The WEA’s development and sustainability in a digital age

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, 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?

(You can follow the link at the top right just under the blog title to leave a comment.)

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

14 Responses to The WEA’s development and sustainability in a digital age

  1. Lindy Gresswell says:

    Food for thought so early in the morning – you’ve hit the ground running! Lots to think about – how we upskill some of our traditional students – how we provide resources for staff and students etc. Important that we move forward with the digital revolution and keep our profile high.

  2. Tara Hannan-Murphy says:

    Interesting.. As a tutor, I understand why it is important that as an Educational organisiation we have a duty to actively embrace new technologies/intergrate and explore/pilot new ways of teaching & learning. As a learner I think it is important that the WEA should ensure that they continue to adopt a range of course options/delivery styles & methods.

  3. Rob Hindle says:

    I think the crucial thing here is to ensure that what is potentially a liberating, democratic process doesn’t seduce us, compromising practice which enables us to maintain awareness of those for whom learning in any form is a great challenge. As you say, Ann, the internet can never replace face-to-face learning; but if it is to complement and enhance it, it must be used in a way that provides better and different opportunities for learners to participate, rather than simply offering something which, because it looks good, doesn’t get us all carried away.

    PS Yes, there is something of the Luddite in me – but hopefully it is a reasoned challenge! (Just to prove it, I have a poetry blog:

    • Richard Crisp says:

      The diversity of personal educational activity in the WEA is perhaps much the reason why Moodle has lurked in the background for so long. It may be the obvious choice for a cohesive educational institution, but the WEA certainly isn’t that!
      However, we should perhaps concentrate more on educating learners to use the tools of the digital age, rather than on subject content. This certainly is relevant to our learners’ age distribution and their nervous approach to computing. It would also encourage learners to learn for themselves and tutors to act as such rather than as presenters or lecturers or storytellers.
      The steady decline in Branch numbers, the increase in course fees, numbers of learners with internet skills and quality and diversity of on-line information resources , all point towards more ICT learning. Look on the bright side, IKEA may be selling less bookshelves, but more books than ever are being sold and presumably read.

      I think one can turn Rob’s comment around: for those who find traditional learning methods unhelpful, the opportunities presented by ICT are reinvigorating.

  4. Peter Threadkell says:

    Here in the Eastern region ,with its many branches we are beginning to look ,through working parties and followup group discussions at our next Regional meeting . at how our branches work can be developed and how we can link them in with the other parts of the WEA offer . Modern atds such as laptops , power point presentations help also varying when and where we hold classes but the key to a good learning experience is still a good tutor interacting with his/her students through various teaching styles.We must not let “”aids” electronic or otherwise set the agenda of a class .Here we are finding that our rural branches -in general- are content to follow a well trodden path whilst the large urban branches such as Norwich and Cambridge are willing to try new courses inc many day ones and new presentation methods .We have county Federations of Branches and these federations on their own account are beginning to organise day schools special conferences ,issue newsletters etc . ie all but the largest urban branches cannot or are not willing to do

  5. Jol Miskin says:

    I say: i-pads for all………….perhaps that should be a campaigning slogan! A big issue remains accessibility and cost for many of our students, or would be students, at least when it comes to the digital learning possibilities. I think Ann’s ideas are very pertinent and as an Association we need to be exploring and experimenting with all potential learning arenas, technologies etc if only to discount them.
    Our pilot of a blended campaign skills course taught me quite a bit. For some it was great. For others it was awful, primarily due to inadequate PCs, software etc and also low level IT skills to find your way round the Moodle. It also required inordinate tutor time. Conclusion: plus ca change. It’s like flipping learning styles: a good adult educator is flexible, experimental and approaches teaching and learning taking on board the full complexity of learning styles.
    I guess the same needs to apply to PLNs….let’s play about with it all but also let’s put the collective into the personal, and my point about i-pads is serious. I’ve played about with one and I watch others glued to them and they are not only very trendy but would be wonderful in and out of a classroom.
    Jol Miskin

    • Pearl Ryall says:

      Social media and the internet is a force for democratisation and that is surely something the WEA would want to be a part of. I hope, in my new role as membership and volunteer development manager, I will be helping to facilitate hierarchy free spaces that will grab the users of ipads (other tablets are available) and hence expand their personal learning networks.
      However In this week’s new scientist (4th Feb) Paul Mason makes some interesting points about the relationships between networks of people and hierarchies of power. In talking about the role of Twitter in the current protest movements he identifies ‘graduates without a future’ many of whom are ‘determinedly unread,’ and ‘revolting against the processing of information’. There is a new generation out there and there must be a role for the WEA in offering and encouraging critical thinking and analysis both in face to face collective study and in ‘virtual’ communiites, such as that reached by this blog. Both are equally relevant if we are to remain relevant appealing and accessible as Ann suggests.

  6. Hugh Humphrey says:

    I think we have to present a case for modifying the current linear progression model of learning which has been forced upon us. One can see the attractions but it is not really what education is about. The idea of putting something in at one end and seeing what comes out the other is a travesty and something which I thought had disappeared with the Victorian age. As an innovative movement the WEA needs to press for a more enlightened approach.
    With non-vocational adult education I think engagement is the key issue. The very fact that people are spending some of their time engaging with new ideas and skills is an outcome in itself which is too easily underestimated. Of course we need to demonstrate that engagement is right across the community and of high quality.
    Once this is in place, which it largely is, I don’t think there should be too much need on most of our courses to demonstrate pedantically individual outcomes and progression. We know there is a whole range of outcomes and progression routes but to try and demonstrate these in painstaking detail for non-vocational education, which is most of what we do, seems quite unnecessary. As long as the quality of what we offer is there, people will benefit. It is self evident.
    Of course where there is a vocational element in our programme such as Helping in Schools or Counselling Skills then assessment and progression is extremely important. The trouble is that this kind of course has set the pattern for all others. You can argue that there may be a vocational element to any course but essentially the Cultural Studies and much of the Community strand are not really about that and should be assessed, as I have argued, on the basis that people from all walks of life are continuing to engage with high quality education. I think the Personal Learning Networks is a good idea and students could
    from time to time be invited to put together a spider gram demonstrating their own network
    which I think they would find interesting as well as providing some useful material for the WEA. Linked into this is an excellent idea I found whilst doing Community Work Skills. It is that whatever you go on to do as a result of your course is a still a learning activity. In the case of community work, whatever work you do in the community is always to be regarded as continuing the learning process. You never stop learning. If that concept could be embedded in all we do that would help us get away from being too much preoccupied with a utilitarian end result.
    Quite rightly, there are concerns about long running courses but a number of things can justify these and I am working on this.
    However, moving away from the regular 10 week face to face meeting with a tutor is something with which I agree. As well as integrating online learning there is also scope for integrating some student led meetings into a course. Although there may be some issues here it definitely has potential. I have a paper on this which I will update.

  7. weawalkers says:

    From Rosemary Mayes: I am in broad agreement with this but I do have concerns, not only in relation to the WEA but also to the wider spectrum of adult learning provision, that the importance of objective pre-course choice IAG and preparation is under-played in such debates. Whatever the study medium, be it face-to-face tuition or digitally enabled distance learning, surely the most successful students are likely to be those who have clear study objectives and understand what they are embarking on. On line course information is fine and, to some extent, this is also true of on-line advice. Guidance is a different matter though and, at it’s best, involves a one to one relationship between the potential student and the guidance professional. .
    Whilst looking at the possibilities for on-line teaching/learning as proposed in this blog, perhaps it would also be timely to examine WEA’s IAG provision overall and identify what aspects really do require expert human intervention and how enhanced provision of the others can be provided on-line.

  8. weawalkers says:

    From Robin Boulton: Ann, your blog encapsulates very well the present and future scene (as far as is reasonably certain) for WEA and poses the challenges for our organisation in meeting them together with our present and future membership.
    What is not in doubt is that the use of ‘online’ and/or individual PC’s as a vital part of most courses will soon become the ‘norm’ rather than exceptional; the alternative is hardly an option with a few obvious exceptions.
    The biggest challenge will be at Branch level possibly the smaller, remote ones…although that is rebutted by the success of the farming community’s takeup of the Web both as a business and a leisure tool.
    I believe the most important strategy for WEA is to be proactive with our existing and potential membership in promoting ourselves as leaders in delivering quality adult education, tailored with the information technology of the 21st Century.

  9. melanie evans says:

    What happens to dyslexic students in the digital age? Those who find reading laborious and may be light averse and so find reading on a screen additionally tiring? Presumably we make sure for inclusion that all our material is (a) printable and (b) accessible through simultaneous audio files. But for students with dyslexia, it is still much more difficult to learn in this way than face-to-face.

  10. Any WEA staff who wish to learn more about how technology can enhance the teaching and learning experience should contact their local JISC Regional Support Centre (RSC) for free, impartial advice and support. In the first instance, speak to the Advisor for Adult & Community Learning (England and Wales RSC’s only). Contact details for all RSC’s and more information via our website

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