SOLE meets Self-Advocacy at the Workers Educational Association

Anne Preston (left) and Diane Holmes (right) drafting out the Self-Advocacy
SOLE Toolkit in SOLE Central base

By Anne Preston and Diane Holmes

Dr Anne Preston is a Research Fellow in SOLE Central, Newcastle University. Diane Holmes is Adult Literacy specialist teacher at the Workers Education Association North East.

Could teaching ever be obsolete? Can we learn by looking at a Google page? These are just some of the big questions proposed over the years by Newcastle University Professor, Sugata Mitra, who led the well-known ‘hole in the wall’ experiments and more recently, introduced the notion of a Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE).

A SOLE is a space where ‘educators encourage students to work as a community to answer their own vibrant questions using The Internet’, an idea which is now achieving global impact. But how are SOLEs made material in local contexts? Is the idea of using The Internet just an example of a ‘charismatic technology’, lacking all- important notions of pedagogy and theory which typically surround what is deemed to lead to ‘deep learning’?

Supported by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account Knowledge Exchange Secondment award, we have been probing the SOLE of adult learning over the last few months in a collaborative project between SOLE Central and the Workers Educational Association (WEA) North East. Made up of one part Adult Literacy specialist and one part SOLE Central Research Fellow, our work has involved using the SOLE approach with a group of students who have learning difficulties and disabilities. The students are all working towards gaining a qualification in Functional English (ranging in ability from Entry level 1 up to Level 1).

So how did we end up here?

Diane was very keen to use SOLE within the sessions, as she thought this would be an excellent way to inspire ‘deeper’ learning for the students as they studied for their English test. In addition to this, she felt a sense of self advocacy would develop amongst the group. This concept is important to her students, as this type of learner group often have greater difficulty in getting their views heard (or listened to). The students embraced the concept of SOLE really well. They relished the fact that they could do research in groups on the internet and feed back to the class and tutor about what they had discovered. Working in this way naturally developed their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills too – almost by stealth! The group loved the idea of answering the ‘Big Question’ and finding out what different information they could share. A crucial part of the success was also the fact that Diane, as the tutor, had to relinquish control. This really encouraged self-efficacy, as the group became the ‘experts’ and explained to her what they had discovered in their research groups. They became more curious and driven to discover new knowledge, and in short the sessions became a more invigorated learning environment. As individuals, the students were keen to have their own views heard and became more able to present their findings to class. Presenting the research formed part of their Speaking and Listening discussion test. In all, Diane has become more connected to her students and they, in turn, have become more confident and rounded learners.

Students combine skills to search and curate information as part of their
research to the Big Question: Do insects see in colour?

Students use digital literacy skills to zoom in on relevant information

So could a computer replace a teacher? We don’t think so. SOLE is not unique in its focus on developing the physical and conceptual space for learning with the inclusion of technology but as our work has shown, such environments can lead to a change in thinking about the organization of learning by teachers and students. The facilitation of SOLE involves a change in the role of teacher from transmitter to facilitator of knowledge and importantly in this context, can empower students with the skills to self-advocate: they have realised that they can have views, they have the right to be heard, and can identify ways to get their voice heard.We are currently remixing the original SOLE Toolkit to enable other practitioners to explore similar issues in their practice with students who have learning difficulties and disabilities, this will be available soon.

We are currently remixing the original SOLE Toolkit to enable other practitioners to explore similar issues in their practice with students who have learning difficulties and disabilities, this will be available soon.

Additional information:

Founded in 1903, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) is a charity and the UK’s largest voluntary sector provider of adult education. In 2013/14 we delivered  9,700 part-time courses for over 70,000 students in England and Scotland with classes in almost every local authority area and our work in England was assessed in 2014 as ‘Good’ by Ofsted. The WEA offers a wide ranging curriculum and we do all that we can to make your learning experience a positive one in our friendly and supportive learning environments. A better world – equal, democratic and just: through adult education the WEA challenges and inspires individuals, communities and society.

SOLE Central is a global hub for research into self-organised learning environments (SOLEs), bringing together researchers, practitioners, policy makers and entrepreneurs. Professor Sugata Mitra’s work has already transformed lives in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world and our aim is to build on these strong foundations. Work in this interdisciplinary research centre is led by Newcastle University’sSchool of Education, Communication and Language Sciences and Open Lab and involves academics from across the University.

SOLE Central logo  WEA North East logo  ESRC logo

This entry was posted in ESRC Impact Acceleration Account and tagged adult learning, Anne Preston, Diane Holmes, disability, ESRC, ESRC IAA, Self-Organized Learning Environment, SOLE Central, Workers’ Educational Association by Angie. Bookmark the permalink.

‘I don’t need the British to communicate in English’. Social connectedness and the international student experience

The ‘international student experience’ is of increasing interest to researchers, educators and policy-makers alike. Social connectedness has been found to be key to the quality of this experience, both in terms of student wellbeing and adjustment to new academic and sociocultural environments (Ward et al., 2001). International students typically lack familiar social support structures in the host country, making the formation of social ties a paramount objective for this group. Study abroad is therefore, first and foremost, a social experience.

there is overwhelming evidence that international students, across different locations, struggle to instigate and maintain meaningful contact with local people

Research suggests that international students typically form social ties with three distinct groups: co-nationals, host nationals, and other international students (Hendrickson et al., 2011, Schartner, 2015). Of these, social contact with host nationals, or ‘local people’, is often seen as especially desirable, both by researchers and students themselves, not least for the perceived benefits in terms of linguistic and cultural learning. However, there is overwhelming evidence that international students, across different locations, struggle to instigate and maintain meaningful contact with local people, often despite their best efforts. Seventy per cent of postgraduate students surveyed by UKCISA in 2004 reported not having any British friends at all. Where host contact does occur, this tends to be limited to functional and formulaic encounters. As one student in my own research put it, ‘It’s just the lady I meet in Tesco or the cab driver’ (Schartner, 2015). In light of these findings, some speak of a ‘ghettoization’ of international students on our campuses (Deardorff, 2009), while others fear that lack of host contact may lead to feelings of disillusionment and disenchantment among this group (Brown, 2009).

But is ‘host’ necessarily ‘best’? There is now increasing evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, that friendships with ‘comparable others’ (i.e. peers also going through the study abroad experience) can enable international students to have a positive experience independent of the host society. These ‘international communities of practice’ (Montgomery & McDowell, 2009) have been found to not only augment students’ sense of wellbeing and belonging, but also to boost their academic performance (Young et al., 2013). Likewise, research has shown that social ties with co-nationals, whether face-to-face or via social media, are of vital importance to international students’ wellbeing (Schartner, 2015). Nonetheless, these bonds are often discouraged or sneered at, to the point that students feel they ought to avoid any contact with their compatriots during their time abroad.

Contact with host nationals appears to be no longer the single most important factor for achieving integration with the host environment

So should host universities advocate international and co-national ties as a valuable alternative to host contact? I would dare to answer this question with a tentative yes. Contact with host nationals appears to be no longer the single most important factor for achieving integration with the host environment. Instead, international students seem to obtain the most effective support from their sojourning peers, including opportunities to develop their language skills. As one of my students recently put it, ‘I don’t need the British to communicate in English’.

International students arguably want to belong, but whether this must necessarily mean ‘fitting in’ with host nationals is doubtful. This raises the question whose need it is to achieve integration with hosts. One wonders whether it is in fact the institutional endeavour to achieve ‘internationalisation at home’ that drives and perpetuates the notion that host is best.

Contact with ‘home’ students and the local community at large should of course be encouraged wherever possible, but the number of British friends may not be the best, or only, indicator for the quality of international students’ social experience at UK universities. Perhaps it is time to call for a more holistic and inclusive understanding of social integration, one that acknowledges the multilingual and multicultural reality international students encounter at our universities.


Brown, L. (2009). A failure of communication on the cross-cultural campus.Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(4), 439- 454.

Deardorff, D. K. (2009). Connecting international and domestic students. In M. Andrade & N. Evans (Eds.), International students: Strengthening a critical resource. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hendrickson, B., Rosen, D., & Aune, K. (2011). An analysis of friendship networks, social connectedness, homesickness, and satisfaction levels of international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(3), 281–295.

Montgomery, C., & McDowell, L. (2009). Social networks and the international student experience: A community of practice? Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(4), 455–466.

Schartner, A. (2015). ‘You cannot talk with all of the strangers in a pub.’ A longitudinal case study of international postgraduate students’ social ties at a British University. Higher Education, 69(2), 225-241.

UKCOSA (2004), Broadening Our Horizons: International Students in UK Universities and Colleges, UKCOSA: London.

Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock(2nd Ed.). Hove: Routledge.

Young, T. J., Sercombe, P. G., Sachdev, I., Naeb, R., & Author, (2013). Success factors for international postgraduate students’ adjustment: Exploring the roles of intercultural competence, language proficiency, social contact and social support. European Journal of Higher Education, 3, 151-171.

Taken from: BERA

Written by Alina Schartner, Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Newcastle University


Singapore Grip

Prof David Leat

In early December 2015, I travelled to Singapore for a 3 day visit to appear in a TV panel discussion on the Future of Learning, recorded by Channel NewsAsia for transmission in January.  This was part of a series to help develop the profile of Newcastle University in Singapore, as the university runs six undergraduate programs there, in a partnership with Singapore Institute of Technology. On learning the names of the other panel members, I was gripped by a little apprehension to be in such company.

For most of my university career, I have been a teacher trainer, higher degree teacher and supervisor and researcher concentrating on securing research income, delivering projects and publishing.  I have done my fair share of professional keynotes and training sessions and had some success with professional publication.  But like many others, the advent of the ‘impact’ agenda as part of the process of having the quality our research evaluated, has spurred my thinking about how we present our ideas and research results to the wider public.  If I am truthful I have tended to shy away from this activity, consoling myself with the feeble notion that the worth of ideas is intrinsic and declares itself.  With such a state of mind, why did I go when it was not essential?  The potential payoff was twofold – first a chance to challenge myself and learn something about influencing public and policy debate with a view to the next Research Excellence Framework, and secondly a chance to catch a little bit of birdwatching in South East Asia.

So here are some reflections:

Can you summarise what you think is important  in a context within 3 or 4 sentences, in a way that an alert lay audience can make sense of.  In your head you have endless arguments, examples, complex concepts, favourite bits of research, jibes etc.?  But can you form that into a coherent message that an audience member can hook into?  You can judge for yourself how I did, if you listen to the recording …

I experienced two media formats, a panel discussion with four other panelists, and series of magazine interviews.  The second is far more comfortable as you get a chance to elaborate and develop points in successive questions.  In the panel format, to a degree you are in competition with the other panelists, partly for air time and partly in arguing your case.  There are many skills to be deployed such as catching the eye of the moderator, waiting for a tiny lull in someone else’s flow and getting in, connecting to what has been said by others, in agreement, disagreement or in terms of causation and, above all, making the audience laugh.

Other panelists

It was intriguing to read their biographies and meet them beforehand.  In my head one of them had a strong institutional line to follow, one had some done some homework (or had it done) so he had some facts to quote and a consistent line of argument, one was a very graceful ‘gymnast’ who could adapt and respond skillfully and one had an amazing CV that seemed impossible in one lifetime and a strong ‘IT’ message.  I had a few ideas about which ideas I could argue against or join in with.  The biggest challenge was the question of ‘coding’ about which there was to be a question.  At least 3 of the others were likely to be very strong advocates of coding, so what could I say that was not ‘anti-coding’ but put it in some fresh perspective?


On news programs and BBC2’s ‘Newsnight’ you do see a range of attire.  As a university representative, shirt, jacket and tie seemed expected and I had been given a university tie to wear.  I am not known for being the sharpest dresser, so should I buy new trousers?  In the end I didn’t – which was fine.  But I had not gone deep enough into my wardrobe deliberations, as after the first section of the program, the assistant floor manager whizzed up to me and asked me to ‘pull my socks up’.  I thought I had done OK so far, but it transpired that this was a literal rather than a metaphorical request as I was exposing a bit of skin between sock and trousers as we were in lounge chairs with no intervening table.  Note to self – long socks next time.


I am not a natural tweeter, and I have my excuses, but if you want to evidence impact then one of the pathways to impact is getting your message out there.  So I will be making a bit of an effort (honestly) as various interviews and the program itself comes out.  Despite suggestions to the contrary I am not going to be glued to my phone when I take the dog out.

And the birdwatching

I managed two trips, a half day to the wetland reserve, Sungei Buloh, on the north of the island and an early morning visit to the Botanical Gardens, which were wonderful and made the trip worthwhile.  I saw a large Monitor lizard swimming, a Stork (Asian Openbill) catch and eat a snake and over 40 species of bird including Brown Shrike, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Arctic Warbler and Oriental Dollarbird.

You can read more about The Future of Learning on our press office website.

Ferryhill Changing Relations Project; Taking Responsibility

Lisa Davis, Director Changing Relations
Dr Rachel Lofthouse, ECLS

Introduction: Developing a co-produced curriculum

Changing Relations – a social enterprise that uses the arts and creative methods to achieve social transformation around gender equality and healthy relationships – recently undertook a project with Ferryhill Business and Enterprise College.  The project aimed to explore ways of addressing concerns held by the senior leadership team about risk-taking behaviour amongst the student population. The Deputy Headteacher Tim Pinkney was particularly keen to see peer learning enshrined in any intervention planned. After negotiations between Changing Relations and the school leadership and wellbeing team the decision was made to place student leadership at the heart of the curriculum project.

A student Steering Group was thus selected who highlighted to Lisa Davis, the Director of Changing Relations, the issues related to sex and relationships that most concerned them.  It was clear that the students felt that many of these issues were not currently being addressed within the delivery of the curriculum. From these early discussions, a residential was planned, in which the young people were given the opportunity to explore issues ranging from sexism to sexting, sexual consent, sexual exploitation, homophobia and healthy relationships. Their engagement and learning was supported by the involvement of Relate North East, the Rape and Sexual Assault Counselling Centre for Durham and Darlington, DISC, Wear Valley Women’s Aid and Durham Police in addition to Changing Relations. With local artists, including film-maker Rupert Ludlow, also present, the young people further selected the topic that resonated most with them – sexting – and began the work of creating plot and characters for a film that would be used to stimulate discussion around this topic with their peers at school.

In addition to making the film, the young people were involved in planning, researching and designing a booklet for their peers about who to go to for specific sex and relationships concerns, from coming out to seeking support in the wake of sexual assault. Alongside Lisa Davis they also planned and co-facilitated an off-timetable Big Learning Day for their peers, meeting each week for several months to pull all of the strands of the project together.  In order to contribute to the evaluation of the project a number of focus groups were held with students at Ferryhill.  These were facilitated by Rachel Lofthouse from ECLS.  Two of the focus groups were held with student leaders from Years 9 and 10 (the steering group).

Taking responsibility through student leadership

It is clear that a successful aspect of this project was the long term involvement of the student leaders from Years 9 and 10 who took significant responsibility for shaping the project, planning the Big Learning Days and creating the new learning resources.  The Year 10 student leaders stated that this had been no mean feat, but recognised that they had “had to work as a team” and were impressed that “it all came together like a jigsaw”.  In the same focus group the students stated that they had valued “being treated like an adult, being challenged to consider their own ideas and comfortable giving opinions”.

The student leaders group was not selected purely from the school’s ‘go to’ students, but deliberately included students considered to be at risk by the school pastoral staff.  This was illustrated by one of the Year 10 student leaders who said “I wanted to be involved because it sounded important, sounded interesting, and it is close to my heart through personal experience.”

The inclusion of a weekend residential was valued by the student leaders, allowing an immersive and relatively intense learning experience which set the scene for their role in the wider project.  This was recognised by the Year 10 student leaders who said that “the residential was fun and interesting, we made films, it was hard work, it was jam packed with lots of info; it was intense.”  The Year 9 student leaders stated that the experience as a whole “was a big commitment but we enjoyed it – it was fun.”  The year 10 student leaders stated that “this was a different experience, it makes things more interesting, we met people from outside of schools; we were taking responsibility and representing the school at formal meetings.”

For most of the students planning an event and working for a sustained period with outside experts was a unique experience and one which they highly valued, “we got more out of it than we expected” (Year 9 student leaders). It is probable that the depth of their resulting knowledge exceeded those of the rest of the students in Years 9 and 8 for whom the Big Learning Days were planned.  This was in part reflected in their abilities to articulate key ideas in the focus groups, with the Year 9 student leaders recognising the quality of their learning about “the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships and where you can go for health advice.”  Their greater insight provided the trigger for them from thinking “what’s the harm?” (for example of sexting) to “realising we did not want it to happen to other students” (Year 9 student leaders).

Making the video

Planning, making and showing the video was highly rated by the student leaders, and its authenticity has already been noted above as critical in its impact.  The Year 10 student leaders stated “it was our idea to do a film – we thought about the topic and how to do it, we developed the storyline”. The Year 9 student leaders thought that as “young people we could make the video better, we made sure it was a relevant topic choice, and we were the same age as the audience, so people respect it more”, and this perspective mirrors that of the student participants given above.  Making the video provided another opportunity for the student leaders to engage with an outside expert – in this case a film maker, who again was recognised for his major contribution.  It was also important to the student leaders that the video had a genuine audience, partly in being used to introduce the Big Learning Days themselves, but also in being posted on the school website.  The fact that the school organised a premier to which parents were invited and that this was featured in the local press was significant.  The student leaders felt proud of their work and the value of it in the local school community and beyond.  The Year 9 student leaders stated that they “would like to take it to other schools”.  This has some value – but perhaps overlooks quite how important the fact that the video was very much school-situated was.  It would be interesting to see whether its impact was similar with a different population of students.

The Big Learning Days

The student leaders’ roles in planning and co-facilitating the Big Learning Days was significant in terms of their own development.  They said that they had learned a lot from “having to lead sessions, making the powerpoint, presenting it and doing the activities with the students” (Year 10 student leaders).  Without doubt they were proud of their contribution and felt that it was critical in the success of the days, “it was powerful that pupils were speaking to pupils – they were more open to asking questions” (Year 9 student leaders).

Conclusion – what can we learn?

The student leaders acted as a significant bridge between the expertise offered by the outside agencies related to the desired curriculum content and felt needs of the wider student cohort (made up of their peers).  The student leaders’ involvement at all stages greatly supported the planning and facilitation of the project. They were responsible for the development of real and locally situated authentic products of the planning phase (the video and booklet) which were actively used as learning resources to support the teaching and learning phase, and indeed outlive that episode as a longer term resource.  The Big Learning Days also created a platform (with a deadline) for the student leaders to deliver the outputs of their own learning and planning.  This focus provided a real event in which the student leaders’ own learning became purposeful and visible – they had indeed ‘taken responsibility’ and certainly lived up to it.