Howard teaches in a college in the northwest and uses social networks as a supportive base to situate learning around and authenticate language in dynamic contexts. The functions of online networks can help realise underlying social principles, enable improved communication through communities of practice and facilitate visible and purposeful agency towards objectives, enhancing engagement with peripheral members.
My PhD research has been based on how the use of social networks can enmesh learners in FE to objectives and social processes of learning. This involved a comparison of data from 16-19 groups and adult learners, who I teach the English GCSE resit to. The course of research interviews with students illuminated experiences of adult students having negative academic experiences at past points that impacted on their lives, either through poor schooling practice or contexts in the past, undiagnosed dyslexia or social and economic circumstances. The opportunity to requalify empowers these students in moving and dramatic ways.
One such vignette was an adult student ‘Joe’, a 28 year old with severe dyslexia who had left school at 15 unable to cope, which resulted in anger management issues. Having children of his own transformed Joe’s life, since he wanted to read bedtime stories to his children and “not be the worst reader in my family.” Joe reports positive experiences from school as craftwork, which he excelled at, but which was not a masculine course of study and was treated by teachers as a privilege if he made gains in English. He left school finally one day after going to the toilet and never returning. Our FE college was a beacon of hope and commitment that attracted Joe; even after years of running a successful plastering company and working in factories, Joe rediscovered a courage to correct past mistakes that can be seen as metaphor for learning in general. With a dedication and motivation that was borne of hard work in the adult world, he inspired his classmates.
In our online social network, Joe was prolific in activity: encouraging others, commending their efforts, helping with enquiries and sharing his own work. A momentum built up from these contributions facilitated an improved attention to literacy, checking and correcting and publishing without apprehension and becoming a central actor in bringing others into the arena of the network and thus developing their own attitudes and actions towards success. Similarly, a network supports peripheral voices – members of a group who lack the confidence to contribute in classrooms are empowered through different options. Such a student was highly active in the network, organising and supporting peers with advice and guidance as a digital mentor, where she would normally freeze with shyness in the classroom.
When such actions become visibly displayed in a network, they model positive approaches that resonate throughout a group and provide opportunities to participate in new ways. Interventions to prevent students leaving the course were also assisted by the network and attributable to the community, which helped a student experiencing an abusive relationship to relocate to the college’s town from her own home and supported her absence while she was unable to reach classes. The community rallied and pulled her into a safe and supportive environment and friendships were created that extend beyond the short lifetime of the course.
Another adult student of 27 reported how he enjoyed English at school, but would be chastised by friends who called him “Professor Words” for showing enthusiasm. The night classes and network enabled the student to rectify choices made in adolescence that can sadly instil complacency. Reluctance to show his work in the network became a matter of personal pride once he received warm feedback from the group and caused a domino effect of encouragement and social cohesion. For others, such self intervention comes much later, a dyslexic student comes to my class in his 50s describing being made to stand on a chair and read aloud at 8 years old. The subsequent humiliation caused absence from school and requisite issues throughout life that FE, by providing an opportunity to self-correct, has helped overcome. He’s not alone, but he was vocal in introducing this narrative as significant to his whole existence in our first session. The sense of empathy and relief among others in the group was palpable and encourages an open and sharing atmosphere that is highly conducive to a dynamic learning environment.
There is, I think, a clear correlation between low-literacy and social exclusion or alienation. This story is not presented to judge students’ inabilities to self-manage, nor to criticise the schools methods of the past, but to highlight the obvious fact that we all understand in FE: that education is a continual opportunity that must be everybody’s right and that its value cannot be easily measured, but is commensurable to personal, domestic and social wellbeing. It’s wonderful to think how small clusters meeting in colleges could extend beyond our walls to the wider world and impact positively on families and wider communities, if more adults were to come and experience the values that FE offers.