Teaching Digital at the Kennedy School of Government: Part 4: The Trap — Teaching Tech and Concepts

Before talking about the framework for thinking about digital at the Harvard Kennedy School, I want to discuss what we aren’t doing. I do this because I frequently get asked by students and others to respond to needs that I think are poorly articulated. I believe we should listen to users (students) but that doesn’t always mean they know how to articulate what they want perfectly.

Sample of Technologies and Concepts

One risk is that a policy school ends up focusing on either what is easy or sexy (or both). This is compounded by the fact that professional degree students (as well as exec-ed students) who feel real pressure to skill up for the job market may gravitate to courses that focus on tactics or tools. This includes subjects like how to use a technology of the day, such as Twitter, Slack, or Bitcoins, or perhaps a specific skill, such as learning to code in rails or python.

Courses on these topics appeal for many reasons. They are practical: one learns how to “use” a technology or leaves with a greater awareness of it. They are bounded: by focusing on a specific technology or application, they are narrow in scope. This creates nice boundaries for the student, and it also makes teaching them easier (but not necessarily effective). The more tactical the course, the cheaper they are likely to run: finding people willing to teach a course on how to program or how to use social media in a campaign is probably easy and cost-effective. But even when the course is around a broader concept rather than a narrow tool, there are still drawbacks. There are so many important issues that are shared across technology, like issues of privacy or security, that students risk re-learning core concepts over and over again as they go from course to course about each new concept or technology.

This is not to say policy schools should teach no courses that meet the above criteria. It is just the wrong place to start. Why?

First, technologies evolve and change over time — sometimes quickly — so learning how to use a specific technology may simply set a student up to become rapidly deskilled. Second, learning how to use tools, while at a policy school, has a huge opportunity cost. Third, policy schools (and universities in general) are ill equipped to teach these skills cheaply and quickly. Here at the Harvard Kennedy School students have access to Lynda.com which teaches many of these technologies quickly and cheaply. But finally and most importantly, this work is generally tactical. For a policy school a set of technologies cannot make up an organizing principle around which a curriculum can be structured. This isn’t to say that a specific technology isn’t sometimes important, but it is not the point of departure. I’m not interested in teaching specific technologies. I’m interested in how all digital technologies may impact systems, organizations and the delivery of public goods. Insofar as is possible, I’m much more interested in policy schools providing students tools to assess all digital technologies than a specific one.

I mean, each of these are really interesting and you could (and maybe even should) legitimately do a course on each one.

Any serious policy school should focus on how these digital technologies are changing governance, the provision of public services, social norms and/or the economy. This requires that students have some shared sense of critical questions they should be asking about any digital technology and how it may or may not benefit government or society.

As for “tool learning” this should — where possible — be a byproduct of assignments, but it should not be the lesson in of itself. As a result I encourage my colleagues here at HKS to build assignments that involve tools: for example I make all students submit all assignments via blogs, so that they learn how blogging tools work, but learning how to blog is never the assignment in of itself.

Sidebar: The second point from above is why I advise students not to take the popular CS50 course. If students want to learn to code, they shouldn’t do it while at school of policy. It is possibly the singularly most expensive way I could imagine to learn to code. Encourage students to do it via Code Academy or some other resource the summer before students arrive. They’ll learn more than they would in CS50, it will cost a fraction of the amount, they’ll be able to apply what they learned in classes immediately and, it will free up time to take courses they they’ll never be able to take outside of the policy school environment.

Next up, let’s talk about what foundational knowledge students should learn at a policy school that will make it both easier to learn the tools and concepts outlined above as well as position students to be more critical and thoughtful while engaged in that learning.

This is the fourth in a series of pieces about how I’m wrestling with how to teach about digital technologies at policy schools. If you’re interested you can read:

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