Why don’t we use the web radically more to connect communities to schools?

by Patrick Atwater

For the past few years, I’ve dedicated many of my nights and weekends to supporting California’s schools as a volunteer and director at two education nonprofits committed to connecting students to the wealth of knowledge in the community around them.

And throughout that experience, I’ve marveled at how much potential such programs afford.  Showing a student who’s never been in an elevator the inside of the Delloitte office buildings can inspire in a way that words never could.  Connecting a student passionate about entertainment to an internship at NBC studios answers “why am I learning this” in a way that even the most engaging classroom lesson never could.

That’s why I’ve never understood why there weren’t more effective web tools and institutions built around them to create radically more of those connections.  If I wanted to look for a date online, I could search by age, education level, geography, job status and a million other preferences on sites like Match.com.  

Yet in my experience matching for example an accountant to one of our finance academies only gets done the old fashioned way – personal networks.  That’s great but isn’t exactly scalable.  I’m proud to say we serve tens of thousands of students in LAUSD but ultimately that’s a small slice of a district that educates over 655,000 students

Sure there’s a variety of generic volunteer matching services like Idealist and well-meaning linked learning catch-alls like ConnectEd Studios, but there’s no tool that really does the trick.  Why isn’t there a Match.com or OkCupid to connect teachers with volunteer resources in the community?  

The graphic below outlines a potential user experience using such a tool and clicking through to the link will showcase some (very) rough wireframes of what it might look like.

See here for a simple user journey of what that might look like, courtesy of Patricia de Llano, Kyle Frost, Christine D’Alessandro and Jennifer Emick from the SF GovJam.

See here for a simple user journey of what that might look like, courtesy of Patricia de Llano, Kyle Frost, Christine D’Alessandro and Jennifer Emick from the SF GovJam.

Still while there’s tremendous room for improvement, the challenge of opening up the wealth of knowledge in the community to students requires more than simply a new tool.  Consider the possibilities a robust matching platform for teacher and community members creates.

Imagine if a high school environmental class could find and schedule an opportunity for a guest seminar at a local water recycling plant as easily as connecting for a Friday night date.  Imagine if students could learn high school government by actually spending time seeing how the sausage gets made in their local city.  Or just like we have guest lectures in colleges by practitioners from the field, imagine pillars of the local community like Father Greg Boyle from Homeboy Industries teaching a class say once a week.

Those experiences have proven transformative for the students served by our nonprofit work.  Why not have radically more?  The fact of the matter is that the web is an incredible platform for connecting people who never otherwise would have met.  Why not get creative in how we might use it to radically scale these connections?

Some might wonder about student safety in connecting community volunteers to teachers via the web.  Yet it’s fairly simple and only fifty dollars to get a background check, which is what currently happens in these sorts of programs. So just make that a prerequisite for joining the matching platform.  

The more cynical might wonder about whether the community members outside of parents will actually make the necessary commitments.  Yet education ultimately is the process by which we pass knowledge from one generation to the next.  So while it’s certainly optimistic to expect community members to create these opportunities for the next generation, isn’t it far more hopeful to expect improvements in education without the support of the community?

That challenge in building community support highlights the fact that building these connections is about much more than simply more robust tools.  What’s needed is the inspiration to create that commitment and the courage to pioneer new school structures that reflect the world we live in.  

So how might we create more flexible class schedules so that if a student has an awesome internship aligned with their interests they’re free to pursue it?  Or how might we rethink assessment so what a student learns exploring a water recycling plant isn’t lost in the formulaic four choices of a fill in the bubble scantron?

Does learning only happen when one adult instructs a group of children in a room with chalkboards and specialized deckchairs?  So why not leverage the web to embrace the fact that the world truly is every student’s classroom?