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Social Innovation Academy: Promoting openness and collaborative learning

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Founded in early 2013 by Glenn Liddall, the Edinburgh based charity People Know How tackles inequality from the standpoint of Social Innovation, working to empower individuals and organizations to unlock their ideas and fulfil their potential. During 2015 -2016 People Know How developed and piloted the Social Innovation Academy, a five month programme that matched 12 volunteers with four community organisations. These volunteers were trained to carry out community consultations, social research, and community development using a variety of openly licensed materials from OpenLearn, the Open University’s repository of free learning. The programme was designed to be of benefit to everyone involved: participants who learn new skills and get to put them into practice; volunteers providing training and support; and community partners looking to respond to a social issue / challenge.

“We always talk about the Social Innovation Academy being the real centre point, the real focus of the organization”

says Glenn Liddall, which is why People Know How looked to learn from the pilot to develop the Academy further.

The Social Innovation Academy and collaborative learning

The Social Innovation Academy first ran from October 2015 until March 2016. The aim of the pilot was to provide people from a variety of backgrounds with training and hands-on experience in community development, consultation and social research from a social innovation perspective.  Four local charities presented a social issue to participants, who in turn selected which project they would most like to work on, a “reverse Dragons Den”.

The community partners and projects involved were:

  1. Cockburn Association: engaging Edinburgh citizens in considering the merits of the “green belt” and the need for affordable housing.
  2. Scottish Adoption Agency: gathering public attitudes towards adoption in Scotland.
  3. The Broomhouse Centre: consulting the local community on their needs and how they would like to see them addressed.
  4. The Living Memory Association (THELMA): analysing current organisational strengths and opportunities, and recommending a sustainable development strategy.

The pilot programme ensured that participants both learnt new skills and gained work experience. The 12 participants spent a day each week working directly with the organisation they were allocated, while People Know How offered two full days of training. This allowed participants to discuss how their project was developing, and turn to the full team to help resolve any issues they were facing. As the programme progressed and participants grew in confidence and skills, the proportion of training versus project work was reversed. Fluidity and adaptability within the learning environment were central to the success of the Academy.

OpenLearn materials were used to promote communication and collaborative group learning. People were not “sent” online to learn in isolation; instead the online materials were brought into a physical space and participants were encouraged to share, explore and learn from one another. Initial introductions focused on how people learn and how they can learn differently. This allowed for teams to be built based on individuals’ strengths. Volunteers:

“...weren’t just working on their project, they had an eye on other peoples’ projects too, feeling encouraged and supported to share ideas – being collaborative not competitive”.

Participants and volunteers felt that this approach created a sense of belonging; people grew, learned and developed ideas together:

“(…) making connections with the other participants and learning from their experiences has made me feel at home”. 

It is this appreciation of the skills and knowledge of others that makes the approach to learning within the Social Innovation Academy fundamentally unique; it promotes openness and adventure within a learning environment, empowering volunteers to share their knowledge and appreciate their fellow learners.

The benefits of The Social Innovation Academy

This asset-based approach has proved very fruitful, benefiting community partners, participants and volunteers. The impact of the Academy on volunteers is directly measurable; while prior to taking part, 9 out of 12 volunteers were not in education, employment or training, 8 of these participants have since taken on full or part time employment or education. Participants stated that the approach to learning and use of learning materials within the Social Innovation Academy had a significant impact on their confidence and the way they approached various situations; for example, one participant stated that they used what they learned in a successful job interview.

The Academy has also allowed community partners to find answers through research they would not have had the resources to conduct. The Scottish Adoption Agency has taken this further and is using the focus group design as part of their training for adoptive parents. People Know How has developed the Academy as the cornerstone of the organization, applying the principles of the open learning environment to other projects. The success of collaborative learning and the creation of a “family” of volunteers is at the heart of what makes People Know How stand out, and central to the success of the pilot.

Looking to the future

As People Know How develops, the success of the pilot programme has a clear influence with regard to the way new projects are created and delivered. However, it is important that the essence of what made the pilot so successful is not lost as the programme expands:

“The success of the pilot is founded upon the sense of purpose and direction it gave participants and the time spent building and supporting the teams”.  

Plans are in place for future Academies with the team engaging people who have spent time out of education or have become disenchanted with learning. They will aim to reignite a spark of interest for people by building on collaborative learning.

The Social Innovation Academy will run again from January 2017. For more information, please visit http://peopleknowhow.org/learning-for-change/social-innovation-academy/.

This case study was written by Jennifer Benson and edited by Bea de los Arcos, originally published on 9 December 2016 and is also available via OpenLearn Create. This case study was produced as part of the Opening Educational Practices in Scotland (OEPS) project.