Can digital work in Community Learning?

29 Jan 2015 |Written by Laurence Piercy


Since November of last year, Good Things Foundation has been working on an exciting project to research and develop a digital tool for use in the Adult and Community Learning sector. This has been funded by Innovate UK, a UK government agency which supports innovation as the route to financial and economic growth. We have gained a good understanding of what the tool might look like through our work with five research partners.

The development process for a digital tool needs careful thought: exactly who is it for, what will it do, and how will it do it? We also have to think about how and why people might use it: what will persuade an organisation to use digital when they have been happily using paper registers and a white board for a decade? We spoke to our research partners to try and understand the pressures of Adult and Community Learning, and to think about how a digital tool might fit with the day-to-day work of both tutors and managers in the sector.

This is by no means simple, as a defining feature of the sector is its diversity. On our visits, we saw horticulture classes in Cambridgeshire, family learning in Sheffield, and film editing in Northumberland. Here are some features of Adult and Community Learning as we’ve found it:

  • Some providers we spoke to were putting on fifty different courses each year, and adapting courses and syllabi to fit what their learners wanted.
  • The range of adult learning courses covers all sorts of things, from English as a second language to wood carving; courses on health and wellbeing to courses that teach parents how to help their children learn at school.
  • Because the range of classes on offer is so big, local authorities often outsource teaching to smaller organisations and trained sessional tutors.
  • Just to complicate things further, lessons can take place in all sorts of venues: libraries, colleges, schools, day centres, and community centres.

As you might expect, each of these characteristics has an effect on how the sessions are run, what resources are used, and how teachers interact with their students. We have been considering all of these things, though some facts jump out more than others. How, for example, can digital work in the Adult and Community Learning sector when classes are often taught in venues with slightly wobbly internet connections?

With all of these considerations in mind, it’s not hard to imagine why use of digital is so patchy in adult learning. Talking to our research partners revealed further points of interest. The number of educational resources on the internet is huge, and there seems to be a continual increase in the number of people who are learning online and the number of tools and platforms that are being designed to help them do this. There is no doubt that there are a lot of online learners, but it’s hard to be convinced that online tools are always used well. There are some very complicated platforms out there: Moodles, VLEs, authoring tools, and huge repositories of online content. But when we talked to Adult and Community Learning providers, tools that do everything often seemed to be used for very little. This might be because there is a trade off between simplicity and functionality:

  • A simple tool may well be used more, because it’s use is clear. Limiting the number of functions of a tool means that more effort can be put into its design. This means that users can happily navigate it.
  • A complicated multifunctional platform is complicated to use. It has a lot of different features, but only a few of these might be used by an organisation. Local authorities have limited budget for paying individuals to maintain and manage online platforms, and employees have limited time to learn how and why they might use a platform.

Taking this further, I think it’s quite interesting to note that the Adult and Community Learning providers we spoke to were often using a number of different online tools for different purposes. We found people using lots of games and apps, as well as simple online tools like Padlet and Yammer. These tools are simple and accessible, and chosen by tutors to fulfil a specific need. Simplicity of design is the key factor that we are trying to keep in mind now, as we go into the construction stage of our research.

Good Things Foundation would like to thank our research partners, Cambridgeshire County Council Adult Learning & Skills, FilmAble Haltwhistle, Southampton Libraries, Portsmouth Learning Place, and Sheffield Family and Community Learning, for their insight and advice throughout the project.