What is the Rede Casa do Conhecimento network about and how does it support the development of basic skills among adult learners in remote areas?
Rede Casas do Conhecimento (RCdC)/Houses of Knowledge Network (HoKN) was established in 2010, by the University of Minho and four municipalities from the northern region of Portugal1. It was founded as a pilot project, financed by a national project under ON.2, with the aim of creating a network of people and resources in the field of information and communication technologies. The idea was that this network would function as a place to share knowledge, promote innovation and establish a context for an effective interaction between the University, the region and its populations.
A “House of Knowledge (Casa do Conhecimento)” was designed to be a flexible and interactive learning place, physically close to the local population and freely accessible to all sectors of society. A place where educational, cultural or knowledge dissemination activities would be developed and adapted to the needs of the region and, above all, respecting the capabilities and the digital skills of its population.
Between 2010 and 2012, we managed to set-up and equip five HoK, each one of them equipped with videoconferencing systems. This allowed us to develop a wide range of activities like seminars, conferences, workshops, training courses, exhibitions and technological demonstrations. We wanted to contribute to reducing the digital gap and promote effective inclusion of the population in the so called “Information and Knowledge Society”. In addition we sought to provide equal and efficient access and use of digital technologies by inviting people to participate in the activities we were developing, either individually - by each HoK to its population - or as a network making the most of the resources used to develop the activities.
Between 2012 and 2014, with the HoK proving to be a successful concept both inside and outside the University and with growing interest from a wide range of municipalities, four other municipalities joined the network2 with the aim of providing their citizens with a HoK and collaborating in the development of activities and events for citizens.
In 2018, the University of Minho presented the Network to the National Agency for Administrative Modernization (AMA), as a model for an effective Interaction between Higher Education Institutions and Society at large. We were tasked with expanding the concept to another region of Portugal, namely the region of Alentejo with the collaboration of University of Évora.
Proximity and territory are two vital concepts for our network. We believe that the uniqueness of each of the municipalities, and of the Universities themselves, is a stimulus for sharing and building a dynamic and diversified network, where network members, motivated by this proximity to and sharing of the same territory, develop a set of activities that simultaneously contribute to the development of each municipality and of the region. Therefore, the idea of the project e-civitas that we are running now in collaboration with UÉvora, is not to expand the existing network to Alentejo, but to create a new network of Houses of Knowledge in Alentejo and to establish a national network of HoK networks.
Considering that the University of Minho Rector's action program for 2017-2021 clearly took on the challenge of deepening the University's commitment to society, namely through the promotion of a greater presence of the Institution in the territory and through the development of a program for the dissemination of research and scientific culture, it was clear that the House of Knowledge of University of Minho could and should play an important role in this agenda. In the light of this, it was brought within the scope of the University's organic structure as a Cultural Unit, bearing in mind its clear vocation for university extension, as well as its capacity to materialise the idea of a University without walls, capable of promoting the University’s mission to interact with society.
We all know that universities are knowledge houses by nature and that they serve societies in two main ways. First, by training citizens and producing highly trained professionals to perform in different fields; second, in the development of research and innovation in order to find solutions to society’s greatest challenges. But they are also tasked with contributing to the public understanding of culture, with analysing and presenting solutions to the main problems of daily life, and with forming partnerships for social and economic development, in regional, national or international contexts.
Within the University, the HoK network is focused on this latter mission. Taking advantage of the Human Resources and Knowledge available within the University and, in collaboration with local authorities, we organise a set of educational and cultural activities that we believe contribute to the enhancement of the capabilities and skills of the population. In this way, the population becomes active citizens participating fully in, and taking advantage of, the Information and Knowledge Society.
We organise a variety of activities including formal post-graduate courses. For example, from 2010 to 2014, we ran two distance-learning Master Courses in Educational Technologies for Teachers. Instead of driving to the university to attend classes - which would demand more time and resources - students were able to attend lessons from their local HoK, through videoconferencing systems.
We have also created a “Reader Community” within our network. We invite citizens from across our network to read a book a month. Once a month, our readers meet at the HoKs to talk about their reading experience. The book clubs are organised regionally with a virtual connection (using the videoconference systems) between all HoK. This allows readers to share their experience not only locally but also with other readers from a different HoK. By doing this, we are able to invite authors or experts on the topic of the book to come and talk and stimulate interesting debates and conversations between the academics and citizens.
We also run seminars and conferences at the University which are attended remotely by citizens from our local HoK, as well as workshops and exhibitions, among other kind of activities.
It is important to mention that our HoKs are mainly located in rural areas, where there are no HEI. UMinho uses this initiative as a way of reaching these populations.
It is not easy to organise activities for a wider public, especially when the academic community is not used to communicating with society at large. Information must be communicated differently so that all citizens can understand. We want to be the bridge between academia and civil society, raising debates around interesting topics.
We are currently organising an online activity called “Combater a Pandemia com UM Conhecimento”/ “Fighting the pandemic with UM knowledge” (UM meaning UMINHO). We have invited researchers from UMinho to choose a topic to be discussed with average citizens that could help them better face the negative impacts of the Covid-19 in their daily lives. The topics relate, for example, to health issues such as the correct use of masks or the impact of Covid-19 on mental health, as well as economic and financial topics such as state aid that people can apply for, etc. Once a month, we invite people to join us on Zoom for a 45 minute conversation during which the participants watch a short presentation on the topic and are able to ask the experts questions.
How did the COVID-19 outbreak affect the activities you were carrying out with the Rede de Casas de Conhecimento?
We were used to using technologies to support our activities but the COVID-19 outbreak showed how important digital access and skills really are. We were used to physically bringing together our communities in our HoK. These physical gatherings allowed those with a lack of access and skills to take part in our activities and, by doing so, to become familiar with technologies and understand how they can be used in many different ways.
We had to stop our activities in March and April. Not because we could not develop them, but because people were too busy trying to understand what was going on, protecting themselves and organising their lives. When we returned in May with our Readers Community we had to do everything online. We were not able to gather physically in our HoK, so our readers had to attend the sessions remotely from home, which they did. They asked us how to get online and we helped them. Having colleagues responsible for local HoK, who were close to the communities helped us to reach people easily and explain how they could join us from their own devices at home. In fact, participation increased during this period.
In the future, as soon as we can return to our HoK, we want to keep this hybrid participation going; meeting physically in our HoK while promoting individual digital participation. This is because we know that face to face contact is important and there are still people who need our help to participate and develop their skills.
How are you planning to exploit the results obtained with this particular initiative within the framework of European collaboration programmes and opportunities?
So far, we have been focusing on exploiting the results nationally, but it would be interesting to find European Partners enrolled in similar initiatives, that promote informal learning environments for adult learners focused on developing ICT skills or on using technologies to develop informal training initiatives that promote active citizenship, not only to share this experience as a good practice, but also to learn from their experience.
Some of our HoK are based in public libraries and are run in collaboration with the librarians, who could also benefit from having the opportunity to participate in training abroad or in collaborative projects that could bring a European dimension to our network.
Topics like European Citizenship are also one of our interests. We believe that our rural communities would benefit from participating in European mobilities or from interacting with other adult learners from other European countries. We are used to developing mobility projects both for and with younger people, but it would be interesting to develop a short mobility experience with adult learners. It might be challenging, but it would be a great experience.
1. Vila Verde, Fafe, Paredes de Coura and Vieira do Minho
2. Boticas, Montalegre, Trofa and Ponte da Barca.
As project manager, Cláudia Araújo Amaro was responsible for the international department of two Portuguese vocational Schools, from 2008 to 2018, where she coordinated and managed more than 20 EU projects (LDV, Comenius, Grundtvig, Erasmus +) focused on VET and WBL periods abroad. In 2015, she started collaborating as EU Project Manager for Arts & Skills – a Portuguese Education & Training organization active in organizing WBL periods for incoming and outgoing VET students, under the Erasmus + programs. In 2012, she was invited to collaborate in the project “Rede Casas do Conhecimento” as digital facilitator, organizing and implementing cultural and educational activities, supported by ICT, in a close collaboration with the network members of “Rede Casas do Conhecimento”. With a curious spirit and eager for lifelong learning, Cláudia enrolled in a master course in Information Systems and is currently writing her Master Thesis about the work she has been developing within this network.