Welcome to the city of lifelong learning

Students take a CS class inside the St. Joseph County Public Library main building in South Bend, Indiana. (Image: Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

Already on the path to post-industrial recovery, South Bend, Indiana, is preparing for the future of work—and its libraries will play a pivotal role.

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For much of the latter half of the 20th century, South Bend, Indiana, was a poster child for Rust Belt deindustrialization. In 1963, Studebaker, one of the country’s largest car manufacturers and the city’s largest employer, departed for Canada, taking the jobs and pensions of about 7,000 auto workers with it. Between 1951 and 1994, the number of people employed in manufacturing dropped from 55,000 to 23,000.

The city was at least home to the University of Notre Dame, which became the largest employer in the county. Nevertheless, in 2011, Newsweek named South Bend one of “America’s Dying Cities.”

The following year, Pete Buttigieg — who has gained recent attention as the underdog millennial Midwesterner currently running for President — was elected mayor, and the progressive figure made redevelopment and modernization top priorities for his administration. Since then, South Bend has developed a reputation as a testing ground for projects that aim to transform the urban landscape.

Take, for instance, the city’s sewers, which use utility sensors to redirect water flow and prevent flooding. Or the “1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days” challenge, an attempt to demolish or repair most of South Bend’s vacant and abandoned housing stock. Or the new tech hub developed in an abandoned Studebaker plant. South Bend, literally and figuratively, has been shedding its industrial past.

But Buttigieg was not just concerned with his city’s physical transformation. He also raised awareness around a pressing issue that is already impacting South Bend: the rise of automation and other technological advances rapidly restructuring the labor market — and that many fear will leave behind the city’s most vulnerable populations.

A 2014 study found that almost half of South Bend’s households experience financial hardship, in part due to a skills gap. Those who are employed in South Bend work in sectors particularly vulnerable to job displacement due to automation: about half of workers are in sales or food preparation and service and over 20,000 workers are in manufacturing and transportation.

“There’s jobs, but we don’t have the people for the jobs from the skills standpoints,” says LeRoy King, director of Bridges out of Poverty, a local nonprofit.

In 2017, the Drucker Institute, a social enterprise based at Claremont Graduate University in California, approached the mayor’s office in South Bend with a proposal to tackle this challenge through the creation of a new “lifelong learning” system that would be designed to ensure residents of all ages could access skills training and other educational opportunities. While this idea is still in an early pilot development stage (it won’t launch until early 2020), if successful, the initiative could show the way forward for cities across the globe to transition away from a 20th-century conception of education and towards a model of learning better suited to the future of work.

Welcome to the knowledge economy

Peter Drucker theorized that the industrial economy of the early 20th century would be replaced by a new economic order in which knowledge would supplant land, labor, and capital as the most important resource of all. Because of this, a “knowledge worker” — a term that Drucker coined — could never stop learning.

Sal Khan, the founder of the hugely successful Khan Academy, the non-profit educational organization known for its free educational videos, describes the shift this way: “You won’t need as much physical labor. You won’t even need this kind of white-collar information processing filling up these skyscrapers right now. All of that’s going to be automated. So the world we’re going into must be a mastery-based world, where students have to be able to have the agency to fill in those knowledge gaps as necessary.”

In some ways, we’re already living in that world. Over the last few years, online education options — heralded by many as the supposed answer to the rising costs and out-of-touch curricula of schools and universities — have proliferated. Beyond the Khan Academy, massive open online courses (MOOCs), some run by a number of prestigious universities, and online bachelor’s and master’s programs have gained popularity. Just last fall, a Brown professor penned an effusive New York Times op-ed about relearning jazz piano through online videos.

But online options have drawbacks. Educators have criticized online education as harmful to lower-achieving students, and some unscrupulous for-profit colleges, essentially diploma mills, have left their student-customers with crippling debts. MOOCs also have a relatively abysmal completion rate — about 10 percent of the people finished the courses offered at Harvard and MIT. (Ultimately, even the Brown professor opted to visit his piano teacher in person.)

Hoping to succeed where these options have failed, the Drucker Institute approached South Bend with a four-part pitch: First, create an easily accessible digital portal with some of the best educational curricula, courses, and resources that exist — curated by the institute, with the guidance of trusted experts. Second, with local employer input, enable this portal to convey what skills are currently in demand. Third, connect learners to the right digital educational providers and/or local educational institutions, so they can easily enroll in courses that teach those in-demand skills. And finally, connect employers to job-seekers with relevant skills.

The lifelong learning system

Here’s how the lifelong learning system would work. Consider a 24-year-old who decides he’s interested in nursing. When he logs into the system for the first time, he could list his experience and skills and get connected to classes both nearby and online. Through the digital portal, he could take a course on his smartphone while waiting for the bus each morning and then sign up for a weekly study group in the neighborhood, where he’ll learn alongside 10 other people who also want to be nurses.

In addition to job training, the platform will also offer a broad range of curricula (such as healthy eating tips, financial planning and general interest courses) that aren’t always obviously related to employment. The result could be an online learning resource valuable from “pre-K to gray” — a supplement to childhood education, a developmental resource during working life, or a source of intellectual inspiration in retirement. The idea is for this platform not only to bridge the physical and digital but to be supported and improved by the community itself over time.

Achieving this vision, of course, would require the collaboration, cooperation, and input of multiple stakeholders throughout the community. That’s where Lawrence Greenspun comes in.

The South Bend-based director of public sector engagement for the Drucker Institute spent all of 2018 on an extensive listening tour of the city, talking to about a thousand residents and hoping to learn how the lifelong learning system could best serve their needs. “I’ve been to Westville Prison, and I’ve been to Mount Carmel Baptist Church, where I delivered a Sunday sermon, and everywhere in between. I’ve been to salsa dance classes on Tuesday night,” he says. “We were talking to any human being in South Bend that would talk to us.”

In many ways, this kind of relentless relationship-building models what Greenspun hopes the lifelong learning system will become: connective tissue, bringing together companies, municipal and educational institutions, and residents — unemployed, underemployed, dissatisfied, or simply curious. Even as the system remains in the development stage, Greenspun has already spun out a related program that connects entry-level employees who lack traditional credentials and work histories, but who are vouched for by community organizations, to employers.

“We need to cultivate and create communities of learners,” says Lawrence Greenspun of the Drucker Institute. (Image: Drucker Institute)
Walter Neal, who had been unemployed, and was recently placed in a new job with the City of South Bend through the lifelong learning system. (Image: Drucker Institute)

While the Drucker Institute’s original proposal anticipated that in-person opportunities for learning would be just as important as online offerings, Greenspun’s on-the-ground conversations pushed this thinking even further. People in South Bend want to get information online but also to learn with others — and not just with others, but fromothers, too. Residents told Greenspun that they were eager to volunteer their own expertise to teach courses or workshops. “We need to cultivate and create communities of learners,” he says.

To create those communities and ensure the lifelong learning system’s long-term success, Greenspun and his colleagues realized that the initiative would require a steward: a civic entity that could not only provide the physical and digital infrastructures critical for learning but that could bring people together. At first, they envisioned the city playing this role, but Mayor Buttigieg cautioned that mayors come and go and city administrations change priorities. He urged them to give the system a home where lifelong learning would always be front and center. Enter: the library.

The great equalizer

Public libraries have existed in North America since at least 1803, when a Boston-based bookseller sent his brother a “whimsical” collection of 150 books, with instructions to create a free library for the children of Salisbury, Connecticut. One of the last truly community spaces in America, libraries remain as beloved as ever. This past July, Forbespublished an op-ed arguing that municipalities should replace local libraries with Amazon stores “to save taxpayers money.” After a swift backlash, they deleted the article.

The Reading Room of the Boston Public Library, an engraving drawn by J. J. Harley and printed January 1871. Libraries have long been a prime example of “social infrastructure” that helps tie communities together. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Libraries have become prime examples of what sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls “social infrastructure.” In an article for The New York Times, Klinenberg notes: “Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.”

And libraries have recently been expanding their services in innovative, sometimes surprising ways. In New York City, the public library now rents out ties for job interviews. The Chicago Public Library has operated a digital arts studio at its downtown location (nurturing the talents of a generation of now-famous musicians, including Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa) since 2009. The Toronto Public Library (TPL) operates eight Digital Innovation Hubs, offering access to amenities that range from open-source programming devices to 3D design and printing to audio and video equipment; TPL also runs a program aimed at helping people complete MOOCs.

“You can get answers to your questions that you wouldn’t feel comfortable or know how to get if you were sitting by yourself on your computer at home,” says Alex Carruthers, learning and community engagement manager at the TPL. “The library is an open space, it’s everywhere, it’s for everyone, and it’s free.”

In South Bend, the St. Joseph County Public Library (SJCPL), has eight branches around the city and has registered about three-quarters of South Bend residents in its database. Its branches include critical social resources, like child care and internet access, and more high-tech amenities, such as 3D printers and a digital lab with a VR headset. SJCPL also staffs new digital access centers located throughout the city, meaning almost every South Bend resident lives within a 15-minute walk of free internet.

This kind of widespread, accessible physical infrastructure will be critical for the lifelong learning system. The library, which has agreed to administer and run the initiative once it’s launched, will not only provide easy access to the digital portal in its branches and spaces for in-person learning, but in-person support as well. The library’s IT department will preside over the portal, and its librarians will help people get set up on the system. While Walmart and Google.org have taken the lead in funding the initiative so far, along with the mayor’s office and other local entities, over time, the library would be responsible for funding the system, drawing on its existing budget, philanthropic support, and possibly employer contributions — and ensuring the system always remains free for individual users.

When the Drucker Institute first pitched the lifelong learning system to South Bend, it said it would be a truly universal system offering: the same digital portal would be used from the low-income service worker to the corporate executive. The collaboration with SJCPL will be key to making that vision a reality.

“The library is the great equalizer. It’s the last bastion of democracy — that’s thrown around a lot here,” says Trish Coleman, the SJCPL’s human resources coordinator. Sarah Hill, the chief resource officer, adds: “We’re the one place that everybody can come.”

A new narrative

While the promise is huge, the pilot still has far to go before its 2020 launch.

The Drucker Institute has tapped the design firm IDEO to develop a great user experience for the system, based off their and Greenspun’s on-the-ground research, and software developers Carbon Five to build the digital platform. Next year, when the platform is complete, the Drucker Institute, IDEO, and the library will begin to market the lifelong learning system to the residents of South Bend.

That marketing will matter: without participation from the greater community — from local businesses, community organizations, educational institutes, and residents — the system will likely falter, as have many other online portals before it. But Greenspun is hopeful that they’ll succeed. And if they do, he believes South Bend can begin to craft a new story about itself.

“How do you make a city resilient? You make learning the foundation of how you see who you are,” says Greenspun. “Part of what we’re trying to do [is change] the narrative that’s told about South Bend. If you say Pittsburgh, it’s tech and healthcare. South Bend is going to be a city of lifelong learning.”

Christian Belanger is a writer based in the Chicago area.

Sidewalk Talk features are reported works focusing on innovations in planning, design, or technology that can help improve urban life.

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April 12, 2019