Presentation on the Free Education Network for John Morrison
As part of a pop up lesson by John Morrison who works from Napier University, here Alex Dunedin talks about the construction of the Free Education Network website as a way into examining the resources available for learning in the landscape. This presentation was a part of John Morrison’s pop up lesson at Summerhall in Edinburgh where he is trying to prompt his students to take on a challenge suggested by and linked to the community.
The Free Education Network website was developed after a conference was set up by Dr Joel Lazarus and Dr Sarah Amsler brought organisations, groups and individuals together in Oxford to discuss the emerging themes of free education in the community context. They used a method of identifying consensus on themes which was developed in South America by trade unions.
It was obvious that there were a large number of different views of what education is and how it should be represented in the landscape, not all of them agreeing with the others. This left the question of how so many different views could be brought together and highlighted to the broader public without each individual perspective losing its identity, and without adding to already large workloads by asking for unique content to be produced.
The design eventually came from thinking about Etienne Wenger’s work on Knowledgeability in landscapes of practice. Wenger is well known for giving definition to the term ‘Community of Practice’. Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.
It is a helpful term to explore the dynamics which happen around learning and knowing. A good book on this is ‘Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
This idea of thinking about knowledge and ability in terms of landscapes gave direction to how to proceed. Taking the power of WordPress and the internet, mapping ‘educational assets’ in the landscape seemed like a way forward. This was also informed by the work of Professor Virginia Eubanks in New York.
In her book Digital Deadend she discusses the various ways that she and others tried to empower the community using technology. One of the most successful projects was an initiative where inhabitants of the YWCA – where she worked and studied from – created a database mapping the social and educational resources of the area and enabled the community to feedback on their experiences in trying to access those resources/supports.
She said that, to the community, it was a most useful tool because people could share their experiences of tapping into whatever was in the landscape. The result was that good resources were illustrated for being accessible, humane and practical, whilst bad resources were revealed for being opaque, unhelpful, and non-transparent.
Examples might be of the comparison between foodbanks – one might be very welcoming and have thought about how to remove barriers to engaging; whilst another might give poor quality food out, be hard to find and demand access to individual’s personal data.
Thus, combining the ability to create a bespoke digital tool for mapping via WordPress with the ideas of revealing what is in the surrounding terrain in educational, social and landscape terms, suggested a way of engendering a useful information tool for the community use.
Incorporating an advanced comments system meant that the community could rate the resources and services – like on Trip Advisor; and utilising an RSS feed aggregator meant that we could easily represent organisations and groups which have a website without having to add to their workload.
Lastly, it incorporates a function where the user can input their postcode into the ‘Find Your Nearest’ search function which returns a list of the nearest free resources to that user. Free resources are the focus of the Free Education Network.
The main categories are Educational (showing education events, projects and organisations), Social (showing resources such as doctors, social support and advocacy), and Landscape (showing things such as historical landmarks, statues and open spaces).
All in all, the idea is to support the building and enriching of the lifeworld of the population of a given area. This taps into some of the research area known as social capital. This academic term speaks of involvement in extended networks – whatever they may be.
It could be a sporting league, it could be book groups, it could be faith groups. Of particular concern is the question of how we get people socialising around knowledge building.
John Morrison has developed a course where he brings stakeholders from the community in to present their work and the problems they face to the students. He invites them to collaborate with the stakeholder to develop solutions to the problems they identify using available technologies. In the podcast John asks about Prof Keith Smyth’s work on valuing digital artefacts in the community.
This work is especially relevant to the idea of valuing knowledge wherever it may reside, as it examines the crystallized output of individuals who have invested in something and retrospectively accredits the author with the knowledge they necessarily had to know to create the digital artefact.
In practice, it dusts off the idea of ‘accreditation of prior learning’ policy and provides a pragmatic method of looking at blogs, websites, and social media presences and ways of formally valuing the skills and knowledge which people have developed outside of the formal educational environment. This is a significant idea in education which could provide a vast number of people with the societal acknowledgement which has now become something which people need to gain access to many opportunities.
This way of conceiving of valuing knowledge can potentially provide a bridge between the informal and formal worlds of learning and education. The potential here is that it can enable individuals who have been distant – for whatever reason – from formal education to get involved in the world of formal education.
The idea that people need to be ‘validated’ by formal institutions is beside the point – what is happening in our culture is an enclosure around knowledge; that is, who can take part in communitys of peers and who has access to resources to forward their enterprise in learning and production.
I see the work of Keith Smyth and colleagues not as forcing people into a system of colonized validation, but as opening out an appreciation of expertise which is society wide. The reverse of the coin is that academic populations do not remain marginalised in their silo, and gain access to a broader decision market and understanding of their subject area.
Knowledge and ability is often developed outside of the formal context, and for those who want to move amongst, between and to different learning communities the development of this way of valuing knowledge outside of the institutional space is vital.
The role in which Ragged University coordinators act within the community context is most closely described by Ernesto Sirolli. The following video was shown to the students to illustrate that the greatest expert on what people need and the barriers they face are the people themselves. As a development worker, Ernesto came to understand the central importance of situational understandings in taking a starting point from with to work.