Becoming active citizens: How can we make our adult education models more inclusive?
Prof Pirkko Pitkänen and Dr Amalia Sabiescu share their thoughts on the EduMAP project and how adult education can help integrate vulnerable adults.
Preventing social exclusion by means of adult education
In recent policy and scientific discussions adult education is seen as a key means for supporting active citizenship, equal opportunities and social cohesion in Europe. In practice, however, the European adult education system has serious problems meeting the educational needs of the most vulnerable people, such as those with low levels of basic or functional literacy or deficient language and cultural skills.
In order to enhance the opportunities of vulnerable learners for active political, social and economic participation, educational actors need to take into account their daily life circumstances and communicative practices. For instance, the increasing availability of digital media and communication means many new ways for people to practice their citizenship. The increasing globalisation has further widened the sphere of citizenship. A person can be actively engaged with diverse national and international communities through new information and communication technologies.
As a consequence, especially among young people, citizenship does not just range from social and political to economic activities, but also includes new and less conventional forms of active participation, such as participation in virtual communities, one-off issue politics and responsible consumption.
Becoming an active citizen
The question of active citizenship is very important for the legitimacy of democratic governance. This is so because it depends on the extent to which democratic structures and practices are ‘owned’ by individual people.
However in practice, young generations are more passive with political and social engagement than older ones, at least when it comes to traditional ways of participation. Instead of top-down social participation, those born in the Information Age may prefer groups and virtual communities which are primarily organised as peer networks where individuals and their communities can become world-shaping forces and drivers of change.
The role of adult education is topical in preventing political frustration, social isolation and unemployment in our societies. The ongoing project Adult Education as a Means to Active Participatory Citizenship (EduMAP) investigates new ways for the European education system to become more responsive to the educational needs of vulnerable people and enable them to regularly voice their opinions. The project focuses on vulnerable young people aged 16 to 30 years old. The fundamental aim is to help European, national and local policymakers, educational authorities and educators to tailor adult education policies and practices to meet the needs of young vulnerable adults.
Mapping the communicative ecologies of vulnerable young adults
EduMAP draws from the observation that we are all living, interacting and communicating in interconnected “communicative ecologies” made of social networks, channels and underlying tools and technologies. These communicative ecologies create invisible boundaries around the messages we receive and deliver, the people we communicate with, and the kind of educational and professional opportunities available to us.
EduMAP analyses communicative ecologies in the field of adult education and vulnerable groups, identifying matches, mismatches, and opportunities for improving interaction between educational providers and vulnerable adults. Whilst the field research is still in its early stages, here are some early findings from a pilot study that was conducted in Romania, mapping the communicative practices and the educational needs of vulnerable Roma youth in a poor neighbourhood of Bucharest:
- Despite their lack of finances, young people find ways to access the internet, mostly through a smartphone. They mostly use Facebook and Messenger to find entertainment and connect with family and friends.
- There are clear boundaries but also points of encounter between the social networks accessed by people for formal and informal purposes. For example, use of social media such as Facebook tends to be restricted to informal communication and entertainment. On the other hand, many young people find information about education and jobs through informal networks, or through community centres and NGOs that undertake community development projects.
- Privacy and boundaries differ between cases and they are not always centred on the individual. For example, phone sharing among family members has been found to be a common practice, and in some cases a family even shares the same Facebook account.
- Internet and digital media usage for education and job seeking is fraught with misconceptions and myths, and the potential of the internet for accessing education and training opportunities is often untapped. Many young people distrust the accuracy of internet announcements for education, training and jobs, and at the same time are unable to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy information. They may trust, instead, local social networks and information points.
EduMAP will continue to study the communicative ecologies of educational providers and vulnerable youth in other European countries. The study results are expected to help educators and educational authorities to better understand communication opportunities and barriers among vulnerable young people and their implications for adult education. The research findings will be used to create platforms and forums for enhancing dialogue between the providers and potential users of educational initiatives. At this stage, there are a few conclusions we can share:
- To make adult education opportunities more easily accessible for vulnerable young adults, there is a need to tap into their communicative practices and identify those platforms and networks which can be used and expanded (including digital platforms like Facebook as well as local social networks and information hubs).
- Information literacy is an important topic to be considered when assessing the adequacy of digital platforms for reaching out to vulnerable youth. There is a need to create more enduring and systematic platforms and hubs for dialogue that include information literacy education and support.
- In the long run, we need to look beyond sporadic, ad-hoc solutions, towards ways of bringing together adult education providers and other social care and community development actors to better serve the needs of vulnerable groups and communities in systematic, integrated ways.
Professor Pirkko Pitkänen is the coordinator of the EduMAP project. She is Professor of Educational Policy and Multicultural Education and the Research Director of the Research Centre on Transnationalism and Transformation (TRANSIT) at the University of Tampere, Finland.
Dr. Amalia G. Sabiescu is working as a researcher in the EduMAP project. She is a Research Associate in the Institute for Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University London.