We can’t simply replicate what Citizenship Schools did. For example:
- Basic literacy could be taught in just one course. Emerging tech training almost always requires multiple courses, so it requires a different strategy – e.g., if you incorporated civic education into every tech skills class, it would drive even the most civic minded students up the wall.
- Citizenship Schools were part of a large, well coordinated pre-existing movement, the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast, we are just at the beginning of a wave of tech civic engagement, so there is no pre-existing national, coordinated infrastructure whose goals and strategy can help guide each community’s solution.
But the biggest difference between the circumstances facing Citizenship Schools and the ones we face is that Citizenship Schools were part of a movement that at that point in its history had a very clear adversary: defeat white supremacy and Jim Crow. That’s a very different circumstance than the one we face as we attempt to make coding’s economic benefits accessible to many people in every community. In fact, we’re at a moment where there are many competing ideas and ideologies about what the real obstacles are and what we need to do to move forward.
So, how do we apply the lessons of Citizenship Schools to emerging tech education?
There’s no simple answer. In fact, one of the central tenets of Citizenship Schools is that the best answers for serving the unique needs of a community come from the community itself. Outside experts and ideas from other communities can be extremely helpful – it makes no sense not to take advantage of others’ experience and knowledge. But there’s no simple, one-size-fits-all solution that will work perfectly for every community.
So instead of offering a definitive answer, here are two thought experiments to help kickstart a conversation about the best way to combine technical and civic education.
Rebuilding the Training Road As They Walk It
In this example, a tech course and the surrounding ecosystem are designed so they help students learn how to “make the road as they walk it,” engaging in rethinking the training/job pipeline as they go through it. Although it undoubtedly would also include some discussions of the issues raised in the next chapter, its focus is on giving students the nuts and bolts skills of a very simple form of civic engagement
At the beginning of a selected community tech class, the teacher would say to their students, throughout this course I want you to keep asking yourself the question, how can we improve this course for the next group of students?
Every few weeks, the teacher asks the students to briefly reflect on their experiences so far. For example, they might discuss which concepts they had the hardest time understanding. They might also brainstorm how to teach those concepts so they’re easier to understand – e.g., metaphors/examples from everyday life to clarify the concept, or a quick and dirty exercise to make it easier to understand. They might even split into pairs or small groups and briefly practice using one of the strategies they’d come up with. Then together they would write up their suggestions for future trainers.
At the end of the cohort’s class, the teacher could lead them through an exercise where they discussed questions such as:
- How we can make this training better for the next group of students?
- Can we make it easier for people to get their feet wet before they take this class?
- How can the people who are developing the programming language and tools we are using make them easier for beginners?
- Are any of the changes we’re proposing small and manageable enough that interested students could take on some or all of the work needed to make or advocate for these changes?
A similar approach could be used as students work their way through the rest of the training pipeline and continue to develop their skills, finding ways to help people reflect and act on their experience together.
Then every few trainings or once a year, the group or groups teaching the course might host a community dialogue and working session with the students, teachers, and others who have been involved. They could discuss what worked, what didn’t, and how both the training and the ecosystem it is a part of might be improved. This could include:
- Tweaking the pace of the course
- Creating better on-ramps
- Holding a weekend hackathon in several communities across the country to brainstorm ideas about how to make the programming language/library taught in the class easier to use, concluding with plans to advocate for these changes with the tech community that’s developing the language/library
- Discussing potential fixes for some issues that have come up with some apprenticeships and paid internships that several students participated in after taking the course
- Listening to feedback from students who recently got their first tech job to see if there are any issues they wish the class had better prepared them for, and brainstorming potential solutions
- Strategizing about how to get the resources to increase the number of classes and identify and develop more teachers from community
Finally, these efforts could serve as opportunities for students to get more involved in tech activism in the community – helping to make some of the changes that had been discussed, becoming class teachers, or joining efforts to create the equivalent of Extension Services for coding in their community.
Telling Stories, Crafting Code
What if we interweave the art of creating stories in AR/VR, learning the craft of coding, and learning the beginnings of tech civic engagement skills? Here’s an example of what it might look like.
Story circles are a strategy some community groups use as part of building community and exploring issues within a community. According to Roadside Theater, an Appalachian community group that pioneered the concept,
The stories we’re able to tell ourselves and others, those we can understand and imagine, define not only what we believe to have already occurred, but what we believe to be possible in our individual and collective lives.
The basic idea of a story circle is simple: a small group of people sit in a circle and share stories about their experience on a given topic or theme. But given that many people in communities written off by society aren’t used to having their story and their voice taken seriously, this simple act can have a profound impact.
Here’s how story circles might be intertwined with learning to code:
1) In the first workshop, a group of adults meet for a Friday night and half of a Saturday.
- On Friday night, first they participate in a story circle, then they learn how to use one simple coding technique to try to very simply express their story in AR/VR. For example, each participant comes up with 3 words that sums up their story, then creates a VR page that displays their 3 words using a simple special effect that requires a tiny bit of coding – e.g., having the 3 words fade in (exactly what they would do would depend on the tool and coding environment they were using).
- On Saturday, they add a few tools to their storytelling toolbox – e.g., code for adding a picture and allowing users to interact with it – so they can create the first version of their story. The workshop alternates between a little instruction, a lot of playing and experimenting with code, and reflecting on the experience of using the tools and how they might be designed differently to make them easier to use for folks in their community.
2) The group continues to meet for a few shorter Saturday sessions that take place every other week.
- Each time they learn one or two more coding techniques, a little more about VR/AR design and how to tell a story, and reflect about the experience so far. In doing so, they also build the trust and community they need to help them get over any fears, which is often half the battle.
- In between these sessions, they work on their own or with coding buddies on their coding skill and their story
- After the first few sessions, they would also begin to discuss how AR/VR could be used to help their community, what the future of emerging tech might look like, and how that future could be shaped so it benefits all communities (see the next chapter for some topics they might discuss).
3) Then they would start the second part of the course: learning the basics of creating very simple tools they can add to their toolkit. Depending on the coding library/framework they are using, before the course was taught some coders might need to add a library that made it a little easier to create very simple tools.
As they gradually gained some confidence around the idea of being tool makers as well as tool users, they would also be asked to start having discussions, brainstorming sessions, and story circles around questions such as:
- Imagine this system was designed for people you know who spent most of their lives working with their hands and feel uncomfortable or nervous about the idea of making a living from coding. Tell me a story about what it would be like to use this system if it had been designed from the ground up by everyday folks who were used to working with their hands?
- Suppose the people who built this system wanted home care workers to become augmented/virtual reality “power users.” Tell me some stories about how they would use it and what their experience would be when they first got started, as they began to become skilled, etc.? Next, imagine there’s a way they can make some money on the side through what they create. What might that look like? What are some values we might want to design it around? What are some issues you think such a market or system might need to overcome?
By the end of the class, those who want to continue should be able to start meeting on their own as a group (a.k.a. a Band of Brothers and Sisters). Their group could get and provide assistance to others through a network of other folks around the country who’ve gone through a similar experience and who – with occasional help from world-class techies from around the globe – have been helping to shape the path people take to keep improving their skills. Perhaps a few of them will decide to help teach the next set of workshops. And perhaps their group will join others in their community and in other communities in helping to begin building the equivalent of Extension Services for emerging tech and begin having conversations about how we might begin to shape the emerging tech economy so that every community would benefit.