For this year’s back to school column, I’d like to talk about civics.

The older you are, the more likely you remember taking a civics class. When I was in school a million years ago, I recall an endless number of films and videos on how a bill becomes a law, the separation of powers, and other topics (see, eLearning of a sort, even then). But over the years, many schools dropped civics classes and incorporated the content into social studies, history, or humanities curricula. And, as you or your kids may have noticed, the amount of time devoted to civics diminished as other topics took precedence.

Why civics education?

Aside from the belief that civics education is necessary for a thriving democracy, it is also ideal for an eLearning application that could be a wonderful demonstration project on a national scale. There are certainly other topics that meet this criterion, but unlike many, today, good civics education is all too rare. And, for the most part, the content is applicable to a wide and diverse audience. Aside from accommodating some modifications based on state or region, much of the content is pretty universal. This would allow for mass distribution and low cost. The program can be enhanced with historical video, commentary by scholars and political leaders, a variety of engaging online activities, and appropriate assessment features. As an eLearning profession, we already know how to do this. Very likely, there are many examples of online civics education already available, so whether or not a new set of programs needs to be developed depends on what’s currently out there and how good they are.

Online civics education presents additional implementation opportunities. Although it likely would be targeted to high school students, it would not have to be scheduled into a traditional high school curriculum. Rather, it could be a graduation requirement, where students take the course sometime during their four-year high school experience. Ideally, it might be in conjunction with social studies or history curricula, but that’s not required. With this approach, the civics program could be taken when the student has the time or interest, as long as it’s completed by the end of the senior year. Who knows, we might see significant upticks in usage before each Election Day. This brings out some of the best features of eLearning, that it can be taken at the learner’s convenience, and when the need or interest is paramount. Pretty radical for today’s over-scheduled public education routine!

Of course, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we saw the adult population taking advantage of the program as well, and it would be great to make it available beyond the schools (for example, to new immigrants preparing for their citizenship exam). Again, broader access lowers cost.

Finally, moving civics education to eLearning, delivered at the learner’s convenience, could become a model for how other content areas could be treated down the road.

The real challenge

Let’s assume for a minute that we had one or more great civics education online programs. The real challenge would be getting them used. We’d have to influence state education departments, public school districts, and the school media- and textbook-publishing industry. They’d not only have to agree that civics education is needed, but that eLearning is the way to go. They’d have to come together on the right programs, the content to deliver, and the delivery strategy. And they’d have to provide funding, especially at startup. This will be no easy task.

We have learned through our own experience with eLearning that the easiest part of the work has always been to acquire or build courseware. Getting organizations and learners to embrace it is where more effort has always been needed. But if we are looking for a way to truly make a difference, especially in the minds of young learners just becoming active citizens, this might be the path of most influence and least resistance. After all, is there really anyone out there who doesn’t think civics education is a good thing? And, this would be a great way to showcase the large-scale potential of eLearning!

Building an informed citizenry, something everyone believes in, will take a whole lot more than an eLearning initiative in civics. But moving in this direction is something we know how to do, and we can do. It’s not a bad place to start.