘give a pass’ to the organizations that are charging ahead, applying new technologies to add tremendous value. March 15th is World Consumer Rights Day, a good day to reflect on the importance of empowered consumers. As with our political checks and balances, the consumer provides checks and balances to corporations. Reflect for a moment on a recent purchase decision: were you able to clearly understand whether the product or services met your needs prior to purchase? Were you confident that you and your family were safe from any potential harm? Were you confident that if you had a problem, you could easily contact someone and have your problem addressed?
As a teacher, I would ask parents what else they wanted their kids to know before they got pushed out of their nest. Invariably, parents asked for financial, legal, and health education: real-life skills. But schools focus on academics, not life skills. Other than a few weeks of risk-avoidance health classes, our schools barely address real-world topics: we are all pushed out into adulthood with our wits, a copy of Lord of the Flies, and the confidence of invincible teenagers.
Our lives and responsibilities as consumers are getting more complicated as products and services differentiate and refine. Amidst a sea of content, consumer access to useful company information and decision-makers is increasingly complicated. Product information is replaced with free trials, and pricing is buried in web sites or not disclosed until after registration. Pricing often fluctuates by time and day, making it more difficult to make a purchase decision in a reasonable amount of time. Many companies do not publish corporate phone numbers or addresses, and service departments are being automated. Terms and conditions are written in incomprehensible legalese and arbitration clauses block consumers from legal action. Organizations are shifting laws to their advantage drowning out the voice and power of the consumer. Without this information and access, consumer decision-making is hobbled, and their wellbeing is diminished.
At the same time organizations are erecting barriers to customer education and choice while government protections are being weakened or eliminated. In a free market, buyers and sellers form a symbiotic relationship where prices rise and fill to meet demand as moderated by supply. If the buyer’s power is weakened, the free market gets tipped out of balance.
Business consolidation is accelerating, with many sectors now uncompetitive oligopolies. Start-ups are now the minor leagues where venture-capitalists to identify unicorns or groomed for buy-outs by sector-dominating companies. Meanwhile, the average worker is working harder and longer, must save for retirement in increasingly uncertain job markets, and absorb an ever-increasing share of health care costs. All this with wages that have been flat for fifty years in uncertain job markets where employment is increasingly project-based: 35% of all workers are now in the gig economy as independent contractors with no employer health care or retirement plans. Consumers are squeezed, discretionary income has been harvested, leaving longer-term needs unfunded.
These threats to consumer empowerment are not likely to be addressed through our political processes. Our parties are gridlocked, our political debate is hardened. Public sentiment is ignored too often when economic growth and opportunity is at stake. It now takes lobbying muscle and the power of the purse to influence legislation. If we value free markets and free enterprise wouldn’t a better-educated more empowered consumer provide healthier pressure for the improvements of products and services?
Ok. that was a rhetorical question. So, why are these subjects not taught in school, and where should this education come from? Aside from the typical cynical reasons, they are likely not taught in school because students are not ready. Can a fourteen-year-old really understand the ins and outs of health care and insurance? If they don’t have their own money and savings goals, what good is an investment strategy? The truth is, real-life skills training is best delivered when real life is the learning context.
An empowered consumer shares many characteristics with an effective citizen: they know their strengths and needs, they can hold their integrity in stressful situations and make clear decisions under pressure. They know their rights to free choice, to be heard, informed, and educated, to receive service, and to be safe. An empowered consumer is a smart shopper, knows what they want, and can wait until they get it. They can do the math and know that quality is usually cheaper in the long run. They’ve been around the block. They know how sales works, can resist sales pressures, can ask intelligent questions, and have the support of other consumers. An informed and empowered consumer will save tens of thousands of dollars over just one lifetime! So, what’s a good consumer empowerment class worth to you? $1,000? $2,000? $5,000? Have we got a deal for you!
The Public Square Academy is home to a library of civic and consumer education programs, all designed and led by subject matter experts and qualified facilitators. Here are a few course offerings created to help you become a more informed and empowered consumer.
We have the most expensive health care system in the world. It’s a fine system if you are an R&D firm needing lots of revenue to keep ahead of the competition, but not so good if you are young, unemployed, or a contingent worker. The conventional debate is between a single payer system and a free market system. Wouldn’t a free market system be driven by customer choice? Well, what if health-care were customer-focused? Wouldn’t you be able to research and select health care providers and procedures based on price and quality information? Try calling around for a quote, search for performance rankings of oncologists, call three internists and ask for an interview before you make a hiring decision. Taking a class in health care is not going to solve that problem, but educated voters just might. Let us help you beef up your Health Chops!
We are most irrational when it comes to love and money. As we are not a dating service, we’ll focus on the do-re-me. Above and beyond becoming an empowered consumer, developing financial literacy forms a solid foundation for a healthy and happy life. We will explore the traditional financial literacy topics such as budgeting, savings, and credit, and go beyond to develop participant financial perspectives. How the game of commerce is played. What is financial security and why would I want it? Understanding your values: relationships, experiences, and material things. How much is enough? Develop your own definition of wealth and a plan to achieve wealth? Do you want to retire? If so, under what terms. Think of us as the Uncle you wish you had. Join the Financial Literacy program.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. We are just at the very beginning of the information age. Ahead of us lies the potential of universal education (hey, that’s our game!), greater global equity and prosperity, and through constructive communication, resolutions to problems that have long plagued us. Berner-Lee, in his recent Wired article on the 30-year anniversary of the Web, frames up three challenges we must address three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:
Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behavior, and online harassment.
System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarized tone and quality of online discourse.
In developing your tech chops, your skills, and knowledge, you will develop a foundation of technical literacy while digging into these questions.
This is part two of a six-part series that surveys topic areas of civic and consumer education. We assess the needs and opportunities for adult civic and consumer education, then present a few ideas for individuals looking to enhance their knowledge. If you are interested in participating in a program with The Public Square Academy, you can view our courses here. If you are a subject matter expert in a relevant area and interested in designing a program, please contact us to discuss program development opportunities.
Let’s take it as a given that a Democracy requires a conscious and intentional effort to keep it running at it’s best possible state. We are in an era where – for better and for worse – passions are inflamed and positions are hardened. In the essay “Revitalizing Civic Education,” we make the case for a fresh approach to educating today’s citizens about their civic responsibilities and the threats our democracy faces. But what exactly is effective citizenship? What does it mean to carry out your civic duty? Here we explore the characteristics of an effective citizen and opportunities for creating programs that aim to educate and empower today’s citizens. Please let us know your thoughts.
An effective citizen:
Holds and defends democratic values, is a champion of human rights
Balances the needs of the individual with the needs of society
Understands and protects the values of the society’s founding documents (in the US- the Constitution)
Uses protects and defends a free press
Makes it a practice to be an informed citizen
Knows their positions on current issues and can evaluate candidates and ballot propositions
Protects the integrity of elections
Regularly works to improve their personal capabilities
Is emotionally intelligent, maintaining their integrity under social pressures
Practices independent thinking and decision-making and is cognizant of their limitations: personal, cultural, the impact of biases and fallacies
Is a leader among a society of leaders
If you are an individual who believes in upholding and defending our democracy, where do you turn to develop your skills as an effective citizen?? In our ever-changing world, and particularly at this point in history, it is critical that citizens of good faith commit to being civic lifelong learners. It means that you commit a few hours each week away from socializing, games and movies, and instead in learning communities developing yourselves and your communities in the company of trusted learning groups. PSA provides the space you need to participate in transformational learning experiences, with others that you’ll build trusted relationships with throughout the experience. Our model provides the structure to facilitate engaging experiences that put you on a path to effective citizenship.
This is the gap we address: continuing adult civic and consumer education delivered in a useful and enjoyable model. We define civic and consumer education broadly, including the development of citizenship- skills, consumer empowerment, community engagement, the realms of policy and government, healthy practices in the workplace and schools, and in personal and family wellbeing. The larger goal is a more healthy society.
What will programs look like that address these goals we mentioned before? What can you do to become a more effective citizen? Here are a few to consider. If you are interested in participating in the program, please join the waitlist on the program page. If you would like to develop or teach these or other programs, then please sign up for the Program Design Class. As always, feel free to contact us directly.
An effective citizen masters Media Literacy:
Makes it a practice to be an informed citizen
Uses protects and defends a free press
Do you really think that the media are the enemies of the people? Let’s take a reality check here. The Press is known as the 4th Estate: the unofficial fourth branch of government. The press, on our behalf and with the support of our subscription investment, is our watchdog of institutions and other organizations and individuals in society. You may not like what you see, but to cast out the entire profession is a dangerous overreaction. Isn’t it a better choice to work with what you have and make it better? Will we succumb to childish name calling an unsubstantiated allegations? When someone says “trust me” without doing the work to earn your trust, that’s when your sales scam alerts should start ringing. The journalist’s job is to come up with the “best obtainable version of the truth.”
If the media are put out of business, then how shall we stay informed? Which sources provide the most reliable information? How shall we spend our limited time consuming and digesting current events? Might we suggest a light yet informative program called Media Meal Planning? Just as when we plan a weekly groceries list, if we spend a little time up front planning out a menu, shop for quality ingredients, prepare our meals with care, we will be healthier, happier people. Why not spend a little time planning your media diet? Come study what makes for a good editorial policy, learn to make better choices in how you spend your time and money. Could anyone really defend the argument that the National Enquirer is a better publication then the big national papers or even any decent local newspaper? A serious and effective citizen does not eat ice cream for breakfast, drink beer for lunch, or waste their time on poor quality information drivel. Eat well. Consume quality information. You are what you eat.
An effective citizen knows their values and positions, and applies those values to evaluate candidates and ballot propositions
Knows their values and positions on current issues
Can assess and evaluate candidates and ballot propositions based on values
We are the managers of our democracy, but how informed are we about our own positions and the propositions and candidates we are asked to vote for? How many of us are clear about our own values, not just the ones passed on by our families or the ones held by our political party? We have unprecedented access to information. We are flooded with marketing messages, news, media, pop culture, the demands of an always-on 7×24 workplace. But do we have the right information to connect our values to our voting decisions?
But when it’s “go” time: time to evaluate candidates and propositions and place our votes, how do we cast votes that align with our values? We all share common democratic values: personal freedom, the rule of law, freedoms of speech, belief, and the press. The real differences between us and our parties are in how we prioritize these values. We believe each of us owes it to ourselves and our society to step back and take a look at what we really believe and the direction we want our societies to grow. Join us for a deep look and Craft Your Personal Platform.
An effective citizen is a lifelong learner, regularly seeking personal growth:
Regularly works to improve their personal capabilities
Fosters independent thinking and decision-making
Is cognizant of their limitation: personal, cultural, the impact of biases and fallacies
As so many of us are regularly stressed and stretched too thin, it is tempting to retreat, to seek shelter from the storms of our lives. The longer this continues, many of us make it our life’s goal to simplify, declutter, retreat to the older simpler time, to retire as quickly as we can. We bounce from coffee in the morning to wine and beer at night; the downside of pervasive competition unchecked by collective demand for wellbeing. In this environment of always on and always behind, it is difficult to make time for personal development and wellbeing. But if we don’t, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.
Medical science and Gerontology research teach us to keep active as long as we can. Doctors push patients to become ambulatory as quickly as possible following surgery, and seniors are guided to take up new challenges such as a new language. Why? This is what keeps us vibrant and engaged. We know from our own experience that when we exercise, eat right, and get good sleep, we feel and perform better. This is also true for our intellectual, emotional, and civic lives. If we don’t attend to personal growth, if we don’t clear out resentments and ‘stories,’ we become intellectually and emotionally marginalized.
Life is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition
We have a ‘work-hard play-hard’ ethic in our culture that leaves no time for learning. About a quarter of adults have not read a book in the last year. There is no magic pill to staying current and crisp. It’s like going to the gym: it’s about time in and reps completed. Wouldn’t it be nice to build capacity building exercises into your daily routine? Wouldn’t it be better to do it with a group where you cheer each other on? Join our Lifelong Learning program to conduct an assessment of your capabilities, conduct a reality check of your limitations, and set a plan to keep you growing and crisp.
This is part one of a six-part series that surveys topic areas of civic and consumer education. We assess the needs and opportunities, then present a few program ideas. Some of these programs are ready, some need to be built. If you are interested as a participant, please sign up on the waiting list. If you are a subject matter expert in a relevant are and interested in designing a program, please contact us to discuss program development.
It is common knowledge that the state of online education, to put it nicely, is in pretty poor shape. Most folks know that an online class is a lonely, boring experience – not much better than reading a book. We know that dropout and incompletion rates are outrageously high. The knowledge gained from an online class is superficial and transient. The learning is not always what’s offered. What you pay for is the certificate – the symbol of the knowledge – not the knowledge itself. And we (the student, the public) have no idea what assessments say about what is really accomplished in these programs. It would be nice to know from the course providers what their performance and retention figures are, but I imagine this would mean revealing “proprietary information.” I bet if the numbers were good, they would be shouted from the mountaintop.
The race to monetize online learning has turned into a race to the bottom. Course providers offer low prices just to capture market share, with little focus on the quality of the experience. Look at how online programs are marketed: simplicity of the interface, ease of access, flexible deadlines, low prices, and all you can eat monthly subscription plans. Where’s the promise of personal or professional growth? Nowhere is the quality of the learning experience presented, only the name (and reputation) of the school. The great schools earned their reputations from the quality of their instructors and the impact of the learning experiences they provided for their students. Where are the instructor reviews and the surveys of past participants? Marketing these self-paced online programs is all about reducing marketing friction: it’s easy to buy and in no time at all, you have that degree. But the degree is not the education. In this case, an online degree is a misrepresentation of an education. Oh, and by the way, “let us help you” get a federally guaranteed loan to buy that virtual degree. It’s a poor-quality education, and any honest educator or HR hiring professional will tell you so.
These strategies will inevitably take online learning providers down the well-worn path of price wars and choosing efficiency over quality. The only reasons people have to complete these courses are 1) to get a certificate for their resume, 2) to check off an employment requirement, or 3) to get reimbursed for to their class fees. These are not good bases for high student engagement and ultimately hurt and reduce the confidence in online education. We can do better.
If you have a basic knowledge of education and education theory, the solution to this problem is pretty easy to grasp. Deeper learning requires interactivity and interactivity requires relationships. You have to be able to test your ideas and new knowledge in discussions with groups, doing challenging projects, and under the guidance of a teacher or mentor. These programs are not built for the learner, they are engineered to capture the client.
There are two models in education that come into play here. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Engagement says that to learn more deeply, we need to engage in higher order thinking skills and apply our new knowledge to challenging problems. If we merely read, or worse, skim for answers to the test – like kids are taught to do today – we’re not learning; we’re practicing low lift cognitive skills like recognition and recall. We have to practice the knowledge, digest it, work with it so that it becomes our own. In the current scarf and barf model, we have no opportunity to evaluate, analyze, and create. The typical online class forgets Bloom’s higher order thinking skills and typically stops at recall. This lack of application of new skills and concepts means that the knowledge is short lived and very rarely retained. Constructivism learning theory supports this by holding that we learn by doing, by constructing mental models which build on prior understandings. This model assumes that the learner engages and interacts with the knowledge and skills presented to develop their own understandings. In traveling this path, we put our society’s intellectual capabilities at risk. We are taking the easier path, not the path of growth. Perhaps now even “less traveled.”
Interactivity is the engine of deep (aka significant or transformative) learning. We need to fuel the human side of learning, the idea that we learn more by interacting with our peers and our mentors than on our own. We need relationships: you know, those risky, troubling things that just get in the way of just getting things done? We need to know that our teachers are credible and that they care about us. For groups to work, there must be trust, mutual responsibility, and commitment. We need each other to hold us accountable, to have our ideas challenged and our successes recognized, to encourage us on. We need goals and achievements, to rise and to fall. Learning requires relationships which must be built anew over time. If you look at the topics and content of these programs, they are not topics that lend themselves to interactivity. You’ll see linearly organized content (engineering), and easily measurable skills. You won’t find programs that require reflectivity or discussion. These just don’t fit the model.
We are a marketing-driven culture, seeking to ever differentiate our products and services to create market value. The job of marketing is to uncover our weaknesses (and sometimes concoct) and then ameliorate our pains. We are bombarded with messages which tap into our insecurities, putting us back on our heels, wondering what we need to do next to feel good and to be accepted. We suffer from a fear of negative experiences, or cultural negaphobia. We avoid the difficult, the sticky, the challenging – taking the path of least resistance. Why should education be any different? Education is now a transactional business. Click and drop. By lending their reputations to these rote, online learning experiences, the great schools and thought leaders are diminishing their brands.
These trends are widespread in our society, and if education continues down this path, we foresee greater isolation, degraded performance, and resulting alienation. If you look at common societal complaints today, many are rooted in this shift from relational to transactional. Common employer complaints are the lack of soft skills, or what Seth Godin calls “Real Skills.” Our schools have retreated to the defensible tautology of standardized tests; half of the students who drop out do so because they are bored. In our work lives, we are now always on 7×24, stressed and overloaded – with less and less time for family, relationships, and civic participation. Our health care is determined by insurance companies and permissioned by billing codes. Car dealers are now “haggle free” as if that were a good thing for the buyer? The barriers to entry to develop competitive businesses are ever increasing, allowing companies to entrench. The number of publicly traded companies – accountable to their shareholders – has declined by 50% in the last twenty years. Most businesses now limit customer access only to call centers which are in turn automating transactions along decision trees, eliminating or obfuscating the option to speak with a real person, and for some silly reason re-direct callers to their web sites (as if the internet was something new?). Who will this help? If a company does not recognize that a customer who cares enough to call in is really trying to help them be more successful, they are missing out on free market research! And more to our point, have you ever tried to contact your local political representative? They are no longer accountable to the individual citizen, but to donors and lobbyists.
To have interactivity in education, we need to have qualified mentors (not just content area specialists), engaged students, student-teacher and student-student relationships, high functioning groups, and clear and well-managed processes. Developing effective citizens with independent critical thinking, decision-making, and personal empowerment that comes with mastery requires an interactive model. This has been the domain of the elite school’s classrooms (Harvard Business school is famously case-based.) To raise the level of our citizenry, we need to raise the capabilities of citizens – the managers of our democracy. We need independent-thinking, compassionate-yet-considerate citizens. The well-off will still have access to the premium programs, and unfortunately, those with more modest budgets will be tempted to compromise with a flat and superficial online degree program.
The development of cloud-based SaaS applications and the ubiquity of computing and mobile devices has been accomplished. The business model that got us to the point has served its purpose. It’s time the industry grew out of its – its impulsive race to be first -and attended to developing and delivering quality. With the tools we have now, we can and will move high-quality, interactive education down to new markets. We advocate a model based on personalized learning, in small groups, with a skilled mentor actively working to build relationships via active efforts and synchronous meetings. We think this provides the best outcomes for our participants and the most rewarding experience for our mentors. Recall your favorite class. I bet your story includes the relationship you had with the teacher. The subject may have been interesting, but it was the relationship with the teacher, and how they orchestrated the class, that helped you grow as a person.
Let’s get past our fascination with our new technologies and demand quality educational programs. Join us in creating a new type of learning experience, aimed at providing deeper learning that results in educated, engaged, and empowered citizens. Explore our website and course offerings, subscribe to our newsletter.