Toward a Local Learning Infrastructure, Part 1

(Click here for Part 2.)

Small businesses and volunteer associations have long been engines of the local community dynamism for which the United States is known.  In recent years though, an inchoate movement has emerged nationwide to act locally driven in no small part by growing consumer desire to eat locally.  In an age of globalization and social mobility though, this movement raises three important questions worth addressing:

1) How much do people actually know about their local communities?

2) What should they know?

3) How might local learning be nurtured?

I don’t profess to know all the answers to these questions, but as a sociologist, a long-time community organizer and the founder of Learning Life, I have some ideas.

Local museumTo the first question, I suspect that most people know more about their communities as consumers than as citizens.  Consumers need and want products and services of all kinds, and businesses have a vital interest in attracting consumers.  Community non-profits and volunteer groups likewise desire to engage residents, but they don’t typically have the resources businesses have, nor do they usually so directly aim to meet people’s material needs and wants.  Thus, we are likelier to know where to find good food, clean our clothes and fix our vehicles than where to mentor and tutor children, care for the elderly, or just learn local history.  Similarly, when it comes to engaging with local government we are likelier to know where the public parks and playgrounds are, how to call the police, or get a license renewed or replaced than who our local government representatives let alone how to participate in government.

This matters because there is ample evidence linking knowledge and engagement.  That is, people who know more about a given topic are more likely to be interested and involved in that topic, be it astronomy, politics, or their local community (e.g., on the connection between political knowledge and political engagement, see, for instance, Delli Carpini & Keeter 1997, Galston 2001 and Torney-Purta et al. 2001).  Also, as I noted in a previous post, cognitive research shows that the more one knows about a given topic, the better one remembers, comprehends and problem solves on that topic.  Thus, people who know more about their local communities are more likely to be better local citizens: more active, interested, intelligent and better problem-solvers.

To the second question, accordingly, local citizens should know more about local history, avenues for government participation, and the local individuals and groups that make their communities better places to live.  Local citizens should also know more about the economy (e.g., what are the major local industries, who are the largest employers, how does local government constrain and enable the local economy?), environment (e.g., where does our water come from, what is the quality of the air we breathe, and how do business and government affect these?) and demographics of their community (e.g., what is the ethnic, racial and religious make-up of the community, what are the most common languages spoken at home, what are residents’ income and education levels?).  Such local knowledge strengthens residents’ capacities to understand, appreciate and help their communities.

To the third question, I propose that community advocates and stakeholders need to think in terms of building a local learning infrastructure (LLI).  Such infrastructure consists of a community’s means for informing and engaging its residents about things that matter locally, from emergencies to public meetings to local history.  Currently, municipal and county governments provide much of that infrastructure with varying degrees of quality and quantity.  In many if not most localities there is plenty of room for improvement, and partnerships with local businesses and non-profits can help.

Twenty years ago, Carol A. Twigg, current President of the National Center for Academic Transformation and former Vice-President of Educom (now EDUCAUSE), declared “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure” in an essay by that name.  Responding in part to the Clinton Administration’s call for an “information superhighway,” Twigg’s essay correctly identified a then nascent movement toward more online, networked and independent learning that is now revolutionizing higher education.  She concluded her essay with the following statement: “It is time to move beyond the walls of our individual colleges and universities to join forces with other institutions, with corporations, and with public policy makers to revitalize American higher education.”

A similar call can and should be raised in communities across the United States and the world: given the dominance of consumerism over citizenship, and the ways globalization and mobility can distance people from their local communities, it is time for governments, non-profits and businesses to work together to develop a local learning infrastructure.  LLIs can help inform and mobilize more residents to address community issues, whether these be environmental, economic, political, and/or social.

To this end, Learning Life’s social enterprise partner, Signia Surfaces, is partnering with government agencies, businesses and nonprofits to spread information about local resources and volunteer opportunities on napkins and coasters in restaurants, bars, cafes and other eateries in metro D.C. (click here to learn more).  For its part, Learning Life is pursuing a project to spread information of value on laminated placemats in DC eateries and the homes of low-income city residents who want them (more on this project to come).

Both initiatives follow my belief in the strength of “big bits,” that is, bits of information that can effectively inform and engage people.  Both also advance our mission to inform and engage more people by spreading knowledge on everyday surfaces, whether these be phones, tablets and PCs, or napkins, posters and placemats.  Neither initiative is a panacea, but we hope they become part of a wider creative effort to develop a local learning infrastructure involving many individuals and organizations first in the Washington D.C. area, then beyond.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life

 

References

Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Scott Keeter.  1997.  What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Galston, William.  2001.  “Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education.”  Annual Review of Political Science 4:217-234.

Torney-Purta, Judith, Rainier Lehman, Hans Oswald and Wolfram Schulz.  2001.  Citizenship and Education in 28 Countries: Civic Knowledge and Education at Age Fourteen.  Amsterdam: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

Twigg, Carol A.  1994.  “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure.”  Educom Review 29:4-6.  Available online: