Zahra Davidson (co-founder of Enrol Yourself) joins Rachel Dobbs (artist & educator) in conversation around learning marathons & self-directed learning


I’ve been following Enrol Yourself (a self-directed learning project initiated in 2016 by Zahra Davidson & Roxana Bacian) since I stumbled across the project while preparing my research presentation “Building more empowered local communities through local global online learninglast summer. If you’re not familiar with the project, I’d recommend downloading the information pack via http://www.enrolyourself.com.


Zahra joined me for a LONG CONVERSATION over skype…

Rachel Dobbs: I’ve invited you into this ‘long conversation’ because I’d like to find out more about your experiences of self-directed learning (as a participant) and your involvement in designing and managing a new ‘platform’ or format for online-enabled self-directed learning (Enrol Yourself).

Enrol Yourself (2016) Learning Marathon diagram

RD: In describing and setting the scene for Enrol Yourself, the analogy of the learning ‘marathon’ seems particularly fruitful, acting as a way to anchor the activity of self-directed learning as a personal, time or distance limited challenge – something that requires persistence, training and dedication, and the achievement of which could be celebrated both by the runner and their supporters (and potentially a wider audience).

How did you come to, or settle on, this particular analogy, and how did it help to focus the process of initially designing the structure of the model?

Zahra Davidson: So that is really well put, and I love the bit about the celebration being for the supporters as well. I really hope we’re able to bring that to life when we have our showcase in March. I think the analogy actually just ‘popped out’ one day rather than coming from a more considered process. We’d been struggling to bring the idea to life though, so we knew we needed a hook. And I think we just said ‘it’s like a learning marathon’ and then immediately felt like it could be really fruitful as an analogy. It has helped us hugely with  fleshing out the concept and getting others excited about it. They go from a blank sheet of paper in terms of what they think self directed learning is, to a route with milestones and flags which they can start to put their goals against.

It did also help us – like you say – to design the process to because we were able to pick up on elements of the analogy, and of other sporting analogies, such as relays, to think about how responsibilities would be shared between people. Another nice thing about the analogy is the fact that a marathon is not an exclusive thing – as education often is. Anyone can tackle it if they have the commitment.

RD: “Anyone can tackle it if they have the commitment” is such a positive sentiment, and very true in terms of self-directed education, and education more widely. Part of this important democratisation and opening-up of education through the way Enrol Yourself works seems to be around de-mystifying elements of education design (the parts that are usually held onto tightly by educational institutions).

As an educator, I’m particularly interested in the structure of the Enrol Yourself programme and what informed your choices here. There is a strong focus on peer-to-peer support (via meetups, touchpoints and intensives), accountability and group momentum. These elements are not always the active focus of traditional educational and training models, which instead often focus on the delivery of content.

How did you come to recognise these elements as key to the self-directed learning experience? And how have these things worked in practice?

ZD: So I think the honest answer is that we used approaches such as  peer to peer out of necessity as well as design. One of our motivations was to create learning experiences for ourselves which would not have the price ticket of formal education. So when we thought about how to make that happen we knew we wanted to learn with a group and we felt that if we enhanced the sharing between members of the group, and if those individuals came with their own life experience and expertise, which of course people do once they’ve been working for a while, that we could create this education by sharing rather than by exchanging money.

The research came after the initial idea was born rather than the other way around. I’d also add that I have a personal interest in all things decentralised and self-organising. In part this stems from my work with Forum for the Future, a sustainability non-profit working with organisations to solve complex challenges. Self-organising structures are often the holy grail in sustainability initiatives where you’re attempting to implement and sustain a change in culture or practice.

The extent to which a learning marathon can be self organising is something we’re exploring as we go. At the moment we are guiding it a lot as well as leaving lots of space and freedom and hoping to strike a balance. I’m really interested in the potential of digital technology to help reduce the administrative ‘burden’ of running a marathon and help to distribute responsibility in an effective way between participants.

RD: It seems that many of these things – avoiding the price ticket of formal education, finding digitally enabled ways of more efficiently sharing information / expertise / networks / practical support / organisational tasks and re-thinking ways to make things more decentralised and self-organising – relate directly to the time and context we find ourselves in, and the type of online systems and communication available to us right now.

What 'ways of doing things' have been most productive in your / the group's experience so far?

ZD: I think our focus from the beginning has been on creating a structure through which people can learn – rather than on creating a curriculum. I think this has been productive in lots of ways. Firstly because it has allowed a group of (what would usually be perceived as) disparate people to learn alongside each other. The feedback has been that people have found the different perspectives very broadening for their own thinking. So in that sense I can see that this process is more effective for some types of learning, people and projects – but then we did know that would be the case. The second reason that focusing on structure has been an effective way of working is that it has forced people to take the responsibility for their own personal curriculum and I think that whilst that might not produce as much instant knowledge acquisition as a programme where you are given a curriculum based on your interest, there are skills you gain from having to work a bit harder and I think those skills are in demand in the workplace.

RD: I am nodding vigorously at your answer!

ZD: On a day-to-day level we’ve added some almost gimmicky elements to the programme which I think help people to ‘stick’ to it. This includes a golden relay baton which gets passed from person to person as part of a blogging relay that we’re doing. Also we all have secret tasks where we have to gift or surprise the group with something. And we are designing medals for the end. Those are just a few examples, but I think those details really help to turn learning into something compelling not just something functional. I think that’s the key to why our website appealed to people – because it made learning look like an adventure (even though we had no idea at that stage how we were going to do it!)

RD: Haha – yes, injecting the adventure back into the (sometimes quite challenging, time-consuming, hard-work) experience of learning – the way the project presents itself does this really successfully.

How do you feel about the term gamification in relation to these types of tasks / baton / medals? Is there a better term?

ZD: I like the term. I guess I associate it with tech which now I think about it doesn’t make sense because games are much older than computers. Maybe we should adopt the term more explicitly! I think we want to create a sense that there’s this route that you’re going to take and it will look different for different people depending on choices you make along the way. In a real marathon these choices are small, such as when to take a bottle of water, when to look up at the buildings that are near you etc. For a learning marathon they have bigger implications, much more like narrative video games these days. There are multiple routes through the same game. Maybe I should do some research by playing some more games!

I also had a game when I was younger that was an Asterix and Obelix story book where you took choices within the book and it would tell you what page to go to next – so there were multiple routes. It would be brilliant to make a learning marathon guide using the same gaming principles.

RD: Multiple routes through the same game is a great way of thinking about it – and something about participants being able to compare their ‘results’ or achievements with their peers. Starting to think of learning as an open-world or sandbox type game is also really nice!! Choosing your own adventure… I’m imagining that that sense of being in it together – much like in the ‘real’ marathon situation – is also really useful for continuation of individual motivation. And that you’d have to ‘drop out’ of a group if you didn’t want to / couldn’t complete it…

In terms of things that help participants 'stick to' their marathons, is it also helpful for them / you to name it as such eg "I'm doing this learning marathon thing" - to explain your activities over the year / 6 months to loved-ones / co-workers / colleagues, and to get them to help hold you to account / stick to your plans?

It seems a ‘playful’ naming too…

ZD: Yes, I think that has been helpful to us, particularly because the participants mostly have full time occupations so it is very difficult sometimes to prioritise these activities. I think we could do things to make this more explicit from the beginning as well. In this group we are fundraising for a charity, getting sponsored by friends and family to complete our marathons. So that was a really good impetus to inform everyone we know of what we’re doing. But I think next time it might be nice to assign ‘sponsors’ who could be a close friend who has the explicit task of supporting your marathon.

I think accountability is interesting because some people feel more accountable to the group than others. I think what we have created is an enthusiastic momentum which supports people. I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to become more accountable to this process than to their other responsibilities so it’s finding the balance.

RD: Yes – it must be really tricky! It takes a lot to dedicate time and attention towards things like learning, especially in self-directed ways, carving out the time etc and finding ways to work out what you ‘value’ in this situation. I was really drawn to the idea that this would be a group of people who would be work full-time alongside though – really ambitious…

Enrol Yourself has clear application criteria that help to focus potential participants on the self-directed nature of the experience of the ‘learning marathon’. These desirable qualities include being proactive, bringing a strong network to the project, skills in facilitation and communication and professional experience.

What difference has selecting participants with these qualities made to the learning experience?

ZD: I think the selection has been crucial to the process. Which in some senses is a shame. It would be lovely to say that anyone who wants to do it can sign up and do it. I think that detaching from the model that we all have of learning being something delivered to you by a teacher is really difficult, even if you really want to do so. So I think it’s really important that people know what they’re getting themselves into and that they are committed to the process. I think that commitment factor was not in our criteria last time. Of course we looked for it through interviews, but I think next time we would include that at the top! And be able to give a clearer sense of what that commitment entails.

The people that we selected, for the most part, have been really interested in each other. And I think that’s key to this. If you’re not actually – really – interested in learning from others then this process probably won’t work for you. If you want to progress something in a solitary way then a peer-to-peer learning experience will make you feel pulled in too many directions

RD: Great to have found those things out through the process! That leads nicely into another question I have around adjusting to this mode of learning…

Starting out to learn new things can be a difficult process for individuals – full of known knowns, unknown unknowns and blindspots (I’m thinking more of the “Johari window” technique –  than Donnald Rumsfeld here!).

How have participants been finding the experience of designing their own learning paths? And what types of curriculum design tools have people developed for themselves during the process so far?

ZD: Haha, yes! I think there are some participants who have taken to designing their own path with ease, and there are some who have struggled with it. We provided some tools at the beginning to support curriculum design, for example goal setting tools and a route to plot milestones against. I think this helped people to get their heads around things at the start but then people have managed it in their own way from there. I know that one participant has used an approach of having ‘four tracks’ where three are thematic and one is self-care, so that is an explicit part of her curriculum which I think is great. It shows that you can really tailor this process to your needs. We will do a collection at the end of all the tools people have used.

I also think we have lots of work to do in preparing for another group – I think we should have more workshops at the beginning which introduce all the approaches to self-directed learning and support people more than we did this time. Or maybe we could make the introduction into a short online module or something.

RD: That collection of approaches to self-directed learning from participants will be great – hope you can publish it / share in some way. An online module makes good sense too, as a way to introduce common foundational stuff – I guess in the way you’d have post-graduate ‘academic skills training’ as part of a PhD or MRes programme… It will be really interesting to see how you shape this. So, we’re pretty much out of time, but I wonder if I could slip in another (potentially massive) question to round up on…

One of the statements of intent for Enrol Yourself was “We are working out what affordable, flexible, lifelong learning might look like.” It might be too early to say, but what have you learned and identified so far?

ZD: Good question! So, I think lifelong learning is a very slippery concept because you can argue – and people do – that it is a process which happens all by itself. And of course we are all learning all the time, but often I think we’re learning how to repeat a pattern more efficiently at work, or we’re learning to reaffirm our own reflexes by socialising with the same people. None of which is a crime, but it’s also not what I would call intentional or developmental learning. So what we wanted to do was support meaningful, purposeful learning, the kind that if you’re lucky you did experience at some point during school, university or work. So I think that the duration and continuity of the group is something really valuable – and that has been confirmed through the process. There is a sense that together we continue when it gets hard, repeatedly practising the process, which eventually makes it easier. So whilst of course there will always be a place for one-off events, workshops and inspirations in lifelong learning I do think there is a lack of extended processes for adults who are working but want to learn at the same time. For good reason: it’s hard to do it alongside work! I’m currently working on a sentence to follow Learning Marathon which will be something like ‘for a life that’s about learning experiences, social connections and purposeful creativity’.

RD: NICE!

ZD: It’s not finalised yet but I think it is representative of one of our biggest insights: that what we’re doing is about helping people to have a lifestyle and a ‘life feel’ that they’re looking for along the way – and that learning is one way to do that. So we’re interested in reprogramming people’s perception of what learning is for and absolutely not treating it as preparation only for the world of work. Although of course in reality everything you do is preparation for everything else you do..

Watch this space!

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Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist and educator based in Plymouth, UK. Rachel is involved in producing learning resources and running workshops, teaching & training sessions in using online resources & OER for a range of formal & informal groups including students, arts practitioners and communities. She has a long-term interest in creative approaches to using simple technology & experimental teaching, learning and development– contact me for more details.

Zahra Davidson is co-founder of Enrol Yourself, a Learning Marathon participant and an affiliate of Forum for the Future. Zahra’s freelance work centres around design and strategy for learning programmes and experiences. She is fascinated by the intersection between learning and design, and interested in how learning can be a tool for progressing the collective mindset shifts we need to underpin a more sustainable world.  

You can find out more about Enrol Yourself here.

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