Education as Perpetuation

Mistake #5: Educating instead of Fixing

Many NGOs have ‘education’ as one of their aims. And so, when they build websites they attempt to apply that — often by doing little more than converting a booklet to a website. This may be a noble goal, but it’s almost always a mistake. One key problem is that nobody will read it. The other is that often it subtly perpetuates the problem you’re trying to solve! People don’t need problems explained, they need them solved. Your goal shouldn’t be to teach them how to overcome hurdles — it should be remove the hurdles for them.

For example, if your country has recently passed a new Freedom of Information law, but very few people are using it yet because the process is so bureaucratically complex, you could create a site that provides lots of information on the what, why, when, etc of your law, and educates people on all the nuances of how to make valid requests. This is often the natural approach people take who have expended the energy on dealing with all the pain already and want to make it easier for others.

A better approach is to make lots of Freedom of Information requests yourself, and make the whole process public. Show people the actual letters you sent, and what you got back when, etc. Being able to see how things play out in practice is ten times better than just reading some dry explanatory text (no matter how lighthearted you think you can make it.)

But a hundred times better still is a creating a site to let everyone make Freedom of Information requests more easily. This way you can work towards eliminating the pain for people entirely. You can use your hard-won knowledge to act as a proxy, simplifying the processes down to the key elements, and hiding all the dirty work behind the scenes. All they should need to do is write their request for information, and choose the correct government agency — and even those can be made easier for people who don’t have a clue about how to phrase an official request, or don’t know enough about government is structured to know who to ask.

The problem with education in this sort of context is that most people don’t want, or need, to understand how everything works — they just want to get the information. In most cases they don’t even really need to know there’s such a thing as an access to information law, never mind how it works — all that matters is that they can get the information they want. Your job is to make that as simple as possible for them — not to educate them on how to do it.

Obviously people can still learn in the process. The key, however, is that you’re not simply educating them on abstract concepts — anything they learn is en passant within the very focussed context of making a real request. People shouldn’t be using your site simply to learn how to do something — they should be actually doing it.

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