Adapting to Marginal Spaces: Floating Classrooms
After finding almost every institutional space incompatible with community education in terms of digital literacies, I have developed an idea which I call ‘Floating Classrooms’ which enable us to run free educational workshops and lessons wherever we need to. The idea of a Floating Classroom came from a mixture of the strategy of Ragged University (use available infrastructure and common technology) and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere novel which describes a Floating Market.
The Floating Market is a giant bazaar where people barter for all manner of junk and magical items in the fantastical underworld of London where it is set. The Floating Market appears in a different place each time, and in the book appears inside Harrods after the shops had closed, and then disappeared before dawn.
Realising that the computers which are found in institutional spaces are always so locked out from their own functionality, it became a problem to show people how to install software, secure a computer, set up a website, clean a computer, make it more efficient – nearly everything which people want to learn.
A large part of the problem is that large corporate companies get the blanket contracts for a cities public services, and then stipulate that only their software can be used and set the terms of the contract to favour their company bottom line. A clear case study is British Telecom, which is the only company big enough (supposedly) to tender for the provision of broadband internet in Scotland.
The other problem is that institutional spaces are policy driven, and these policies are often agglomerations of averages and avoidances of fears. Policy tends to homogenise environments and the activities which go on within them. Imagine if you were to open a pub and only let in people who were exactly the average height of a nation – this helps summarize some of the difficulties which come with policy.
Thus, in Ragged University, if we were to do some digital literacies teaching – i.e. show people what they want to learn on computers – we needed a solution to the lack of capability we find in the landscape. I developed the Floating Classroom so that Ragged University can move into a pub, cafe, library, shared space, and set up everything we need for a small group to access the internet, do talks, build digital artifacts (like blogs, social media, websites), and run lessons; particularly in impoverished areas.
What I mean by impoverished areas is ‘areas which lack the infrastructure needed to allow people to create’. The tools for creation are an essential component for learning, as I see it. The sink estates where I have lived only have a pub, bookies, a cafe, a chippie, a post office, an under-resourced library (policy driven), an under-resourced community centre (policy driven), and often a pay day lender.
These spaces are barren as far as investment goes, and although the people who run the policy driven places are generally great – they are hamstrung by policy, meaning that they often cannot do what they would like to, and think would be best for the community. They are hired into a job and then get put in ‘silver handcuffs’. Also, they are policy driven to turn a penny (or even worse profit) on public goods such as community spaces in the libraries, community centres and churches.
The age of the disappearing communal space (third place as Prof Ray Oldenburg coined it) is upon us, where every space where traditionally individuals would go to socialise with old friends, and meet new ones – is under threat.
Every part of our society is being financialised by the rent collectors; in terms public goods the overblown rhetoric of ‘social enterprise’ is dissolving away any notion of valuing culture outside of the economic sense – and even then, this is economics in the narrowest and most reductive of framings. The spaces which would have been used by the communities for free are now becoming rented out by the hour, be they churches, community centres or any spare rooms.
So, the way I envisaged building the capability is creating a mobile technology suite. Adapt, Improvise, Overcome. Take a flycase – as you see roadies use for transporting bands music equipment; fill it with ten laptops – which is the basis of a small class; add a projector, amp and screen in a rucksack – so that a blackboard/screening environment can be created; add a MiFi portable modem/router – which allows the computers to all connect to the internet; add a video camera and audio recorder, some USB keys: et viola, a basic classroom which can be set up anywhere…
So I told Glenn Liddall who runs People Know How about the idea, saying if you can suit and boot me with this kit then I can do loads of stuff in communities where nothing like this happens. In fact, we can do teaching anywhere because it is all transportable and technology which we are in control of. Thus I gave him the following shopping list which he is bringing together:
- A flycase with wheels so that the equipment is mobile;
- A projector to form a ‘blackboard area’;
- A video camera
- An audio recorder
- A small portable amp for sound
- An osprey or kite from EE with a contract to enable connection of the ten laptops to the internet.
- A significant hosting account sufficient to give communities websites
- USBs to give to communities
With this kit you can move into almost any space, set up and deliver training; people can be given something to invest in – usb drives with operating systems on; websites, blogs, social media. Sugata Mitra’s work can be realised by doing the type of exams which he recommended to me in conversation with him. He said in summary, why not set exams and put people in front of computers and preface each exam question with: USE THE INTERNET TO….
We can do video and audio work using the principles of participatory action research and/or forum theatre to highlight the voices and concerns of the community revealing social justice issue or the work that the community has done to the world wide community of the internet. This produces artifacts which can then be retrospectively valued using Keith Smyth’s work. Over time, online courses can be developed on Community Open Online Courses, which serve as guides to common problems and as another medium for artifact creation.