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Cities of Learning: from pilot to impact

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  • Adult education
  • Education
  • Vocational education

It is nearly six years since the RSA first published The New Digital Learning Age and recommended the creation of a Cities of Learning programme to establish a new model designing and delivering inclusive lifelong learning, tailored to the needs of local people and economies. The RSA’s Tom Kenyon outlines the progress that has been made.

Over the last two years the RSA, supported by UFI and City and Guilds Foundation, has worked with local teams in Plymouth and Brighton to pilot the programme. An independent evaluation shows positive direct impact, helping young people to articulate their skills to employers and helping learning providers improve progression routes for different learners. The report also points to the potential of the programme to support young people and local government through the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent economic fallout.

Our team has learned hard lessons in how to streamline and scale the process for future cities to take part. Working with our pilot partners – Future Creators in Brighton and Real Ideas in Plymouth and our technical leads, Navigatr – the RSA now plans to open the Cities of Learning programme to new partners with the aim of seeing cities move towards digital badging and place-based learning design across the country.

Working with local leadership in both areas, we helped to identify local skills needs and challenges, develop their theory of change and support our partners to map their local learning ecosystem and engage networks of learning providers. This process has informed the development of a platform of digital badges to help recognise non-formal and informal learning wherever it happens and connect learning experiences to opportunities.

Young man using laptop with woman watching

What we learned

In February 2021, the Learning and Work Institute completed the first independent evaluation of the pilot outcomes. It highlights positive early impact and offers a range of constructive feedback and challenges: “Cities of Learning and digital badges are clearly in a strong position to respond directly to the needs of young people as well as to align with government support programme during the Coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis.”

The report includes qualitative responses on the benefits of the programme from a wide variety of stakeholders. This includes young people who have earned badges and used them on their CVs and social profiles. As one young participant in Plymouth said: “Rather than just saying, 'I did this thing,' you can say, 'Here are the things I've got which prove I can do these things.”

Informal learning providers, who have used the badge creation process to develop their programme offer, shared how the programme is helping them to rethink their approach. As one Plymouth provider said: “It's helping us to also evaluate what they've been doing and look more closely at what we're offering them…That's really helped us build and develop our programme across the year.”

The evaluation included positive feedback from schools and colleges about the new networks that have been developed. As one representative from a college in Brighton said: “Badges are ideal for some of our demographic who are often disengaged with education, it’s a way of accrediting learning that is outside of the mainstream which is really important”.

Employers and providers of services aimed to increase young people’s employability were particularly focused on Cities of Learning’s ability to connect with harder to reach students and build new networks in the community.  One construction company in Plymouth shared how they had learnt to be more flexible: “We do need people with qualifications for obvious reasons, like any employer does, but you're now looking at hotel managers who could become great site managers, but actually they don’t have the qualification, but they've got all the right qualities. We could then look at getting these digital badges to show, 'Well, yes, this person's demonstrated X, Y and Z,' those qualities.”

As of 10 February this year, Cities of Learning had issued badges to 1,734 young people for activities ranging from audio production to Covid-19 response campaigns and volunteer charity work with Barnardo’s. The teams in Plymouth and Brighton worked with 53 different organisations to create badges.

To use a digital badge the young person needs to download the badge to ‘claim’ it and the Cities of Learning’s download rate is 67 percent across the whole programme. This is significantly higher than the industry benchmark which shows that approximately 50 percent of badge recipients download their badge.

The RSA also found that almost half (49 percent) of the learners completed more than one badge; this is a good indicator that the young people are both finding it useful and that they are making progress in learning.

While this suggests that Cities of Learning badges are valued by the majority of badge earners, there is no room for complacency. We have learned a lot of difficult lessons through the pilot process. Systemic responses are by their nature complex and the stack of innovations that we envisaged for Cities of Learning have taken time for stakeholders to understand and to see the benefit of digital badges. The RSA has learnt that it needs to work both on its messaging and on the clarity of our offer.

Some of the benefits and impacts we envisaged for the pilots, such as meaningful connections to employers and pathways between different learning providers, are only just starting to play out but we still hope to see how these innovations will grow. I am personally very happy that the lead teams in both cities have embraced the model and will continue to badge, map and connect learning experiences in their cities and regions.

What’s next?

Taking these lessons on board we now want to scale and sustain the Cities of Learning programme.

The RSA’s wider vision is to create a movement to badge, connect and map all non-formal and informal learning in places across the UK. Happily, it will not be doing this alone. Our pilot partners have developed two new start-ups to push forward the Cities of Learning mission. Badge Nation, led by Real Ideas and Future Creators, have developed an innovative and affordable model to support organisations and communities to design and issue badges mapped against the Cities of Learning Badging Standards. Meanwhile, Navigatr continue to develop a platform to organise badges by location, curate learning pathways and give smart recommendations to young people for the next step in their learning journey.

The team at the RSA has been working hard to streamline and simplify the service design of our model. Our Cites of Learning place-based leadership offer will support anyone who wants to take a systemic and strategic approach to learning in their town, city or region. We can support with diagnosing skills needs, mapping local systems and convening stakeholders. Our ambition is to bring two places per quarter into the Cities of Learning programme and by sharing knowledge, insights and experience, to develop a centre of excellence in place-based learning design and execution.

These ambitions are off to a positive start. This week, the Cities of Learning Partnership (the RSA, Badge Nation and Navigatr), have kicked off a new programme of work with Southampton City Council to build a City of Learning focused on the Future of Work.

This is the start of a movement. If you would like to join, please let us know using the form on our webpage.

The RSA has been at the forefront of societal change for over 250 years – our proven Living Change Approach, and global network of 30,000 problem-solvers enables us to unite people and ideas to understand the challenges of our time and realise lasting change.

Make change happen. Find out more about our approach#RSAchange

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