Building more empowered local communities through local global online learning

Read my recent provocation on Open Education and how digital platforms can enable improved community learning and development for Digital Plymouth Conference 2016. It’s sparked lots of conversation since the event!!

Lat week, I was an invited speaker at the inaugural Digital Plymouth Conference (Plymouth, UK). The event was really well attended (200+ audience) and #DigiPlymConf trended on twitter many times throughout the day. For those of you who missed the event, the videos of all the presentations should be posted online at some point soon, and in the meantime, I thought it might be useful to publish the text of my talk here, introducing some ideas about how we could build more empowered local communities through global online learning.


I’m a freelance artist & educator (based in Plymouth, UK), interested in how digital platforms can enable improved community learning and development.

In this talk, I’d like to explore how the shift in digital technologies over the last 20 years has irrevocably changed education and our ideas around learning, opening up potential new spaces and opportunities that could be used by individuals and groups in local communities to build skills, take greater ownership and improve their situation.

rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learningAlongside my work in the arts and education, I am also a committed, curious autodidact and learning addict. Being an autodidact used to be a relative oddity, but I’d like to argue here that with the complete integration of digital technologies in our everyday lives that has happened over the last 10 years, that WE ARE ALL AUTODIDACTS NOW.


to-share-rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learning-1Currently, you would be hard-pressed to go through a day in your life without learning something new – but you might be unlikely to think of what you are involved in as education in a strict formal sense. This is partly due to the way we think about “education” itself – as something that happens in schools, colleges or universities – as something formal, where a teacher teaches and learners learn. Something that happens ‘outside’ of our daily lives.

From distance learning to micro learning…


This timeline shows the recent/current period of rapid change in what we think of as learning and autodidacticsm – or self-teaching. I’ve started here in 1969 with the establishment of the Open University – a dedicated distance learning provider, although they are by no means the first in that field (that mantle is held by a correspondence course in shorthand from the 1700s).

You can see that the timeline follows through to the mid-90s, where online learning, then virtual learning environments start to provide formal e-learning frameworks, and then through the 2000s where the mainstream adoption of online video and smartphones introduces a whole new layer of informal mobile learning.

to-share-rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learning-3This represents a massive shift – from the classroom, or carefully prepared distance learning materials to the phone in your pocket. In 2016, CONTENT IS EVERYWHERE. We can access an unparalleled amount of information, and learning is only ever a quick google search away.

Learning is no longer divorced from our lives – and the information networks we access on a daily basis are our new classrooms.


This has come about through a kind of perfect storm:

  • The explosion of devices (since the mid 2000s)
  • Coupled with the ease of search & on-demand information
  • This has led even established education providers to re-think their models, with many exploring non-linear courses and blended learning solutions that involve both online and face-to-face delivery
  • It has also opened up a new movement in education, where educators can more easily share, reuse and remix learning resources via creative commons licensing and cheap and easy online publishing


These shifts have also reinforced some things that educators have been aware of for some time:

Learning is social

to-share-rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learning-5There is a reason that for thousands of years, we have come together in schools or other meeting places to learn things from eachother, and form what Lave & Wenger dubbed “communities of practice”. We learn through observation, questioning, repetition, discussion and positive reinforcement, as much as we do through direct instruction. And we have built our online frameworks and environments (shaped through digital interfaces, www, Web 2.0, mobile apps, gaming etc) as an inherently social space too – with comments, likes, feedback, sharing and discourse.

Learner-centred approaches are now a must 

to-share-rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learning-6… and no longer just an option. The learning experience competes alongside all our other potential experiences in what has been referred to as the “Attention Economy” – as Matthew Crawford puts it “Attention is a resource – a person has only so much of it.”. Why would you spend your time learning something, especially something difficult to master, when there’s a whole series of Stranger Things waiting for you on Netflix? Educators need to better understand learners’ motivations, and support these through invisible learning management systems – other approaches run the risk of seeming really clunky and unintuitive.

Project-based learning is now the norm 

to-share-rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learning-7We’re entering a phase where accreditation has the potential of becoming less valuable quite quickly, and a strong portfolio or track record of successfully completed real-world projects becomes the kind of gold standard. This also mirrors how we learn – we now rarely reach for textbooks, spend time locating experts or take in-depth courses to learn new things. Instead that simple search for “How to change a tyre” or “advanced Photoshop techniques” brings us on-demand education, straight to our devices so that we can use it in context. This direct and potentially instantaneous application of learning, also links back to the ideas of motivation – I am stuck on the side of the motorway, NOW, I need to learn how to change a tyre – and I can! We’re less often learning “just in case” of something but instead “just in time”.

So what has all this got to do with communities becoming more empowered??

Current central government definitions and policy around community education, are pretty dire and uninspiring… So, I’m going to look to our neighbours in the north, and quote from Adult Learning in Scotland’s Statement of Ambition:

Community Learning & Development is about: “Adults transform[ing] their lives and communities through learning choices in personal, work, family and community settings.”

To achieve this, Community Learning needs to be:

  • Accessible at all stages of life
  • Capacity building
    • developing individual ability & skills – so that people are more likely to reach their potential
    • developing confidence
  • Building social capital
    • building networks & enabling collaboration
  • Improving quality of life
    • developing personal skills
    • achieving better outcomes & improved life chances

I would also argue that Community Learning & Development needs to be about:

  • Resilience
    • Skilling up in securing / gathering the resources necessary to achieve better outcomes
  • Developing responsible, confident individuals who can contribute effectively
    • People with the knowledge, skill & inclination to ensure their communities can respond to rapid changes
    • Influencing strategy & policy at local and national levels

Chris Webb – How To Save A Football Club

I’ll give you an example of the kind of person I mean. Some of you might know, or know of, Chris Webb, an ex-postman and Communication Workers Union rep and lifelong Plymouth Argyle fan. Chris explains in his TED talk how he likes to go to the football to get away from work, to relax and to shout at the referee like everyone else. When Argyle went into administration in 2011 due to financial mismanagement, he went to a public meeting to hear the proposals the board were making to sell-off the club.

Disillusioned at the prospect of a small number of individuals, who were likely to gain financially from the proposals, driving the agenda, he stood up to challenge those in power, voicing the concerns of thousands of fans who felt as helpless as he did. His, initially reluctant, action played a key part in saving the club – by galvanising support, mobilising the fans and ensuring that the supporters were the ones to drive the changes at the club and genuinely influence the administration process.

Responsible, confident individuals

I would argue that Chris is a great example of a responsible, confident individual who can contribute effectively, one of the key people in the process with the knowledge, skill & inclination to ensure their community could respond to rapid changes, and safeguard community interest.

And he would probably be the first to say that what allowed him in part to do this (or feel like he could do this) was the education, training, on-the-job experience and support he had gained in conflict resolution, understanding how to bring people together, managing negotiations between different stakeholders and direct action & campaigning strategies developed through his work in the Union. He was READY & ABLE TO TAKE ACTION WHEN HE NEEDED TO.

He didn’t take a course in “How to save a football club” & he didn’t plan to take this on. We’re remembering that learning is not always formal, linear or planned. He took what he had learned at work and applied that knowledge in a real-world situationHis story also proves that when people feel confident, and with that  knowledge, skill & inclination, leadership comes from within the community.

Imagine if access to education, information and on-going learning embedded in daily life could empower more individuals like Chris to make change in their own communities?

If we return to the ideas I unpacked in the explanation of this “perfect storm” we find ourselves in, there is less and less reason why this shouldn’t be the case…

Resources, not courses

to-share-rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learning-9For example, with a day or so of searching online, an educator or learning designer could gather information & training materials available on, say, conflict resolution. I’m pretty sure any learner in the community could do this too, so long as they had a good idea of what they were searching for… this is where support in choosing search terms and critical appraisal of the information returned comes into its own.

Image-centric communication

to-share-rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learning-10What the educator & learning designer would then do is make that information more digestible – translating it from text to image centric forms if necessary, re-presenting it, developing exercises and activities that enhance the learning process and so on…

Bite-sized is the right size

to-share-rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learning-11…making that information purposeful, short, efficient, relevant & concise. This process takes a bit of time… but does mean that by the end of that, they have a series of resources that can be published, reused or remixed, made accessible to a global audience, supporting the active transmission, sharing and development of knowledge and skills.

You can see examples of this type of process at work in:

  • Kahn Academy – an online learning platform established by Salman Kahn in 2006, when he started making youtube videos to help tutor his younger cousin in maths


  • Code Club – set up by Clare Sutcliffe & Linda Sandvik in 2012 with the desire to get school-aged kids coding.

  • Enrol Yourself – set up earlier this year by Zahra Davidson & Roxana Bacian, to bring small communities of self-directed learners together to create their own individual syllabuses and study remotely, but alongside each other in self-styled “learning marathons” undertaken over a one year period.
Enrol Yourself (2016) Learning Marathon diagram
Enrol Yourself (2016) Learning Marathon diagram – from

Community-led solutions

to-share-rachel-dobbs-building-more-empowered-local-communities-through-global-online-learning-12What all of these examples also have in common, is that they are community-led solutions to problems about how best to share knowledge, and more easily learn things. They each began as non-commercial, volunteer-led, community interest entities.

This suggests that to lead to situations of greater community empowerment by tapping into global online learning, we also need to rethink the business models surrounding education, and think disruptively, informed by digital distribution / blended learning approaches and what is continuously being developed in learning design & digital education practice.


I’m going to round off this talk with a quote from Stewart Brand in 1984 – a slogan that has since been adopted by technology activists who stand against limiting access to information. The original goes something like this…

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.”

I’d like to commandeer this statement today, to say that like information, EDUCATION also wants to be free…


It is incredibly valuable, has the potential to genuinely change your life and many want to make it prohibitively expensive (through hikes in tuition fees, removal of public funding and pay-wall access in for-profit models). However, we live at a point where education has the potential to have the lowest barriers to entry ever in terms of accessibility and distribution, and maybe by re-thinking where learning fits in the development of our communities, we can help education become free, or at least a little bit freeer!!


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.

Did you enjoy the talk / this text? How do these ideas relate to your own practice and research? Do you agree with the statements I am making? What am I over-looking? Or over-simplifying? Let me know in the comments below… or via twitter @RachelDobbs1


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