Education in the United States, like much else, is in a state of upheaval. Bendable, a new community-based learning marketplace backed in part by Drucker Institute, wants to help.
The company, which launched in South Bend, Ind., last week after two and a half years of research and a $5 million investment, couples educational resources from organizations like TedX, Cell-Ed, Common Threads, the Drucker Institute, edX, Indiana University South Bend, Ivy Tech, Khan Academy, Penn Foster, and more into curated collections around a number of topics.
The classes are also available via mobile phone, and a majority of programs are free for residents of the city as long as they have a local library card.
Google.org and Walmart.org provided the initial funding for the project, and IDEO designed the user experience. Credly created a badging and credentialing system to make sure the site’s 1,200 learning resources are legitimate.
Soon, the organization will expand into a number of other small cities.
The project comes as state and local budgets for schools are rapidly declining, and COVID-19-related revenue shortfalls will lead to more cuts in the years to come. Schools, unable to open because of the pandemic, have scraped together haphazard online plans and video lessons which, research shows, have not been successful.
Pre-COVID-19 studies found that up to 800 million workers could be displaced by technology in the next 10 years, many of whom will have to be retrained. The recent jump in unemployment will add to those numbers. Recently, protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer have also led to a movement of Americans looking to learn about police brutality and systemic racism.
That’s a lot of people looking to learn.
“We are a content curator, and being a good curator means that you really deeply understand the community that you’re bringing Bendable to,” said Rick Wartzman, head of the Drucker Institute’s KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society. “So our secret sauce from the beginning has been to make this a community-based learning resource and marketplace.”
Bendable has two tracks: One trains and retrains the local workforce in partnership with local businesses. It also helps residents obtain high school degrees online. The second is a set of community-based learning collections relevant to the everyday lives of residents—these range from social justice courses to information on how to purchase a home.
At the top of the site is a collection created by South Bend mental health counselor and community organizer Derrick Perry titled “Learning to have better conversations with the help of restorative justice.” The collection includes news articles, books, and videos. Further down on the site, the St. Joseph County Public Library has curated a list of books to read on racism in America, all of which are available online with a library card.
“This is front and center, and we want Bendable to be responsive,” said Wartzman. “Learning is an incredible resource, and we want to give people access to it.”
The site includes a number of learning resources about the COVID-19 pandemic. There are collections on how to reopen businesses, how to manage stress during a pandemic, and a community collection by Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, president of the St. Joseph County Board of Health, on how to be better prepared for the next pandemic.
Wartzman said that Bendable worked closely with South Bend business, community, and government leaders, including former mayor and 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, to launch the program which will eventually offer in-person programming as well. Buttigieg, said Wartzman, initially suggested tying the site to the local library and lent his name to help secure major funding for the program.
While the pilot program involved years of work and millions of dollars, Wartzman said that future iterations should be more cost- and time-effective. “Now we have tools and processes and a digital platform that we can take to other cities,” he said. “But our plan is to make everything hyper-local at scale.”
It’s not just about getting people onto the platform. Building real relationships in the city are equally important to the success of Bendable. Business owners and leaders helped create collections to train the local workforce for job openings and acceleration specific to their communities.
For example, General Stamping & Metalworks in South Bend will offer a computer lab with Bendable programming for employees, and it’s working to create content to aid current employees in moving up.
In a moment where online education is widespread, multi-platform, and largely uncurated, there is a lot of room for organization and new market platforms. Bendable is attempting to create offerings that focus on community growth instead of profit.
“Look, we try to be genuinely humble and realistic,” said Wartzman. “Bendable isn’t going to solve poverty. It isn’t going to solve structural racism. It isn’t going to solve anything in one fell swoop, but it can be a part of a powerful set of solutions that communities need to try, and provide easy and almost radical access to resources.”
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