Adult education and the referendum

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As with the Scottish referendum in 2014, the UK’s European Referendum provided a fantastic opportunity to engage adult learners in civic debate. Living in Germany, I’ve had to watch the campaign from a distance (the media here only started covering the issue in depth when it became clear that Leave was gathering support in the polls). But I tried to look out for any examples of adult education providing a space for open and reasoned debate.

And there were plenty of examples of adult educators promoting active citizenship in just this way. Branches of the Workers Educational Association held a number of open discussions, often working with the active citizenship consultancy Talk Shop. In Leicester, for instance, the WEA teamed up with Talk Shop to run a fun, open and balanced discussion ‘in a thoughtful and friendly atmosphere’.

Some local trade union organisations held similar open discussions, as in Haringey. And a number of colleges, libraries and community centres hosted one-off meetings or mock debates around the issues.

Universities didn’t have their finest hour. Some individual academics contributed their expertise to public events organised by others. MOOCs came into their own, with FutureLearn commissioning a small set of courses, such as the terrific Towards Brexit course from Edinburgh.

Otherwise, universities have promoted events for their students but seem to have done little or nothing for the public. That hasn’t stopped them from sitting on their hands and complaining that voters don’t really know enough to make a decision.

Even in its much depleted state, then, the adult education system responded. The WEA and other providers have helped show what was possible. We can imagine how much better-informed the debate might have been if adult education providers had been in a position to support a much earlier and systematic campaign of public information and discussion.

My favourite event was undoubtedly this one, held in a pub/microbrewery that describes itself as ‘more folk than punk’ (a sly dig at the BrewDog brand, as my fellow ale-lovers will realise). The Twisted Barrel in Coventry regularly hosts debates under the name of Skeptics in a Pub.

New Picture (1)It really sounds my kind of place. But that is the core of the problem. While people like me will feel at home in a bar where we can drink craft beer and discuss politics with like-minded people, quite a lot of people would feel deeply uncomfortable in that environment. I sense that we have a declining number of spaces for face-to-face dialogue, particularly with those who do not share our views and values. Adult education used to be one of those places, and we kill it at our peril.

Polishing off my MOOC

I’m feeling a bit smug. If we academics know one thing about MOOCs, it is that only a tiny proportion of those who start the course actually make it through to the end. And I’ve polished off my MOOC with four days to go.

Having decided that I wanted to actually take a MOOC before pontificating about them, I set myself three criteria: practicality, ignorance and irrelevance. This one – on England in the Time of Richard III – met all three. It was planned to take up two hours a week, and would run for six weeks, so it was manageable. I don’t know much about pre-modern history (I tend to think of anything before the Reformation as having to do with either Normans, Vikings or Romans). And it was nothing to do with my day job.

I’ve found it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I learned a lot, much of it unexpected (by me at least), about society, culture and the economy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; the changes wrought by the Black Death were far more extensive than I’d supposed. I was interested particularly by the revolution in publishing, fuelled partly by technology, but also by new demands from what was clearly a more literate society than I’d supposed. I didn’t learn as much as I’d expected about the political conflicts that erupted periodically into armed conflict; for me, they;re still vague palace intrigues and dynastic rivalries (or “those naughty Normans at it again”). And the final unit, on the archeological and forensic work in Leicester, was predictably fascinating.

For the purposes of dietary restrictions, the church defined beavers (and ducks) as fish.

For the purposes of dietary restrictions, the medieval church defined beavers (and ducks) as fish.

Do I think MOOCs will revolutionise education in our lifetime? Like a lot of people, I don’t think they are game-changers just yet. Partly this is down to economics. My MOOC was provided by the University of Leicester, working with the Open University and other partners through FutureLearn. It provided a mixture of resources – audio clips, video clips, downloads, an app, a student forum – and, of course, text. These are costly, and participation is free. Then there are equally important questions about equity and access, pedagogic support, quality assurance, and learner assessment.

We need to treat MOOCs less as a uniquely thrilling or appalling game changer, and more as part of a long term process in which teaching and learning are redefined. It includes the foundation of the OU (highly successful) and the founding of e-university collaborations in England and Scotland (both expensive failures). Digitisation has transformed publishing (including academic publishing), broadcasting, the recording of music, and the processing of massive volumes of information; of course it will affect education, in ways that are still evolving rapidly.

We can probably see MOOCs as exciting, worthy but slightly peripheral ventures at present – a sort of contemporary form of extra-mural education. Yet something has changed with their introduction. The ‘game’ may not have changed, but the way we play it has been shifting steadily for some decades, and it will continue to do so.

Getting along with my MOOC

Thank goodness for Christmas. A nice fortnight’s break, punctuated only by hearty walks and bouts of over-consumption, provided the ideal opportunity for catching up on my MOOC. It’s only a six week course, with an estimated study time of two hours a week. But it’s surprising how quickly you get behind.

Or perhaps it isn’t surprising. Finding two hours in an already crowded schedule was always going to be a challenge, mainly because the two hours are not timetabled. The very flexibility that makes a MOOC such an attractive proposition is what also makes it easy for learners to fall by the wayside. You can engage with the course materials at any time, any where (as long as it has Wifi).

But like old friends, you can also easily forget it for days at a time, and plan to catch up ‘later’. And my MOOC has started to feel like a friend, but a very distant one. There is space for sociability among the various learning activities, with a very lively forum for chatting. But MOOCs are massive, and there are too many names for any individual to stand out, or to get any sense of the people behind the names. On the other hand, you do form an attachment to the course director, who appears regularly on audio recordings.

I’ve found it especially easy to forget my MOOC during the working week. This is partly due to an underlying feeling that it ‘isn’t really work’, because I chose to study a topic that interested me, rather than something related to my job. And an academic’s job has fuzzy borders, spreading over into all sorts of ‘spare time’. While this is not nearly so exceptional as some of my colleagues seem to think, it does mean that I have explicitly to remind myself that, actually, taking a MOOC is a form of professional updating.

I’ve learned to negotiate a splendid app on a medieval abbey in Norfolk, and have reflected on the bundle of learning activities that the course designers have used. I’ve wondered how the academics have got on with the learning technology people, and whether they’ve encountered challenges and difference of opinion along the way. And I’ve contrasted and compared the ‘student experience’ of a MOOC with that of teaching an evening course.

Of course, it isn’t a formal training programme, and I think it unlikely that any of my senior managers will know or care that I’m taking a MOOC. Like many in higher education, they will worry about MOOCs as and when MOOCs have an impact on their own institution. And that is why it matters that people like me, who claim to be specialists in learning, should be open-minded and curious about MOOCs, rather than either yodelling about the ‘next big thing’ or dismissing them as a technologically-driven fad.

MOOCs as a form of furtive learning

For the last three weeks, I’ve been a student again. I’m following a MOOC offered by FutureLearn, an offshoot of the Open University in partnership with a number of other institutions. And I have to report that so far, I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Most of the pleasure comes from following a subject in which I am interested, but I’m also deeply interested in how a MOOC actually feels on the receiving end. The flexibility is highly impressive: I can study a little segment as and when I have the time, and I can do it wherever I want. I am not going to list all the places where I have MOOCed, but suffice to say that they include the kitchen and my car – anywhere that involves waiting, or an activity that doesn’t involve my conscious brain. And it is reasonably sociable too; the discussion space is busy and noisy and very friendly.

So far, so predictable. I’ve also learned some things I didn’t expect. The very flexibility of a MOOC makes it easy to wander off and do something else. The fact that I can walk around studying on my iPad also means that my MOOC has to compete with email, Twitter, Facebook and other digital distractions – it is so easy to flick the screen, and forget that you were supposed to be studying for another 20 minutes.

I’ve also discovered that MOOCs offer an extremely furtive form of learning. Although I tweeted about the MOOC, and mentioned it to several friends, I didn’t tell my partner about it. She can hear that I’m listening to something or viewing something on my iPad, but presumably she thinks I’m catching up on the News Quiz or haltingly working on my Portuguese. And now it’s become a sort of experiment, where I keep quiet about the MOOC and wait to see whether she’ll notice how fabulously well-informed I am on everyday life in medieval England.

MOOCs are not necessarily anonymous, but they do allow you to manage disclosure in a way that most other forms of organised learning to not. The course designers have clearly tried to draw on adult education practices of group work and create a community of learners, but they have little control over how the masses participate. A participant can lurk online, reading the debates but not contributing. Or they can invent a new name, and for that matter a whole new identity, as part of their studies. No one will ever know. Meanwhile, their most intimate friends and family can be completely ignorant of why their loved one is suddenly spending time on the iPad.

Does this furtive possibility matter? I think it probably has some influence on the pedagogic relationship, but I’m not sure how. And it presumably shapes the ways in which learners are co-creating knowledge as they work their way through their MOOC. Either way, I find this all very interesting, and am looking forward to the next hour or so on my tablet.

Postscript

Well, my partner did not know I was taking a MOOC until I blogged about it. I didn’t know she followed my blog until she asked about my MOOC. The question she put to me was this: “Do you have to pay for it?” (yes, she is a Scot). The answer is that I don’t, which is a very good reason for taking the MOOC (yes, I’ve spent a lot of my life in Yorkshire).

https://www.futurelearn.com/