A Glasgow City of Learning?

6 considerations for adopting a technology-enabled approach to enhancing lifelong learning, and access to enrichment opportunities, across a city

Recently I’ve been exploring the idea of a Glasgow City of Learning. Having raised the idea with a small group of interested parties from the University of Glasgow, I thought I’d share some of the thinking behind the Cities of Learning (CofL) movement and considerations for using this approach to connect individuals with opportunities across a city.

Cities of Learning by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND

Cities of Learning is a new place-based approach to enhancing lifelong learning through digitally connecting individuals to learning, employment and civic opportunities within a defined locality. The concept originated in the USA, and in 2017 I was part of a team formed by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and Digitalme (supported by FETL, City & Guilds and Ufi) to bring the concept to the UK. We worked with three cities to develop blueprints, skills spines and a digital platform prototype to investigate if the CofL model could enrich the lives and prospects of city inhabitants, through connecting learning pathways to city-wide opportunities.

I have written an overview of the Cities of Learning approach and the thinking behind the technology blueprint for the UK Cities of Learning in a post for the Pascal International Observatory. In this post, I reflect on some of the considerations for cities that think they might like to become a City of Learning.

Cities of Learning

The Cities of Learning movement grew out of the Chicago Summer of Learning in 2013, when more than 100 organisations that offered informal learning opportunities in the city, joined together to make their programs more visible. Since then further cities have taken up the approach and are currently supporting over 34,000 learners and hundreds of organisations to recognise learning and provide access to a range of opportunities across each city. The method used to raise the profile and visibility of these learning opportunities is Open Badges.

Open Badges

Open Badges enable individuals and organisations to evidence and share their learning and achievements across the web. The Open Badge Infrastructure is an open standard, and Open Badges can be created and issued by anyone, including informal learning providers or by entities that don’t consider learning provision to be their core business, e.g. voluntary organisations, youth groups, individuals and employers.

Badge-based pathways

As the Mozilla Discover Open Badges project demonstrated, badges can be enhanced by being connected together in pathways, and this concept was used for the UK Cities of Learning digital solution blueprints. The thinking behind a digital solution is that badges can be created and awarded by a range of badge issuers to evidence all types of learning across the city, including hard, soft, employability, lifelong learning and civic engagement skills. The badges can be connected and linked to opportunities, enabling individuals to discover, take badges and follow pathways to opportunities across the city.

Considerations for a becoming a City of Learning

There is a lot to consider in becoming a City of Learning but I think the following would be helpful to support success.

Engage with a range of stakeholders from across the city

To create enough options for learning across a city and generate interest in engaging, it is important to work with a wide variety of stakeholders to develop the local context; map and develop learning, employment and civic opportunities; and support uptake. Stakeholders are likely to include: local and locally-based employers; formal education institutions; informal learning organisations; cultural, arts and heritage organisations; the third sector; public services; and prospective users.

Capture employability skills to build a richer picture

One of the benefits of Open Badges is that they can be used to capture less tangible skills or character attributes, sometimes referred to as soft or employability skills, such as empathy, curiosity, being an effective team player and so on. Due to their ability to include evidence of learning in a range of contexts, such as a video demonstrating a skill gained in the workplace; or endorsements from a range of audiences, such as peers, educators and employers; they can provide a richer picture of a person’s skills and attributes, than those provided by academic transcripts alone. This knowledge can help both learners and opportunity providers by helping the learner to refine their understanding of their skills and interests, and the opportunity provider to find the best fit for their context.

Support engagement from disadvantaged groups

One of the most important aspects for me, when considering implementing a City of Learning, is that it it also engages harder to reach groups and people from disadvantaged backgrounds and not just those who are already well placed to take advantage of educational opportunities.

Research shows the challenges young people can face when making decisions and engaging in activities relating to their future, including the social and economic factors that can affect this (see the Badge pathways page on Badge Wiki for the research that influenced the Mozilla Discover Open Badges in this regard). Many young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can struggle to articulate their strengths and they often lack awareness of, and confidence in their ability to attain a range of potentially fulfilling and rewarding career or learning opportunities. As a result of this, they often fail to engage with opportunities that could ultimately enhance and enrich their lives.

Such challenges are highlighted in the RSA’s New Digital Learning Age report, which found that some young people, (the “held back”), lack the social and practical resources to access enrichment opportunities. Similarly participants in the UK CofL learner focus groups commented that they often felt poorly connected to opportunities either because they were unaware of where to find them, or due to practical or financial barriers (such as transport).

A City of Learning, therefore, should enable individuals to discover opportunities, provide the means to move towards them but also help them to build the confidence to engage with them.

Enable discovery

Not everyone knows where they want to go with their career, learning or civic participation (I certainly didn’t!) but feedback from the UK CofL learner focus groups, and learning from the Discover Open Badges project, suggests that seeing multiple pathways stemming from the range of skills that are inherent to their interests, could help individuals to discover opportunities they may not have previously considered. Badges connected to an individual’s interests, that lead to a variety of opportunities, can support this.

Provide the means

Achievable stepping-stones towards a goal can provide the means and impetus to move towards that destination. Digital badges presented in a clear pathway to an opportunity can help learners see a goal and how to work towards it.

Build confidence and motivation

Being aware they have some of the skills required to attain a certain opportunity, including opportunities they may not have considered possible previously, can provide powerful motivation for individuals to move towards that goal. This can be particularly important for disadvantaged young people, who may lack awareness of their skills and the confidence to grasp opportunities they actually have some of the skills to attain.

The stakeholder network built around a CofL is important to ensure there are opportunities for all, including harder to reach groups, to gain recognition for their skills. Organisations should be identified in the city to aid this process and help individuals to receive badges in the contexts in which they are comfortable, for example through skills demonstrated in social or informal learning settings. Having gained some badges for their skills, seeing that these badges connect to opportunities on pathways could aid motivation to enage with further opportunites on those pathways.

A Glasgow City of Learning

Like most (all?) cities, Glasgow has its share of socio-economic challenges, which are reflected in access to and uptake of educational, employment and civic opportunities.

Could the City of Learning approach encourage participation in enrichment opportunities, support motivation to engage and enhance aspiration? I’d certainly like to find out and having worked with, and across, many educational, industry, voluntary and governmental organisations in Glasgow, I believe there could be appetite for trialling the City of Learning approach in the city.

If you would be interested in being part of the group exploring the idea of a Glasgow City of Learning, please leave a comment below or get in touch.