Teaching Digital Fundamentals: What We Learned By Teaching Digital From A Technical Perspective

September 29, 2021–By Emily Tavoulareas

From vaccine distribution and foreign policy, to the delivery of critical public services, it is more clear than ever that policy goals—even the least technical—depend on technology to accomplish their intended outcomes. How can public officials and administrators effectively navigate decisions and conversations related to technology, when they don’t have a fundamental understanding of what it is? They certainly do not need to be experts in technology, but a shared framework and language would be helpful to working effectively with technologists. This past summer we endeavored to create a course that does just that.

While programs and courses on the nexus of technology and public policy have grown in number, especially in university environments, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and the McCourt School for Public Policy noticed a gap in the continuing education space. The options seemed to range from crash courses that take a deep dive into a particular method or skill, to “digital transformation” that looks at organizational change and strategy from a leadership perspective, to fairly abstract and academic explorations of emerging issues involving technology and society. All of these are important and all of them are valuable but where would  a working practitioner go to learn, simply:

What *is* a digital technology, product, and/or service, how does it come to be, and what does it look like in the context of government?

To fill this gap, we created a course to teach this, as plainly as possible, with an important caveat. The course was designed and taught entirely by practicing technologists: people who have (1) hands-on-keyboard experience designing and delivering digital products and services at scale, and (2) experience delivering digital products and services in public institutions.

Our students were current working professionals from across the U.S. and Canada, and about half of the class had prior experience working with data and technology. There were people from every level of government, multinational organizations, non-profits, and the private sector. We asked for feedback throughout the process and here’s what we learned:

1. Even people with technology experience found the course valuable. The cohort included three engineers, two designers, and two product managers. While there were portions of the class that each of them had deep experience in, most of the class provided either entirely new information, or presented what they knew in a different light.

2. Candor is appreciated, rare, and valuable. The most valuable segments of the course happened when the instructors went off-script. Participants seemed pleasantly surprised by direct and honest responses to challenging questions, especially relating to implementation in government and procurement.

3. The absence of vendors was appreciated. Participants appreciated that the course wasn’t underwritten or offered by companies trying to drum up business, creating more space for open and honest conversation, especially in relation to procurement.

4. Zoom was an unexpected asset. It made it possible for people to join the course from anywhere, and allowed us to offer it at a lower price point. This made it feasible for people who might otherwise not be able to be physically present on our campus to attend.

The course was delivered in four modules over the course of four weekends (Friday / Saturday / Sunday):

Each week was designed and taught by professionals with current and direct experience in the topics they were covering, and included guests sharing their perspective and insight. Guests included people like Marianne Bellotti (author of Kill It With Fire), Rick Klau (California’s Chief Technology Innovation Officer), and Kathy Pham (Founder of the Ethical Tech Collective). The classes were as dynamic as they could get on Zoom, and discussions were so honest that we stopped recording many of them, to create more space for candid conversation.

As we work on the next iteration of the course, we’ve made the outline publically available for others to use and adapt. Please just give us attribution under the Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 standard.

You can find the full outline and course details here.

Emily Tavoulareas is a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center Technology and Public Purpose Project, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School for Public Policy and the Columbia University School for International and Public Affairs.