Conway Education Centre has been providing adult education since 1982 and its staff and students have witnessed and experienced the tangible health & wellbeing benefits that adult learning brings. This experience has been corroborated by Queens University Insight Programme, conducting annual surveys amongst Conway students since 2016. The research carried out by the final year Psychology students of the Insight Programme consistently indicates the positive health & wellbeing outcomes that participation in community education brings; from 2016 to 2019, 87% of Conway students involved in the research indicated they had become more active in their community, felt less isolated and more interested in continuing to learn new skills, they indicated they were better able to manage their mental health, became more confident in their abilities and have become passionate ambassadors for education.
Students indicated they felt that community education provision was not about bums on seats, but about the individual getting what they need; support, encouragement, social contacts, skills development, critical thinking and more confidence.
The Covid pandemic exposed the digital divide in our community and among our students. When the first lockdown started in March 2020, we were able to move the majority of our courses online using Zoom, thanks to a huge effort of staff, tutors and volunteers. Using Zoom led to a steep learning curve for organisers, tutors and students. There were hilarious situations during Zoom sessions, with unexpected noises or visitors on the screen, but it also became clear early on that a significant group of students had fallen away. Tutors and staff organised homework and study packs for those without internet or device, at times ferrying assignments from students to tutor and back again. Tutors and staff kept in touch with students through doorstep visits and phone calls, but nearly 50% of students did not engaged with their course on Zoom. The reasons for this were varied; childcare issues because children were at home, not having a quiet place in the house to connect with their Zoom class, not having an electronic device and/or good internet access, not having the skills or confidence to go online, being ill or having caring responsibilities for an ill/elderly relative.
Considering the documented health & wellbeing benefits of attending an adult education course, it is clear that vulnerable students amongst our learners were hard hit by the pandemic and suffered more than just the loss of skills development.