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Society, Politics & Law

Beyond formal learning – supporting communities of life-long learners

Updated Monday, 9th March 2015

The OU fostered the collective construction of knowledge by helping learners build social connections, and by offering realistic objectives and opportunities to share ideas and learn new skills.

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Formal learning cartoon Creative commons image Icon Gary Edwards under Creative-Commons license Have you ever loved an OU module so much that you’d like to continue learning in the same way? Over the years many students have joined clubs related to their intellectual enthusiasms. Some have even formed their own.

In 1976, a 30 point module, TAD292 Art and environment, was produced. Taught until 1985 it invited students to develop ‘strategies for creative work’. It dealt with ‘the processes and attitudes of art not so much as these were evidenced in products of art but as they underlie the very act of doing art’. This can be seen already from the titles which were given to some of the module’s elements: ‘Boundary Shifting’, ‘Imagery and Visual Thinking’, ‘Having Ideas by Handling Materials’. Over 100 of the earliest students of TAD292 helped to remake the module for subsequent presentations. A survey noted that self-help groups were ‘extremely helpful’. Some of those who studied TAD292 formed a society, Tadpoles, to develop ideas from the module and to ‘share skills, experiences, ideas and knowledge of creativity and personal growth’. Tadpoles is still going, running camps and holding a wide range of events and activities.

DA301 Family and Community History (taught 1994-2001) was a 60 point module. It encouraged students to undertake collaborative activity, to exchange narratives and build trust with fellow students. It also drew upon ideas associated not with problem-based learning. Original local history research projects written by students were collated on CDs that were issued to subsequent students. These latter students’ research often referred the work of earlier students. Later the students’ reports were made available more widely, enabling the original student authors to use the research findings of the subsequent students. There were other collaborative elements to the module. As the module drew to a close the Family & Community Historical Research Society (FACHRS) was formed by staff and ex-students. It has conducted a range of connected local historical projects, encouraged links between institutionally based and independent researchers and offered its own Continued Learning courses. It has also published its findings in a series of books.

A 10 week, 10 point, single disciplinary, level one module, T189 Digital Photography: creating and sharing better images, 2007-13, aimed to ‘teach you how to critically evaluate your own and others’ work in the spirit of continuous technical and artistic improvement’. Students uploaded non-assessed photographs to a shared online site, and were encouraged to critique each other’s pictures. The idea that learning was a social phenomenon was reflected in the Module Guide which stated: ‘this is the very first online digital photography module provided by a university anywhere in the world that is structured around online collaborative photo sharing’. Although moderators offer guidance it was explained that ‘you will also find lots of help and support from your fellow students’.

Subsequently former students have established their own online groups and maintained contact with one another. These virtual communities have a more fluid structure than the FACHRS and the Tadpoles. While the other two modules were taught by part-time tutors and had some residential element (an unassessed weekend for DA301, a residential summer school for TAD292) this module was moderated, not tutored. Students could ask questions of moderators but moderators, who included a former police forensics photographer and leading members of the Photographic Society, were not necessarily trained to assess or support in the same way as OU tutors.

In each case the original module design encouraged collaboration. The OU fostered the collective construction of knowledge by helping learners to build a sense of confidence, by foregrounding the relationship between learning and social connections and by offering realistic objectives and opportunities to share ideas and learn new skills. People with different levels of expertise and engagement worked together on common tasks and learned from each other.

The longevity of these groups is related to their ability to act as a catalyst for learning and cognitive change. They were places where learners could teach and learn with one another and control their own learning. Just as apprentices begin learning by engaging in simple tasks and then progress from the edge towards more demanding tasks at the centre, so these communities offer opportunities to advance. Membership did not require people to amass transferrable knowledge. They could, as learners, ask questions, listen to the answers given to others and teach others. The formal experiences could be the basis for the creation of their own spaces for further learning.

In the examples given here each module was of a different length, each designed for a different level and each presented in a different period, 1976 - 1985, 1994 - 2001, 2007 - 2013. There are other examples. What they demonstrate is that the boundary between knowledge accumulated for summative assessment and informal learning is porous, that learning does not cease once you attend a degree ceremony and that, if the pedagogy is right then the university can be both a producer of knowledge and a node within a network of cultural production.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
Want to know more about studying social sciences with The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.





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