The answer to getting our learners online? Bicycles!

Andy Forster Andy Forster

For the last five years we have recruited, trained and supported volunteers to deliver conversational English language classes to Asian women with little or no English. The hope was that with improved conversational English, the women would feel less socially isolated.

In the last year 1,800 learners attended our classes and we delivered over 7,000 hours of volunteering. All those classes were delivered face-to-face with small grass roots organisations. The onset of Covid-19 meant we immediately took the decision to stop classes to protect volunteers, learners and delivery partners. Yet we knew from our delivery partners that the women were still desperate to learn. We felt that the most obvious way to do this was to move the learning online. However, after a small pilot we found that while there was a tremendous appetite for our classes, very few learners were able to participate, either through text-based services or online video calls.

We successfully applied for funding from the Catalyst and the National Lottery Community Fund to help us understand this reluctance, to find out more about the needs and behaviours of potential learners and how digital, data and design could best support them. Over four weeks in October digital consultancy Ayup supported us explore this. They key role Ayup played was helping us understand our potential users’ experiences and expectations before designing a digital solution.

What we found really surprised us – our starting assumption was that if we got the “tech” right then the learners would attend. The reality was much more complicated and there is no silver bullet. A complex and interlinked set of personal, cultural and systemic challenges emerged. For many of our learners, they simply wanted to sit and learn with their peers. Participating online was never going to replace that for them.

There were a significant number who either didn’t have the technology or understanding of the technology to participate. Where they did have access to get online, some felt that they had no personal private space in their homes to participate. For others there was a reluctance to allow people from outside their family into their homes digitally, or to engage with anyone who was not a family member on their phone.

The answers from both learners, volunteers and delivery partners were crystalised for me when in frustration l asked one of the most well-established organisations we work with, what can we do to get beneficiaries online? She answered not about tech or data, but bicycles and l think it is a useful analogy. She said that if you want to get more Asian women on bikes, you don’t spend millions on a cycling infrastructure – you buy the women bikes and teach them to ride in the places they live.

At that point it really clicked for me – we were trying to offer something that was way ahead of what was needed by our learners. If we wanted to get more women accessing our services online, it was never going to work by spending a lot on redesigning our website or offering a ground-breaking app. What we needed to do was upskill the potential learners by building their digital literacy and confidence to engage first.

It is early days, but we are now starting to reframe our thinking and approach to work up funding bids that will support trained volunteers to act as digital ambassadors/champions in local communities at a hyper-local, perhaps even street by street level. Our intention is to link these volunteers in with local organisations offering English classes and create a bridge to those centres. As the potential learner’s digital literacy and confidence grows, we hope to build a network of online conversational English classes. And as the impact of the pandemic recedes, we hope that most will return to face-to-face classes.

l left the programme reminded that there is no single or simple answer to complex problems, and it is foolish to waste time or throwing money at a problem in an attempt to find one. Talk to people first, develop your understanding of their needs and then start trying to find solutions.

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