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New Ways To Learn


5. Developing a learning community

The traditional process of learning belongs in an institution designed for the purpose. However, we think that the natural home of the new process described here is a learning community, which brings together all that is necessary to create and sustain a learning culture. This community does not have to be based on an institution or campus.

Communities may take many forms: pupils, parents and teachers in compulsory schooling; professions or trades within an industry; geographically-based communities; or national or global communities of interest.

We see cases both of existing institutions expanding beyond their walls (in some cases worldwide), and of entirely new communities emerging that would not have been possible even five or ten years ago. It is clear that there will be many variants: new learning will consist of variations on a common set of themes, drawn from a repertoire that no longer relies on the classroom to supply its basic structure.

Supporting lifelong learning

Our research suggests that the most effective way to support lifelong learning will be to stimulate the development of learning communities. This is likely to give a better return on investment than measures at the individual or course level. case study: Most people live on a plateau...

For many people, learning is only prompted by desperation or disaster. The environment in which they live does not support or encourage learning, so that an extreme event - such as redundancy - is necessary for people to put themselves in a situation where learning can take place. Exceptional individuals (as shown by some of our examples) learn anyway; but many are not prompted to make the effort.

The new process offers hope, for example by allowing individuals to participate electronically in communities which support learning, even where their immediate environment does not. But a different set of barriers must be overcome to enable this. The two key problems we have identified are:

  • Access to technology on acceptable terms
  • Systematic support for innovation in further education.

Is everyone equally likely to become a 'lifelong learner' in the new learning society? Research link


Systematic support exists in schools and in higher education, but to a much lesser extent in further education, where arguably it could do most good. Innovation is clearly needed to break the pattern of a resistant proportion of the population - up to 30% in some areas - which sidesteps all opportunities for post-compulsory learning. The size of this rump has remained stubbornly constant for many years.



Creating learning communities

How to create a learning institution is well understood. All the necessary elements can be controlled by a single body. There is less experience of creating a learning community. It cannot be directly controlled, although the right actions can start a process which becomes at least partly self-sustaining.

Figure 3 shows a combination of measures which could achieve innovation of this kind, on a scale adequate to the problem.

Figure 3: Building Learning Communities
  1. Media stimulus has always been highly effective in raising public interest, and in persuading consumers to buy products. It can be mobilised in the service of learning as well as news, entertainment and consumer goods.
  2. Technology now allows - for the first time - media stimulus of this kind to be linked directly with individual and local learning on a large scale. Interactive learning material can be distributed via the Internet, or on CD-ROM, together with support and training material for tutors. The new process means that tutors do not need as much prior familiarity with the material as in traditional education; tutors' main role is to facilitate learning, not deliver material.
    Online support can be provided for individual learners and for tutors. The BBC's Computers Don't Bite and WebWise initiatives are already doing this, for IT-related skills development. We see no reason why the same approach could not be extended to other subjects.
  3. Opportunities to bring the new skills just learnt into practical use in the community or the economy, and relate them to daily life, will help turn artificial learning into confidently practised skills and knowledge. A co-ordinated approach, perhaps managed with media support and the assistance of the World Wide Web, could seek out local opportunities to do this.
    Clearly there are some subject areas where the opportunities for immediate practice and involvement are easier to see; but we think that ultimately most, if not all, subjects could be treated in this way. Some of the activities started in this way could lead to jobs, start-up businesses, voluntary groups, clubs or social activities. The emphasis - consistent with the new learning process - is on self-help and the sharing of knowledge and skills.
  4. Finally, experience of community-based activities started in this way can be reported in the media to stimulate further interest, closing the loop and giving a further twist to the spiral.

It is worth noting that the National Lottery has attracted nationwide participation through a self-sustaining spiral which includes media stimulus, personal participation (through buying lottery tickets), and community projects which are reported in the media. Of course the chance to become a millionaire is a powerful motivator; but improving your prospects through learning is a more achievable goal for most.

We hope that some at least of the work of the University for Industry will be directed to initiatives of this kind. Stimulating and guiding a process such as outlined here requires the ability to catalyse and enable (rather than control and direct) many different types of activity, in different kinds of organisations. To some extent, natural selection will operate. Initiatives which meet a genuine need will succeed and become self-sustaining, while others will fall by the wayside. But without active support to make a start, initiatives which could succeed will never get off the ground.


©Mediation Technology 1999

Section: 5 - Developing a learning community

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