Why the Future of Engagement Ladders is Education

  • Jonah Sachs
  • Free Range
engagement ladders via online education

Focus: Insights + Discovery

When it comes to mapping out how we want to engage our supporters, see if this sounds familiar: First we raise a target’s awareness about the problem. Then we get them to take a small, low-effort online action — sign a petition, fill out a survey. Next, we entice them to take a more difficult action — make a comment, call a senator, donate a little cash, tell a friend. Finally, we make the big ask — become a regularly contributing member or get out and volunteer in the field. It’s called an engagement ladder. We have seen, and built, hundreds of engagement ladders and the vast majority look pretty much like this.

But something critical has been missing. In these strategies, awareness raising is simply a means to an end; a way to capture people’s attention so they’ll do what we want them to do. But let’s be real. Movements don’t make lasting change with an army of automatons sleepwalking up a ladder of engagement. Movements are driven by informed, impassioned citizens who deeply understand a social problem and what it takes to solve that problem. Such activists think proactively about a problem and get motivated to act not only prompted but in myriad ways that fit their own skills and lives. Deep engagement through education has been the missing piece.

There’s good reason for this, of course. In the past, education was difficult to design, expensive to deliver and extremely hard to offer at scale. Education stood at the tippy top of engagement ladders with our staff or super-volunteers. But now, educational technology has come into its own. Just as creating a website has gone from highly-specialized technical skill to something anyone with a laptop can do, so has e-learning become plug and play. And thus, the problem of creating engaging, affordable, rigorous online learning at scale has been cracked by a number of platforms – from MOOCs to next gen learning management systems to blended learning experiences that combine digital and face-to-face learning.


movements are driven by informed, impassioned citizens


DIY online learning tools solve the supply-side problem. But what about the demand side? Do our supporters really want to learn, or do they want to just click to sign and send in their monthly check? Who has time to sit down and actually learn something? Well, not everyone. And that’s why engagement ladders are really more like pyramids. But for even marginally passionate advocates, a new set of assumptions about online learning will make this service more and more attractive.

People like to learn.

First off, it’s becoming more widely accepted that learning is a desirable, lifelong process and that our phones and tablets can let us acquire knowledge without setting foot in a classroom. Duolingo is booming by teaching people a language in ten minute daily bursts, and offers a great model for engaging and meaningful learning that can be delivered in short bursts. Enrollment in massive open online courses on platforms like Udemy and Coursera is expanding exponentially across all subjects – from world history to computer science to community organizing. Our users are increasingly familiar with and looking for online opportunities to learn in collaborative, social environments.

Learning should be actionable.

Second, the 2016 election was a massive wakeup call for progressives that the kind of power we’ve been building hasn’t been enough. There’s been a tsunami of demand by highly motivated Americans to learn how to not just register their voices but to actually make them matter. Hundreds of thousands are flocking to online educational opportunities through groups like Indivisible and Countable to learn how to influence their elected officials, talk to conservative family members and even run for office. These platforms in particular offer a glimpse into the future of learning-as-advocacy: they focus on action first and provide the necessary information to bolster that action. This flips the model of “learn now, act later” on its head and starts with the assumption that the user is here to be equipped to get something meaningful done.

Adding value is the key to engagement.

Finally, people are worn out by traditional ladders of engagement (whether they’re aware of the technical term or not). They’re tired of constantly being taken from and never being given to. Badges and stickers no longer cut it. But valuable learning opportunities will.

So yeah, the demand is there and only growing.

By placing real learning in the middle of their engagement ladders, first-moving advocacy groups are now gaining a decisive advantage in enacting change.

Among organizations we have worked with, we’ve seen a groundswell of interest in taking advantage of the opportunity to inform and inspire sophisticated citizen-activists.

  • This year, the Alliance for Climate Education which has reached more than 2 million students with in-person educational experiences has transitioned to a digital model they believe will create even more impactful experiences at a tiny fraction of the costs. Five years ago, this would have been impossible. Now, technology makes it irresistible.
  • The Global Footprint Network just released their re-vamped ecological footprint calculator which allows any human on earth to learn exactly what goes into their personal eco-impacts and the most effective science-based steps to reduce it.
  • Amnesty International has partnered with EdX to create courses on human rights that are reaching hundreds of thousands of advocates around the globe.
  • Here in the U.S., higher education think tank and advocacy group Complete College America is building a platform that connects and educates its partners as they look to improve students outcomes on their campuses.

When we started up in 1999, interactive websites were something advocacy groups believed were necessary to have but intimidating to contemplate. Many avoided diving in. In 2004, that was the story with internet video. In 2010, it was social media. Each time, those that embraced the emerging technologies found the process difficult at first but enormously rewarding in time. Online education is next. It’s time we all took the first steps.

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