The learn forever network is committed to the goal of boosting the participation of educationally disadvantaged women in continuing education. Since 2005, eight participating organisations have been working within the framework of this network to provide a variety of services in this context. This includes developing learning offers for educationally disadvantaged women, facilitating know-how transfer among adult educators, and surveying the educational needs of their target group. The project partners are currently working with the “flipped learning” model and devising offerings based on this approach. Elke Beneke, the network’s project manager and education manager at Verein für Bildung & Lernen, shares more in an interview.
Lucia Paar: The learn forever network offers a wide and varied range of services, encompassing know-how transfer in adult education, learning offers for educationally disadvantaged women, as well as research services. What is the network focusing on right now?
Elke Beneke: By switching to “flipped learning”, we are generating new impetus in the area of basic education. It’s a kind of “inverted” instruction – the learners work through the theoretical material on their own and then practice it in the classroom to clear up anything they didn’t understand. This approach is being implemented by the project partners through two different offerings. The nowa association and Frauenstiftung Steyr integrate the flipped learning approach in their educational activities and, together with the akzente association and Bildungszentrum Saalfelden, we are developing a virtual basic training course that also puts the concept into practice.
When does the virtual basic training course take place?
We conducted the first round from October 2019 to May 2020, followed now by an evaluation phase. The next course will then commence in October 2020.
There have been recurring discussions in the adult education space, particularly in the wake of the lockdown in spring, as to whether and how basic education can be conducted online, as this places some demands on the participants. How is that handled in the course?
We introduce the participants to the approach step by step. We provide the participants with tablets or laptops, which they can also bring home with them. This ensures that the participants can study at home as well. We’ve pre-installed some of the programs we use in the course. In the beginning, we conduct the course in person for the first one to two months. We use that time to focus on familiarising the participants with the tools we work with. How does Zoom work, how do I get online, how do I use Moodle – and many other topics. And each participant also wants to learn different things. The first thing we do is to find a good rhythm. The next step is to practice e-learning, specifically “flipped learning”. The mental attitude towards digital media is especially important. A lot of women are afraid. We try to alleviate their fear and convey a sense of ease. Participants learn how to learn by means of videos and other self-study materials. To overcome the barriers, the participants start by practising on-site. The instructors remain in a different room for a specific period of time while the participants become accustomed to the new learning method. Subsequently, the participants study on location for one day and one day from home. Just as we were conducting the first round, we made an abrupt switch to exclusively online instruction in March. We were surprised at how well that worked out. It is, however, more demanding for the facilitators of the learning process. The fact that within the partnership we had already developed some 20 learning packages that included a large amount of flipped learning resource materials proved to be very beneficial. If we hadn’t done that, it would probably not have been that simple.
Compared with the first course, what do you want to do differently for the upcoming course starting in October?
It came as a surprise to us to see how well everyone was able to switch to virtual learning, so we want to continue to push that forward. At the same time, the participants also want to network and learn socially. That means that we will most likely always conduct one day of in-person instruction and one from home. We also intend to step up our efforts to involve all of our project partners in the training course webinars. We have found that this works well for the participants, despite the fact that it involves different instructors. After all, the instructor serves as an important resource and guide – but once trust has been established, the participants are able to adapt to other instructors, too. And one thing we’ve learned from the previous course: The more naturally we work with digital media ourselves, the more naturally the participants work with these tools as well. Digital media has to be something that is simply embedded in the everyday learning process rather than being portrayed as something incredibly special.
How do you recruit participants for the course?
That differs considerably depending on the region. Our project partner in Voitsberg, for instance, enjoys close connections to the AMS (Austrian Public Employment Service), and the organisation pauses its job placement activities for the participants during the course. This enables consistent attendance. Bildungszentrum Saalfelden is itself actively involved in the field of basic education and is very well known. This meant that our colleagues were able to offer the course right alongside their other course offerings. Basic education is a new offering for both the akzente association and for us, so we weren’t able to build on previous experience. We solved this issue to a great extent through our networks and also placed advertisements. Our dropout rate was somewhat higher initially as well. One participant moved to Vienna while the course was in progress, for example, and another participant found a job in the meantime. But in the end, we had a balanced mix of immigrant women and Austrian women in the group. We found this combination quite enriching.
Although the course is new, the network has been working with the target group for a long time. Are you noticing any changes in the educational needs of women at the level of basic education?
One example of something that continues to hold true is that women are seeking to develop digital competences. But what has changed is that the target group is considerably more segmented. It is more difficult to meet all the needs using general offerings. It’s a challenge – particularly in rural areas. Another aspect that remains unchanged is our continued work to enhance women’s competences and potential. Reflecting on one’s own abilities and potential is a major focus. The willingness of women to pursue personal development has also held steady. We continue to see virtually no course dropouts that are attributable to the fact that the women aren’t satisfied with the courses on offer. In most cases, withdrawing from the course is due to other reasons, such as a change of job or an illness. Naturally, this is linked in part to the fact that these women participate in our courses voluntarily, which is a luxury. At the same time, of course, that could prove to be a risk, since it makes participation seem more non-committal and requires people to work on their motivation. But it works. And there’s another important reason behind why the women are joining us: They need structure in their daily routine – that’s important to them. And they need social learning – they want to get out of the house for a while and interact with others.
What other plans does the network have for the future?
That depends on the next ESF funding period, of course – so we don’t know for sure yet. Fundamentally, though, we want to keep building on our experience and our knowledge and to use this to continue contributing to innovations in basic education through our development work. We find cross-organisational cooperation in particular to be very enriching.
About the network
The learn forever network was founded in 2005 and has since been dedicated to the issue of basic education for educationally disadvantaged women. The network’s activities centre on bridging various social and educational policy concerns: gender equality, boosting the participation of educationally disadvantaged women in continuing education, and promoting the equal participation of women and men in information and knowledge-based societies. The network partners comprise the non-profit organisations of the akzente association, Bildungszentrum Saalfelden, Frauenstiftung Steyr, the nowa association, and Verein für Bildung & Lernen. The network is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science, and Research and the European Social Fund.
Text/Author of original article in German:: Lucia Paar/CONEDU
Redaktion/Editing of original article in German: Lucia Paar/CONEDU
Image: Pixabay-Lizenz, Gerd Altmann/bearb. durch Paar/CONEDU, pixabay.com