Community learning as an alternative to expensive courses


Some thoughts on how to make learning opportunities available to more people at a time when fees are rising.

I’ve been looking around for some training courses on all things digital media of late. It’s that time of year with the new academic calendar looming. Yet this year seems to be the first where I’ve really felt my age (mid-30s) when looking around for daytime courses. That plus the cost of retraining is becoming increasingly prohibitive in these constrained times.

Price, timing and accessibility

For the corporate market, you are looking at paying over £400 for a one day course on digital media. Despite the wide selection in this case, the prices are prohibitive. We don’t have the equivalent of a ‘CityLit’ that they have in London. Or a Birkbeck for that matter – they have an excellent selection of short courses. Ditto the Media Trust here. All of these require a journey down to London on my part.

Cambridge ‘as is’ simply isn’t united or big enough at the moment to sustain the sort of programs I’ve linked above. But given improved public transport links along with the housing growth that is happening and projected over the next decade, I can’t see that remaining the case. I’ve also commented on the fragmented nature of publicising things in Cambridge – whether learning courses, entertainment or public consultations.

Community learning

I hosted a workshop at UKGovCamp 2014 about this in a digital skills context – see my blogpost and screenshots here. The diversity in our working group meant that I came away learning far more than I had anticipated. I also became aware of problems that I didn’t even know existed – such as some people being unwilling to take part in workshops or courses because they were being hosted in schools – bringing back bad memories.

“Build a massive community centre instead to integrate all the estates”

Pauline Pearce talking about gentrification in London here. I’d love to see the building below in Cambridge turned into something like this – one where town and gown can mix & interact.

The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible
The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

One of the things I hope will emerge from Be the change – Cambridge (plug-plug-plug!) is a group of people who will push for this to be brought back into use – one that is as diverse as it is active. In particular, one that can put pressure on the colleges and Cambridge University. From what I’ve seen across a number of fields, there is hidden demand for affordable informal community learning. From Sookio’s excellent social media master classes to Transition Cambridge’s buzzing practical gatherings, there is a desire for people to come together, socialise and make our lives just that little bit easier & more interesting.

Are there some things you become too old to do by your mid-30s?

I think there was only one player in England’s 2014 World Cup squad older than me. The sort of commentary I grew up with is summarised by this lovely compilation put together by The Lightning Seeds with the now defunct ‘Goal Magazine’ in autumn 1995 – subsequently released as a B-side to ‘What If?’. Recently, walking back through Coleridge Rec there were some kids playing football. As is always the case, the ball went far out of bounds of their pitch, flying through the air in my direction. One touch, controlling the ball in mid-air with the outside of my right foot, sending it back towards one of them who ran to collect the ball. Yep. Still. Got. It. Fitness may be temporary, but the instinct is permanent when it comes to the beautiful game I guess. I said similar with ballroom dancing: dance technique may be temporary, but floorcraft is permanent 😉

It’s one thing having a kick-about, something I’d still love to do, but quite another where you are being properly trained and coached. Think about swimming lessons for adults. Even though from a certain age we go past our physical peak, isn’t there room for learning a new skill that involves physical movement long after our physical peak? If there is – and I think there is having seen older dancers go from being beginners to being competent dancers, are we providing the opportunities? Personally I’d love to get back into football where I’m learning new things, but being in my mid-30s…exactly.

But then…learning doesn’t have to involve a course or a qualification

Puffles in a Basement Jaxx video. You read that correctly.

Everything I’ve done with the Dowsing Sound Collective has been as far removed from rigid syllabuses as I can think in a musical context. It’s why I challenged a number of music teachers to do what Andrea’s doing with DSC for musical instruments generally. The Duxford Workshop already does this outside of Cambridge – see here. It’s always useful to have examples to point towards. The problem I’ve had is with wider audiences. There are lots of wonderful examples of small to medium scale groups and societies doing wonderful things. The bit Cambridge historically has struggled with in my experience is scaling up.

Why does scaling up matter?

The first is sustainability. The second is inspiration. The third is the future of Cambridge


Can we increase the financial sustainability of community groups (at a time when council grants are being cut)? I think we can – certainly in and around Cambridge. In a ‘steady state’ Cambridge, many groups and organisations could probably cope as they are. The problem is that Cambridge is growing and costs of living/operating are rising. So how can they adapt?


For me it’s very easy to relate to the opposite of this. In my case, secondary school and church almost killed any passion for music during my teens. This is why everything I’ve done in 2014 with the Dowsing Sound Collective has been … just … ***Wow***

It doesn’t mean everything has to be scaled up. Cambridge Carbon Footprint’s projects work at a ‘friends in a living room’ level with sustainable living. It’s the ‘think global, act local’ mindset – but knowing you’re part of something greater than the sum of your parts. Not everything has to be on stage in front of hundreds. But can we combine a sense of excitement and dynamism that keeps us going through the more mundane but essential activities that need doing? Because with past volunteering activities, it was the energy from the exciting things (eg the grand balls) that made cycling across town in the cold windy rain for a late night committee meetings worthwhile.

The future of Cambridge

This brings me back to the points I made at the start of this blogpost. Cambridge is growing – whether we like it or not. This means that larger community activities previously too big for the city are now no longer so. My challenge to the institutions is whether they are prepared for the demands a growing population will put on them. Given the number of local politicians that’ll be in listening mode at Be the change Cambridge, (they have a code of conduct we’ve drafted for them!) it’ll be interesting to see what follow-up actions from the institutions will come from it.

‘Why is it that children get all the fun?’

This was a question put to me by a couple of acquaintances. Why don’t we have the equivalent of Duke of Edinburgh or National Citizen Service? Good question. In Cambridge our universities put on summer schools for international students with wealthy parents (along with much-welcomed Sutton Trust schemes), but why don’t we have well-publicised equivalents for adults? What would a 2-4 week ‘transformational summer school’ look like? ie one where you could learn new work skills, life skills and have a physical work out at the same time? Why be stuck in a 9-5 rut?

A classroom isn’t always the best space for learning

I’ve got an old pair of rollerblades in my room. I want to go skating again. I want to learn how to stop on them. Is a small cluttered classroom a suitable environment to learn how to do this? No. In Cambridge, we have the spaces. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. Can we open them up to the people who make this great city?

No one can accuse me of not trying





One thought on “Community learning as an alternative to expensive courses

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s