The new normal evening class

During lockdown many people had ambitions to start new projects – getting fit, learning a skill, growing vegetables, supporting or starting local community initiatives.  Now that we seem to be moving blinking into the daylight of a post-Covid world, newspapers have been full of columnists saying how they have been successful or unsuccessful in this.  On the positive side, there’s a lot more sourdough bread out there than ever before.  On the other hand, though, much of the news has been bad.  The cheeky chappy has gained a stone; the sassy ladette has not knitted a single scarf; the solemn politico who meant to learn Portuguese hasn’t got beyond ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.

But I have been more successful.  Truth to tell, my breadmaking was only just adequate, but otherwise, well. I got an exercise bike and now manage to do 30 minutes a day without some supermodel lookalike screaming at me. I was also able (despite an inflation that increased the price by more than £100 whilst I was on line) to buy an electric folding bike that fits in the car boot.  But the topic of today’s missive is my Zoom class.  I enrolled at the City Lit for basic German – 6.00 till 7.30 every Wednesday.  I’ve not missed a class, and am looking forward to using my new skills on an unsuspecting German, Swiss or Austrian as soon as lockdown ends.  The point of this blog is to ask – why should we go back to traditional evening classes ?

If you haven’t done a Zoom class, here are the plusses:

  • You don’t have to attend for enrolment.  No queues, no forms, no draughty halls or photocopied direction signs. No looking for the room, no queues for coffee break.
  • No need to commute and park in a city centre, or use public transport followed by a walk in the dark (which is an issue for women and those with a motor disability).  I think this makes attendance easier.  I haven’t missed a class, despite bad weather one night and feeling off colour on another.
  • Class members come from all over the country and beyond. My class is mostly Londoners, but there is a lawyer from Brighton and an American businesswoman from Paris. I live in Sheffield. Widening the market like this has several benefits. It’s easier to form a class for a minority subject (important when the economics of adult education means you need to recruit a viable class size), or, on the other hand, duplicate popular options. Plus, I’ll be able to continue my class when away from home – say, in our French house.
  • All class members can be involved in discussion or question and answer work.  There’s less chance of the dominant member.  Break-out groups can be set up in an instant. I know these can happen in a conventional evening class, but it’s more difficult. And no furniture needs moving !
  • The teacher can create a chat room, jotting down comments and corrections as the class progresses.  Next week’s work can be posted on screen: I run off the lesson plan a day ahead to go over the work. Our class is linked to a lively course book, which helps.
  • The regularity of the class makes participation more disciplined than simple ‘distance learning’.  This could be a disadvantage in some settings (when I taught evening classes in Middlesbrough, many of my group were on shifts and had to miss some classes), but I found it a plus.  I have to turn up 6.00 Wednesday or miss the class. 

I posted a tweet to this effect, and whilst some agreed, there was some dissent. There was some of the predictable invocation of the wonders of teacher presence (as far as I know, there’s not a lot of research confirmation of this, certainly not in simple classes of information-transmission).  I was told ‘face-to-face’ education had great benefits, which ignored the fact that Zooming is as face-to-face as you can be. I’d be interested in research on student retention in Zoom classes, to see how drop-out compares with conventional part-time studies and fully distance learning.

More weighty dissent came from those who said that this sort of learning would not involve disadvantaged or underrepresented learners.  I think that’s true.  I’m not saying we should abolish outreach or access programmes, where those who missed out at school can gain confidence and ambitions.  Friendships formed in those programmes can last a lifetime.  However, most learning is not like this.  People, even those who are ‘well-qualified’, will need to return to study again and again. Let’s keep the adult outreach going – it’s been cruelly cut in recent years – but think of how the Zoom class can replace much conventional academic part-time classes. Access and outreach should aim at giving new learners the confidence to use the new learning.

There are some footnotes, of course.  I had one week when the contact details needed to be updated: any digital learning needs good technical support (which, after a frustrating 45 minutes, I got).  Students will need decent tackle: my wife has an ESOL learner who has to use her smart phone for classes because local organisations haven’t been able to get a laptop to her.  Zooming is not going to be the right way to teach practical skills – my stepson teaches electrical engineering apprentices, and they’ve struggled in lockdown.  But even if it doesn’t work for plumbing, dance or pottery, it will work for languages, law and economics.  Overall, I’ve found it stimulating, effective, and motivating.  So would the columnists who’ve had a year but can’t find a way to improve their French or understand maths better.

Evening classes are in decline – mostly due to cuts in government funding (my course costs more than going to the cinema each week). But they offer great opportunities for busy people to increase their skills and widen their interests. This is good for individuals and (with our productivity so much lower than our economic rivals) could be good for the country. And if our further education colleges don’t grab the advantages of the new evening class, then someone else will – with fewer principles and higher costs.

(Footnote – as I write the government is announcing new policies for adult education. Led by employers (like the failed TECs), based on complex rules about entitlement and loans (like the failed ISAs). Why can’t they just subsidise colleges to offer low fee courses ?)