The WEA’s development and sustainability in a digital age
January 29, 2012 14 Comments
Evolution of organisations in the digital age is the survival of the fittest for purpose.
Online shopping is changing people’s buying habits and adding to the impact of austerity measures and budget cuts. Familiar high street names such as Woolworths, MFI, Habitat, Barratts, Blacks Leisure and Peacocks have shown that high visibility and longevity are no defence against a tide of change in consumer behaviour and economic constraints. We see the impact in town and city centres across the country.
Kodak, an iconic global brand is in financial trouble even though its 35mm film was of good quality and more photographs are being taken than ever before. The company is a casualty of the digital revolution that has changed the ways in which we capture and distribute images. It failed to adapt to changing circumstances.
Kindle and other e-readers are affecting physical book sales to the extent that IKEA is reducing its production of bookcases as demand dwindles. Each reading format has its advantages, disadvantages and we now have choices.
What does all this mean for the WEA?
We will only continue to develop and thrive if the format of our activity remains relevant, appealing and accessible. As well as our priority of being consistent with our charitable mission, our options for learning have to fit into people’s complex lives and must add value. As with books, the quality of content, engagement and impact will be the main indicators of success regardless of the format.
Our thinking about the format of teaching and learning since the growth of the internet has often been presented as a choice between traditional face-to-face sessions and online courses or blended learning with a mixture of the two formats in a single course. Some people have become familiar with the idea of virtual leaning environments (VLEs) and Moodle, although these terms remain mysterious to non-specialists and can seem exclusive. Moodle stands for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment and can be described more simply as a course management system that enables people to share and develop content online.
Reviewing the format of our educational activities is one aspect of assessing where students’ experience of WEA learning fits in with their overall personal development. External policy has presented adult education courses within an assumed linear progression based on what students know before they begin a course and evidence of their advancement to further learning when they complete their planned programme. The language of the recent past has been RARPA , Recognising And Recording Progress and Achievement, but adult educators and WEA students know that progression is never only one-dimensional and that students don’t learn in isolation.
A potential way forward is to adopt and adapt the Personal Learning Network (PLN) concept that has developed in online learning communities. This approach is consistent with more than a century of WEA models of learning that have always been networked, democratic, rooted in communities and based on multiple partnerships and shared resources. PLNs can accommodate the WEA’s traditional format of regular weekly sessions as well as alternative and complementary methods used in distance learning and blended learning.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all have personal learning networks and are linked with people who share or shape our interests and views of the world. The diagram below, copied from http://pwoessner.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/networked-teacher.jpg, illustrates the potential richness and complexity of a tutor’s Personal Learning Network in the digital age.
Adult education and the internet can encourage people to think about their individual PLNs and to expand, develop, share and question their knowledge, skills, understanding and contacts. Face-to-face and virtual connections combine the best of resources without geographical constraints and can make education democratic in ways that build on the WEA’s traditional values. We can use a combination of resources to encourage confident participation, contribution and challenge in public debate and to refresh our own practice.
Personal Learning Networks can provide contexts for courses, whatever their format and focus, and be viewed as an updated version of old-style reading lists combined with enrichment and progression opportunities. They have an important role in customising information, advice and guidance for students and for the continuing professional development of staff, volunteers and governance.
Exploring the idea of PLNs highlights issues that concern the WEA already. These include digital inclusion and access to the internet, literacy (digital and otherwise), safe learning environments and the quality, reliability and objectivity of online information. Google and Wikipedia provide answers but they don’t show us how to frame questions or challenge the interpretations that are presented to us. Adult education adds that essential dimension.
The internet can never fully replace the value of face-to-face interaction and the immediacy of collective learning in shared time and space but we need to be alert to the changes symbolised very literally by the recent demise of Past Times and its disappearance from our high streets.
What do you think?
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