Outreach and access in times of COVID-19: we’re still a learning community!
When we initially decided at EAEA that we would dedicate our Annual Conference to discussing how COVID-19 has influenced participation in adult learning, it seemed like a timely yet slightly dispiriting way to close our thematic work on outreach and access this year. As the pandemic has continued to wreak havoc in our lives, disrupting day-to-day business of many adult learning providers and posing new challenges for teachers and educators across the globe, are there any positive take-aways from the ongoing crisis? Many of our members and other participants reassured us that while a lot still has to be done to improve outreach and access, during the pandemic and beyond, we also have many achievements to celebrate.
Online learning has certainly preoccupied most of us this year. At first sight it might seem that moving all learning online could potentially be a win-win situation: more learners can participate, even those who live in remote areas or face mobility issues. In some cases, this proves to be true: during the conference, we heard from Alex Stevenson at Learning at Work Institute in the UK, who shared an example of a London-based language course. An open-door policy implemented during the lockdown meant that new participants joined in, from across the globe. I also recently interviewed our Finnish colleague Anne Tastula, herself a trainer in theatrical improvisation, who listed the different workshops she attended online that she normally wouldn’t be able to take part in.
Yet for sure, some participants will lose out – what about those learners who share one laptop between all family members, and whose children’s homeschooling takes priority? What about older learners? My mother, who runs a community theatre in my hometown, has managed to continue her classes with a group of 8-year olds, after I introduced her to Zoom last summer. Yet finding a way to continue workshops with seniors from a neighbouring village proved to be a nearly impossible task, not least because of connectivity issues in that area.
While digital might be the new normal for some, it certainly won’t be the case for everyone, and it was encouraging to hear the many examples of initiatives taken by adult learning providers in Europe to make sure that nobody is left behind. Dearbhail Lawless from AONTAS, for example, shared stories of community education centres in Ireland who mail care packages with basic necessities; or who send post-cards and course materials directly to the doors of their learners. Reverting to snail mail has also been the solution of some partners of the TOY project, which promotes intergenerational learning between young children and the elderly.
Try as we might, there are some learners that we won’t be able to reach ourselves – and our members have been clear in saying that cooperation with different services is the basis of a successful outreach programme. It was inspiring to hear a number of Portuguese examples from Dina Soeiro of the Letters for Life project, who told us about a scheme that was run together with a municipality in Lisbon to provide support for manual workers. The main objective was to persuade them to self-isolate if they have symptoms of COVID-19, and to reassure them that they will get financial support throughout the time they spend away from work.
One of the questions that we asked throughout the conference, and that we have been investigating throughout the year, is that of a learning community. We often describe adult learning as a platform to share ideas, to co-create, to meet new people. Is it still the case if we’re all in the confines of our homes? The answer seems to be a resounding yes (as the many community stories shared on EPALE confirm!) – we heard of hybrid and virtual learning festivals that attracted new learners, and of bottom-up support groups for educators transitioning to online teaching. Our Slovenian colleague, Zvonka Pangerc Pahernik, quoted the reactions to their Lifelong Learning Week, organized in September: “Where were you in May – we needed you then with positive stories!”.
If anything, we know that there are many other positive stories out there. What about you? What are your thoughts on outreach and access during the pandemic – and beyond? Share your thoughts below!
Aleksandra Kozyra is Head of Capacity-Building at the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) in Brussels, Belgium, where she is responsible for EAEA’s events, training programmes and other capacity-building activities. She previously worked as a language teacher in Warsaw, Poland.