Heart disease kills more men in the United States than any other illness. High blood pressure is one of the biggest risk factors for it, and yet according to Doctor Aaron Carroll, “we have had a hard time getting patients to comply with recommendations and medications.” A recent study targeting hard-to-reach patients tried to help them using a community-based strategy:
Barbers screened patients, then handed them off to pharmacists who met with customers in the barbershops. They treated patients with medications and lifestyle changes according to set protocols, then updated physicians on what they had done.
When one part of the community ran into trouble, another stepped up. For example, if some barbers were having trouble consistently measuring customers’ blood pressure, pharmacists helped out.
The end result: in six months, 63% of the intervention group now had normal blood pressure compared to only 12% of the control group. The reason for this success?
Getting barbers involved meant health messages came from trusted members of the community. Locating the intervention in barbershops meant patients could receive care without inconvenience, with peer support. Using pharmacists meant that care could be delivered more efficiently.
Similar experiments in other fields have been equally effective. And as we have seen with Extension Services and Citizenship Schools, when a community-oriented approach is used on a large scale, they can produce remarkable results.
In Part 1, we discussed how smoothing the learning curve can narrow the gap between emerging tech and people in the community. To close the remaining gap, we will need to harness the power of a community-oriented approach to education.
Today, most community-based groups for teaching coding use the often-meager resources they have to employ a few facets of a community-oriented approach to education. What if we provided the resources and institutional support they need so they could collectively operate on the same scale that Extension Services and Citizenship Schools did? The following is a sketch of what this approach might look like.
Pieces of the Community-Oriented Education Puzzle
Different types of communities will need a different set of strategies to help members of their community master emerging tech. But there are some strategies that can be incorporated by all communities. The following are some examples.
Create Multiple On-Ramps
For someone living in a community our society has written off, the idea of getting started in coding can be daunting. The obstacles they face can feel overwhelming. And if classes will put a big strain on your life because of the cost and time they require, how do you know it’s worth the sacrifice? At this point, you don’t even know if you like coding enough to want to do it for a living.
That’s why we need to create multiple on ramps. We need to go where people are, where they are surrounded by their peers, and create opportunities for them to get their feet wet.
Where it makes sense to create on ramps will depend on the community. For example:
- Barbershops and beauty salons
- Union halls
- Churches and other houses of worship, who could offer a short program before or after one of their weekly sermons so members could try a little coding and talk to people who are already doing it
Wherever people congregate, wherever they are surrounded by people they know and trust, we should explore ways of breaking down barriers and firing up interest.
Community-Oriented Trainings and Support
In the play Our Town, when George tells Emily about his plans to become a farmer, he says:
Y’know, Emily, whenever I meet a farmer I ask him if he thinks it’s important to go to Agricultural School to be a good farmer. Yeah, and some of them say it’s even a waste of time. You can get all of those things, anyway, out of the pamphlets the government sends out.
George is exaggerating a bit, but the idea wouldn’t seem out of line to farmers in his time. Extension Services was created because the system of Land Grant colleges that had been built to help spread modern agricultural practices through formal schooling couldn’t reach enough people. Extension Services succeeded where Land Grant colleges failed because in virtually every county, it embedded one or more extension agents who built upon existing social networks and created new ones to create a massive infrastructure of informal peer-to-peer learning.
Extension agents used a wide range of techniques to create an infrastructure for training and support:
- Identified and Developed Natural Leaders. Extension agents often focused on identifying and developing natural leaders: farmers who were already widely respected in their community. These natural leaders had preexisting social networks and relationships they could use to recruit other famers. And they were also likely to understand the concerns and fears that agents needed to address if farmers were to be convinced to adopt new techniques.
- Nurtured Neighborhood Clubs. Extension agents helped farming communities form neighborhood clubs and worked with clubs to ensure farmers got a steady stream of ideas about how they could improve their farming. As a result, farmers weren’t just hearing about an idea brought in by an outsider, they were learning while surrounded by their peers who spoke the same language and understood the realities they faced.
- Produced Informal Learning Materials. To supply these clubs, extension agents provided lots and lots of pamphlets and other written materials that were crafted to help teach farmers new techniques and address any concerns they had. Many extension agents also were heavy users of radio broadcasts and other new forms of communication.
- Fostered Community Events. Extension agents helped foster state fairs and other places where farmers could see demonstrations, compete to see who could use new techniques to grow the best crops, etc.
- Reached Adults through Their Children. By creating and supporting 4-H Clubs, Extension agents not only began training the next generation of farmers, they also gave adult farmers the chance to learn from their children’s successes with new techniques that have been proven to work not just in the laboratory but in the very fields they farmed.
- Fill the Gaps. As the story at the beginning of Part 2 demonstrated, any system of support is inevitably going to have gaps; being able to dynamically address these problems can make the difference between success and failure. Extension agents were expected to look for gaps and find solutions to fill them.
If we were to adapt the techniques used by Extension agents to the circumstances communities are facing today, we could substantially increase our ability to make emerging tech coding more accessible.
This kind of community-based approach also has the potential to knock down obstacles that many are afraid we can’t overcome. For example, some have argued that many people – especially men – who work in blue collar jobs won’t want to become coders because their sense of identity is tied to working with their hands. That’s a huge problem for an outsider who’s trying to convince them. But if someone who’s resistant is being recruited by a natural leader they trust, and if they know they’ll be making this transition surrounded by their peers who’ve also spent a lifetime working with their hands, this is a much easier nut to crack.
Building on Existing Efforts
To implement Extension Services’ community-oriented approach, we don’t have to start from scratch. From online courses to blogs and podcasts to terrific online communities like Glitch and CodePen to face-to-face Meetups and hackathons, we already have some of the elements we’ll need for building a great informal, peer-oriented training and support system. Now we need to learn from the example of Extension Services about how to take this fledgling infrastructure to the next level.
For example, tech meetups are often a great educational resource for those who attend them. But even these meetups don’t reach anywhere near the number of people needed to make a big difference. This is often because there simply aren’t enough resources available to do the labor intensive work for community-oriented strategies to reach more people.
But sometimes this is also because tech meetups need to adapt their culture to these more ambitious goals. For example, for everyday people who live in a community where they don’t know anyone who makes a living from emerging tech, these meetups often feel intimidating and alienating.
Similarly, some parts of the tech learning universe have cultures that are hostile to outsiders. For example, many beginning and experienced developers rely heavily on a Q&A website called Stack Overflow as a major source for learning new tricks and troubleshooting problems. But the culture on Stack Overflow has gotten so bad that in 2018, Jay Hanlon, Stack Overflow’s executive vice president of culture and experience, felt compelled to write a post called “Stack Overflow Isn’t Very Welcoming. It’s Time for That to Change.” He confessed,
Too many people experience Stack Overflow as a hostile or elitist place, especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups.
This is exactly the kind of problem that a community-oriented approach is designed to solve.
Creating Real Accountability
Although the immediate issue with Start Overflow was its toxic culture, there was a deeper problem driving this issue. Stack Overflow wasn’t unaware of the issues with its culture. As Hanlon explained,
Our employees and community have cared about this for a long time, but we’ve struggled to talk about it publicly or to sufficiently prioritize it in recent years. And results matter more than intentions.
This points to a crucial difference between Extension Services and what the tech community has built so far: accountability. Extension Service agents were expected to deliver. Making progress in their county was their top priority. In emerging tech, with its patchwork of informal training and support, there’s no one who’s similarly accountable.
It’s not that there isn’t any accountability in emerging tech training and support. Ask the people who run an online training course how they’re doing, and they’re happy to give you a bevy of stats. But what they’re measuring – eg., how many students took their course – doesn’t tell us what we need to know. In an era where the tech world is mad for metrics, there is no one who can tell you if the patchwork of overlapping efforts of training and support have actually paid off for specific communities, helping enough people to get a job or create a business to make a real difference in that community.
It’s too soon to tell if we need the equivalent of an emerging tech extension agent in every county. But what is clear from Extension Service’s experience is that a key to success is accountability where it counts.
Designing In Diversity
As we struggle with the issue of accountability, we can also learn an important lesson from Extension Services’ failures.
Extension Services often ignored African Americans or treated them like second class citizens. It often reinforced gender roles in a way that limited women’s opportunities. Over time, it increasingly favored Big Ag over small family farms. The problem wasn’t that Extension Services wasn’t effective, it’s that at points in its history it was designed to help some audiences and ignore or harm others.
This is why it’s critical that as we build a community-oriented system of training and support, we must ensure the system we develop is designed from the ground up to be inclusive – and it must hold people accountable for achieving this goal.
The Advantages of Operating at Scale
Operating at scale allows us to deploy resources and pool experience in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. For example:
Leveraging Our Collective Experience. Suppose a network of churches decided to work together to come up with the best strategies for helping members get their feet wet. One or two churches can begin an experiment, and other churches can learn from their experience, making it easier for smaller churches or churches whose resources are committed elsewhere to get involved. A network of churches can also make it easier for members with computer skills and tech volunteers to have a bigger impact than if they were working with just one church.
Leveraging Existing Resources
- If you are trying to build custom trainings it’s much easier to fund it – or get outside funders to pay for it – if you can pool resources and talent from a large network.
- Suppose you need a bunch of computers to set up a training room or to give to low income students so they can work at home. It’s common for midsize and large companies and nonprofits to replace their staff’s computers every three years, which means they regularly have a large number of computers they no longer need. If you had a network of churches working together, it’s much easier to get outside volunteers to help set up the hardware and to offer some ongoing support – or, if it’s a large network of churches, to get the funds to pay for it.
Explore Connecting Community and Workplace Support
Between waves of automation and waves of new tech, corporations are going to face a never-ending need to train and retrain their staff. Currently, most simply aren’t equipped to do so.
Staff in corporations and other large organizations don’t have the same needs as people in the community. But there are many areas where they may overlap. As communities are developing a rich ecosystem for their members, it may be worth exploring if there are ways to jointly address their needs. For example:
More Accessible Trainings for All. Trainings in a new technology are often intimidating for all but the most technically skilled staff. Because the tech is so new, the people who know it best are better at understanding the tech than they are at understanding how to teach beginners. But since community-oriented groups have to develop their emerging tech trainings so they’re accessible for everyday people, there’s a good chance corporate staff who aren’t skilled techies would also benefit from these trainings. If corporations and other large local institutions invested in funding or providing staff to help develop these trainings, both the community and the world of work would benefit. There may even be ways to design trainings to facilitate this approach – e.g., building trainings that are like playlists, so it’s easy to mix and match parts to fit a particular audience.
More Friendly and Inviting Support Groups. Many corporate and other organizational staff don’t take advantage of tech meetups and other existing support groups because they find them intimidating. If a community is trying to create a more inviting support ecosystem, large organizations might find that their staff might also benefit from some facets of it.
By exploring these possible overlaps between corporations and communities, we can also get more bang for the buck:
- Foster Informal Connections That Can Lead to Jobs, Opportunities to Create Wealth. The ecosystem support could spawn informal connections between people in the community and people working in corporations and nonprofits. These kinds of informal personal connections are a great way of finding good jobs – especially given that many jobs are never advertised. Similarly, these informal personal connections will be an invaluable resource for fledgling community co-ops and small businesses.
- Leverage More Resources. For corporations and other large organizations, embracing a community-oriented ecosystem support is a twofer. They get to give back to the community, and their organization directly benefits from the resource they have helped to create.
- Provide a Bridge for Thinking through Learning-Work Connection. The other function this connection could serve is to provide a space that will encourage thinking through the connection between learning, support, and work. That’s the subject of the next chapter.