The Experience of the ‘Community Partners’
For each individual partner the process and the act of ‘telling their story’ was deeply transformative, cathartic and meaningful. Individual partners grew in confidence and added their experiences to a wider ‘community’ narrative which were also used for political purposes. When we move from the personal to the ‘group’, particularly groups who are advocating for policy change, the narrative of their ‘collective stories’, is very powerful. The availability of a wide range of platforms meant a wider reach and access to resources which helped with campaigning, education and generally activism awareness.
There were ethical challenges, particularly in relation to autonomy, experience and expectations of partners. The question of ‘who benefits?’ from this work was a complex one. The question of ‘who has real personal agency to participate?’ also arose. Important balances are to be had and critical reflection is vital. It emerged that the experience, positionality and personal agency of the community partners as groups or individuals was important. For the community partners this experience meant that they knew how to and could utilise the support of students and the multimedia opportunities. It also meant that they could provide students with a more solid learning experience. It is important that the work of the partners is aligned with DE values and principles. It was helpful for students to link into work already in progress by groups. This meant that students were learning in a real world context and working alongside solution-focused communities who were seeking reform of political and economic structures and systems which were not serving them well.
For people who have not had access to education and particularly a relatively (in a Global South context) highly valued qualification (which in itself is problematic), accreditation and certification are important. Lack of educational opportunity in a country is deeply troubling in itself; how to address the problem is part of the story of ‘development’ and DE; why a European qualification is of more value is also troubling; while analysing and addressing these realities with a post- colonial lens is imperative. A certificate of participation (and celebration) was important to many participants especially those who had not had access to education (e.g. mixed abilities group) but also younger students who are starting their careers. In the partner organisations too the role of management and local staff was critical and very supportive in balancing the needs of the staff, community partners and students. Another key finding was the value of meeting ‘the Other’ and the transformative moments when people recognised their own experience in the experience of another. For us all to understand the value of ‘being on the same page’ (at least on similar pages) is central to the core DE political position that injustice is socially constructed and that addressing such injustices require commitment and political solutions.
DE ‘Practice’ – What the Findings are telling us
If well planned, with a clear understanding of the purpose of CLL and MML in DE, integrating both can enhance the learning experience of students and contribute in a practical way to relevant societal issues. The students enjoyed the ‘hands-on’ approach and when thinking of broader theoretical or systematic considerations they could relate them to the lived experiences of people in communities. They felt they were that there was a purpose to their learning. A key to moving from the local to the global is exploring how we, in different parts of the world, are impacted by systems of power locally and globally. How for instance, does neoliberalism, impact on peoples’ lives ‘here’ and then how does it impact on peoples’ lives across the world. In Bourdieu’s (1993) La Misère du monde he refers to as ‘the misery of position’. This misery of position is expressed in the degraded social spaces of today: abandoned individual low cost housing, priority urban renewal areas turned into “slums,” and agriculture brutalized by the market. But this misery of position also hits the first echelons of public institutions: teachers, “cops,” social workers, and judges. The exploration of these new spaces is inseparable from the role of advocate that the sociologist or educator has endorsed. The educator becomes the spokesperson for social suffering, no longer relayed by institutional political representation. This questioning of representative democracy is coupled with a denunciation of the state’s betrayal. Neoliberalism has prospered following this betrayal.
For student learning digital storytelling is a powerful and at times subversive tool for disenfranchised communities and individuals. From a DE perspective, it is important that learning moves to a more political platform, while at the same time deeply respecting the storyteller’s experience. The relationship which builds between partners and students while making stories, archives, websites or artefacts is important. The relationship matters for partners and it is a vital part of the student learning experience. In shorter projects, it is important to contextualise the DE ‘intent’ of the encounter, so that the intervention does not become just a workshop about, for instance digital skills. Such projects are more effective when they are one part of a longer course of study. The end objective of DE is not the completion of the product, it is about the process and transformative, emancipatory learning qualities.
The stories in this study had a political intent (Thomas, 1993: 4). The educator guides the process of moving from the personal, to collective action, to understanding local, national, supra national (e.g. EU) and wider global contexts, policies and connections. Critical reflection and analysis is core to developing understandings and meanings. This reflection happens in different spaces and different processes – e.g. in community, in an art gallery, online – but the classroom remains a focal point where learning and skills can be shared, distilled and challenged with others who are also seeking to understand the world from a DE perspective. That support from educator and fellow students is important. The classroom is also a place where students can plan collective actions they may be taking as a group themselves. They can debrief, plan, challenge, evaluate, debate and think about their own ‘positionality’, a vital component of DE learning. If this does not happen, DE remains but a transactional project-led exercise. The role of the educator becomes one which weaves DE theory, knowledge, policy and practice into an integrated, engaged, discursive, dialogic learning environment. Fostering an ability to hold discomfort is helpful, in that this is a pedagogy of disruption of dominant political, economic, social, environmental, cultural and educational paradigms. Indeed, this thesis argues that fostering outrage is desirable, once it is managed responsibly and is solution focused.
Online fora are valuable spaces for intercultural dialogue particularly for those who do not have immediate access to the internet but who can access it from time to time. We need to unambiguously recognise the power imbalances that exist in terms of aspirations, expectations and resources. For the Cross Disciplinary Group students, the online forum was helpful for following up on classroom discussions. DE issues are complex and the extra ‘layer’ of discussion, beyond the classroom, is helpful for delving further into difficult or contested issues. Using multiple media such as digital archives, websites, radio digital storytelling and online courses, enhances student engagement and provides wider platforms for communities wishing to highlight DE related themes. The digital archive and websites provide valuable oral testimonies which together tell stories that are important to preserve.
A significant finding in this research is the popularity of community radio amongst partners and students, as a way of co-creating broadcasts and reaching a wider audience. Community radio can provide a valuable DE teaching and democratic resource and they generally work from an ethos that is broadly aligned with DE. The creative arts too can facilitate learners to explore DE using different perspectives and senses. It allows the learner explore with all the senses and stand in the place of ‘the other’. Embodying a particular incident can be a powerful way of accessing an experience. It is important not to stay with the single story, the educator needs to hold the DE space and ensure that the artistic experience, moves on to critical debate and civic engagement. In terms of third level cross disciplinary work, DE is an ideal discipline to bring students from different disciplines together, not least because a solution and theoretically focused approach to learning is strengthened by different perspectives. Kincehloe’s (2001) bricolage has much to offer the educator in conceptualising how this might happen in practice. Individual specialism is important. However, a reimagining of a university could create spaces, both accredited and non-accredited, where the specialisms come together to talk, think and act together.
The findings relating to the ‘mixed abilities classroom’ (MAG) and work placement indicate that DE is accessible to all ‘abilities’. As a pedagogical approach all classrooms ought to be differentiated. Because our partners experience inequality, discrimination and social exclusion, they can relate very much to the issues being discussed. Bringing this real world into the classroom meant the participants were also the educators. The experience highlighted the futility of an education system based on ‘you pass’, ‘you fail’. It forceed us to question the basic ways in which we organise ourselves in educational systems and society as a whole. Here we had a deep learning experience, our understanding of the impact of institutional care, was deepened in a way it never would have been in a mainstream classroom. It raises the idea of reimagining of the university, where spaces are available for society to come together to address problems facing humanity, including talking to others around the globe who want to do the same. Much learning happened in ‘Non-formal-learning spaces’ and the nature of CLL and MML means that there are more opportunities for informal learning (at breaks, on journeys, in community) than often happens in a mainstream lecture theatre/classroom.
Creative educators can find spaces in what is an increasingly market-orientated university system (O’Brien, Cotter 2018). Many students are thirsty for DE approaches, as indicated by the fact that 100 people expressed an interest in attending the classes for this research on a voluntary basis. This offers hope. The passion and enthusiasm of the students and communities in this research should serve to offer hope. Many third level students do strive for a better world and seek opportunities, allies and guidance on how to do so. The ‘Id Est’ project at UCC, for instance, shows how engaged student teachers are and how creative they can be when given the opportunity. Therefore, educators should consider students as allies, meet with those in societies which promote DE values, talk to the students union, initiate public dialogue about the role of the university, what kind of education they wish to have and what kind of society they wish to inhabit in the future. How often do we talk to leaders and students about the role of the university? If we are, as an academic and activist community, going to retain the ‘radical’ traditions of DE as it has developed in the Irish context, we need to create safe spaces for independent voices. ‘The University’ can provide that space if there is clear leadership and courage amongst academics particularly those in leadership roles.
At third level it is important that theoretical positioning accompanies the practice of DE. If this does not happen, DE becomes a set of uninformed actions with no clear emancipatory or transformative intent. No academic discipline or community perspective is static and frameworks can change and be refined, but the core tenets of DE do come from a deep-rooted commitment to social, economic, political, cultural and environmental justice and equality and from a human rights perspective. This thesis has found that being able to draw on a wide range of critical theoretical perspectives on the learning process is very helpful. Understanding neoliberalism, and globalisation (market and growth-led policies) and their pervasive influence around the world (more extremes of poverty, the rise of the alt-right, depletion of natural resources, climate injustice, forced migration, etc.) is critical. We need to work together to inform ourselves, defend our position and take action to seek structural and transformational change. A solid theoretical base is the foundation of good DE. If there are solid theoretical roots, educators and learners can link to communities, build stories, take action for change, but they can stand in their critical roots, know what they are trying to achieve and why; and know the purpose of their ultimate goal.