The London Region of U3As held a regional workshop to introduce the concept of research as enquiry-led learning and explore the varied opportunities available to all U3A members to become more active learners in keeping with the U3A ethos of self-development.
The workshop was well attended and the audience included some who felt they were complete novices and some whose careers had involved high-level research. However, group discussions enabled participants to consider how adult learning differs from previous learning experiences, and how U3A members, with their rich life experiences and differing learning styles, can develop new knowledge and understanding by collaborating and supporting each other.
Feedback indicates that attendees particularly enjoyed the inspirational presentations by members talking about their involvement in various types of U3A research — their evident enthusiasm was infectious!
Members of U3A interest groups undertake research as a contribution toward shared learning. We heard how in an Art History group, members take it in turns to research and present different artists, sometimes visiting galleries together. An Armchair Travel group said they don’t just swap holiday stories but decide on a hypothetical journey they will take together, such as exploring Britain’s coastline – then members take it in turns to research and present a different part of the journey. Another speaker suggested that U3As research the stories of local WW2 evacuees.
We discussed how encouraging research in interest groups requires the ability to energise learners and manage group dynamics. Coaching and mentoring for group convenors was recommended, as well as training in research and presentation skills to boost the confidence of all members.
Shared Learning Projects (SLPs) offer an opportunity for research in teams involving at least two U3As, usually in partnership with an external organisation so that outcomes benefit the community. One talk described several SLPs with the Royal Philatelic Society of London, including one that developed an online museum. Other presentations described research on Suffragettes and pioneers of women’s housing for the Citizens 800 project with Royal Holloway, which is charting the history of liberty and protest since the Magna Carta and is building a web-resource for schools. Three SLPs with Roehampton University are studying Hearth Tax records to contribute insights into 17th Century social history. In addition, Roehampton is offering invitations to free lectures, plus speakers for U3A study days and interest groups.
We heard about a panel of over 100 U3A volunteers that has been developed to respond to requests from six London universities for assistance in the design and implementation of research projects that involve older people. The message is that most universities are unaware of U3A, and we need to be more proactive about identifying opportunities and promoting what we can offer.
We were very grateful to Rona Hodges who travelled from Canterbury to inspire us with a presentation about the projects she has developed with Kent and Canterbury Christchurch Universities on topics ranging from environment to health. As Research Co-ordinator for her U3A, she has developed a group of about 130 U3A researchers, and thanks to her career as an academic researcher, she has the contacts and skills needed to develop projects that include funding and training. The U3A has members with many such life skills that we need to harness.
Information packs for attendees included a copy of the U3A guide Getting Involved in Research, along with information about the U3A National Research Database. Members were also encouraged to draw up a To-Do List of ideas on how to promote enquiry and active learning upon returning to their U3As.
Most attendees said the workshop had been useful and welcomed the prospect of follow-up sessions. There is also a need for committees to raise the profile of active learning within their U3As by improving communications, possibly through a post-holder responsible for identifying and communicating research opportunities and sources of support.