By Alex Stevenson
When Learning and Work Institute and Learning Unlimited developed the Volunteers, English Language Learners, Conversation Clubs (VELLCC) resources in early 2020, we couldn’t have anticipated that a global pandemic was about to cause such severe disruption, or that measures introduced to limit the spread of the coronavirus would need to endure for so long. English language conversation clubs are social spaces, which exist to bring people together, help to support people’s wellbeing, and build connections and communities – all whilst providing a chance to practise speaking English in a friendly, supportive informal learning environment. It wasn’t immediately clear that conversation clubs would be able to continue at all in the context of lockdown and social distancing.
At the VELLCC launch webinars in July 2020, it was heartening to hear that many organisations and volunteers were turning to online conversation clubs to help keep participants connected and learning. Yet it was also clear that many organisations and volunteers would benefit from additional guidance and support, to help them respond to the challenges involved. So we were delighted to be asked by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to research and develop additional VELLCC guidance and resources for the delivery of conversation clubs online.
L&W’s 2020 Adult Participation in Learning Survey found that over two in five adults – around 22 million people – participated in some kind of learning activity during lockdown. But people who were out of work and those in lower socio-economic groups were less likely to participate in learning, meaning that many who could benefit most from learning were missing out. Of those who did participate, poor internet connections and a lack of peer connection were commonly cited as challenges in online learning.
At the webinars, conversation club organisers echoed a number of these challenges, particularly issues of digital poverty and exclusion, with many conversation club participants lacking a suitable device or internet connection to be able to participate online. The ability of the online experience to replicate the social connection in conversation clubs was questioned. And in addition to language barriers for participants, many experienced poor basic digital skills of participants – and volunteers – as a challenge. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the Lloyds UK Consumer Digital Index finds that 9 million adults are unable to use the internet by themselves, with 3.6 million people almost completely offline.
Yet on starting to research online conversation club provision, we found that alongside the challenges, a number of benefits to online delivery emerged. Online conversation clubs offer added flexibility around times, locations and venues, with budgets for venues and refreshments repurposed to support with mobile data and devices.
Moving online also prompts a focus on developing the basic digital skills of participants – and also the volunteers themselves – with some organisations reporting that participants were able to use these new digital skills to help with other day-to-day activities. This was seen as a particular benefit, given the importance of being able to access information and services online during lockdown.
There are benefits to language practice too, with some groups reporting that the online format promotes a focus on speaking and conversation (avoiding the temptation to fall back on worksheet-type activities) and that participants can be more effectively grouped by language level, so that conversations can be more effectively facilitated.
Running conversation clubs online also appears to have stimulated much creativity around the content of conversation activities, utilising the possibility of participants being able to join in from almost anywhere:
Despite the physical separation, bringing people together online has the potential to help conversation club participants explore common interests in ways that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional face-to-face club setting. One organisation described a session on the topic of gardening:
Moving conversation clubs online has been a quite considerable learning experience for many organisations and volunteers. Yet many organisations participating in the research indicate that the benefits are such that they plan to continue an online element to their offer in future. We hope that the additional VELLCC guidance on online conversation clubs will help them to do so.
The VELLCC online conversation clubs guidance for volunteers and for organisations is available on the VELLCC webpages.
By Alex Stevenson, head of English, maths and ESOL at Learning and Work Institute