Learning Power

Designing for Lifelong Learning

by John Cook, University of West England (reproduced with permission)



Overall, the recent emphasis on lifelong learning can be seen to be intimately linked to attempts to bring educational spending more closely in line with the needs of the economy inter alia through widening of access, provision of continuing learning opportunities, a greater emphasis on a wider range of modes of provision or an emphasis on learning from experience, informal learning and work-based learning. I view learning as a cognitive, psychological as well as a social and cultural phenomenon, which is mediated by tools such as language and technology. Informal learning I see as largely residing outside the infrastructure attendant to formal qualifications; formal and intentional informal learning are best understood as a continuum that involves an interplay and overlap between different learning activities (Colley et al., 2003). There are all sorts of debates around the notion of lifelong learning and the term has entered a wide-ranging discourse. Consequently, in this chapter I will progress the idea that learning has to be supported and encouraged throughout the life course.

Smith (1996, 2001) provides a critical history of lifelong learning, pointing out that there is an increasing emphasis on the individual that is often oriented to employer or consumer interest, rather than to collective learning experience; he concludes: ‘“lifelong learning” is a problematic notion. So is it worth pursuing?’ As an answer, Smith draws on work by Field (2000, pp. ix–xii) to provide us with the following three reasons why we should continue to investigate lifelong learning:

  1. It is important to retain the aspirations it contains. Learning continually throughout life is vital if we are to make informed choices about our lives and the society in which we live.
  2. Despite the weaknesses and confusions of current policies, something new is happening. There have been significant shifts in policy and these require interrogation; and there have been major changes in the ways in which we approach learning.
  3. Lifelong learning is now a mechanism for exclusion and control. As well as facilitating development, it has created new and powerful inequalities. There are issues around access to knowledge, and individualization. In a knowledge-based economy, those who have the lowest levels of skill and the weakest capacity for constant updating are less and less likely to find paid employment. Individualization has also meant that access to social support mechanisms has weakened.

I concur with the first of Field’s (2000) reasons, adding that I believe that it is a democratic right to have equity of access to cultural resources (widely defined, see Cook et al., 2012 and below), for example giving citizens access to digital learning opportunities with respect to museums or health.

With respect to Field’s (2000) second reason to examine lifelong learning, I note that although policies continue to shift, there is no doubt that lifelong learning retains its currency for policy makers. For example, the European Commission (2015) states that ‘The Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP) was designed to enable people, at any stage of their life, to take part in stimulating learning experiences, as well as developing education and training across Europe’. Furthermore, UNESCO (2014) has recognized the importance of ICT in lifelong learning but provide the caveat that ‘there is a risk that advanced technological requirements may lead to the exclusion of large numbers of people from sharing the advantages of the new global communication channels. It is UNESCO’s concern to enable all people around the world to make use of the huge potential of ICT for learning and self-empowerment’. This latter goal of UNESCO also relates to Field’s third reason for investigating lifelong learning, i.e. the concern over individualization in a knowledge-based economy; I will unpack these concerns below in the section that takes a ‘Critical view of lifelong learning’ and the section that follows it, ‘What exactly is the learning in lifelong learning?’

The phrase ‘Designing for’ takes up the first part of this chapter title. As we will see below, I propose that much work is needed on how to design e-learning or ICT support for lifelong learning. Consequently, following a selective review of key work in the field, which is contained in the sections ‘What are the drivers for learning in lifelong learning?’ and ‘Mobiles, museums and my robot’, I will then raise various design issues for lifelong learning, in the section ‘Socio-technical design issues for lifelong learning’, and go on to elaborate on my own research in this area in the section ‘Case study of work-based practice from the EC-funded Learning Layers project’. This case study focuses on help seeking in Hybrid Social Learning Networks. Furthermore, on the ‘design’ front, in Learning Layers we take a design research approach. Design research has recently been defined as ‘a genre of research in which the iterative development of solutions to practical and complex educational problems also provides the context for empirical investigation, which yields theoretical understanding that can inform the work of others … [although potentially powerful] the simultaneous pursuit of theory building and practical innovation is extremely ambitious’ (McKenney and Reeves, 2012, p. 7). Design research allows us to engage in inquiry surrounding the transformative possibilities of e-learning for lifelong learning. Thus, I propose that design research allows us to bring out ‘never-seen-before possibilities’ as we design for lifelong learning. Therefore, the focus in this chapter is on designing for the transformative possibilities of e-learning for lifelong learning but with an emphasis on social networks. First, however, I take a critical view of the lifelong learning concept.


Livingstone and Guile (2012, p. xviii) observe that the ‘increasing prominence of information processing has led many who conflate information with knowledge to conclude that we now live in a well developed “knowledge economy”’; they also call into question the current conventional wisdom that the knowledge economy is a new global reality to which all individuals and societies must adjust, and that lifelong learning is the strategy to secure such an adjustment. Furthermore, Livingstone and Guile (2012, p. 3) go on to note that ‘the notion of the emergence of a knowledge economy has become so widespread that it is now commonly assumed in both policy discussions and the mass media’. This assumption seems to widen the potential for exclusion contained in Field’s (2000) critique of a ‘knowledge-based economy’ (above), i.e. that those who have the lowest levels of skill will have the weakest capacity for constant updating. Livingstone and Guile (2012, p. 3) continue:

Many advocates have heralded the knowledge economy as transforming the nature of both work and learning. A shift from materials handling to processing of information aided by global electronic technology is seen to be converting much of the labour force into knowledge workers; a direct consequence is that workers must devote more of their efforts to pursuit of lifelong learning to meet the growing knowledge demands of their jobs. The problem … is that this notion remains far from reality.

For these authors, therefore, there seems to be some hype surrounding the move to a knowledge economy and its role in transforming the way we work and learn across the life course. In a related chapter, Carlaw et al. (2012) provide an extended critique of the knowledge society and economy; they suggest that the:

concepts of knowledge society and economy are clearly related as both leverage off the idea of transformation to create fundamentally different features of society and economy. Both see information as having a special and significantly different place. Speed and forms of storage and transmission emerge as key elements in its newness. Information as a central driver of production requires new forms of organization favouring the more flexible and responsive idea of networks rather than institutional structures. Thus we see a new form of society emerging, one characterized as a ‘network’ society, where flows and movement and less certainty are characteristic. (Carlaw et al., 2012, p. 33, my bold)

I will return to notion of ‘networks’ below. Carlaw et al. (2012, p. 33, my bold) continue:

Forms of explanation have shifted from linear causality to a greater appreciation of path dependency and complexity. Combinations of technologies and social and cultural practices mediated by local and global political relations are now part of what has to be considered to explain the growth of new forms of technological and economic activity. This favours explanations that explore the past as a way of understanding the present. It requires a sustained empirical analysis, one deeper than is seen in much of the debate about either the knowledge society, knowledge economy or information society.

In summary, Carlaw et al. (2012) propose that we view lifelong learning from the perspective of networks and that our explanations of the growth of new forms of technological and economic activity should ‘explore the past as a way of understanding the present’.

In an act of synchronicity with the above observations by Carlaw et al. (2012), I have led on work (Cook, 2014a; Cook and Santos, 2014) which argues that there is much that we can learn from the past as we explore the issues raised when designing innovative social media and mobile apps for learning. Like the social networking that took place in coffeehouses in the 1600s, the Internet-enabled social networks of today stand accused of being so-called ‘weapons of mass distraction’. However, I point out that modern fears about the dangers of social networking are overdone. The obvious question is why do I think we can learn from the social networking that took place in coffeehouses 300 years ago? The current context is that rarely does a day go by without dire warnings and overt action to either ban mobile devices or access to social networks from the workplace or school, or for monitoring of some description to be put in place to ‘police’ behaviour. Put simply, social networks stand accused of distracting the attention of learners or worse. For example, we have the following suspect claim (Infographic, 2012): ‘Social media distractions cost US economy $650 billion’. Indeed, in schools we have this recent example of ‘policing’ (CBSlocal, 2013): ‘Glendale Unified School District in California is paying $40,500 to Geo Listening to collect and analyze all social media public posts of 13,000 students … even if it was done off campus’.

However, as Standage (2013a) points out, in fact in England in the late 1600s, very similar concerns were raised about coffeehouses! In 1677, Anthony Wood, an Oxford academic, said: ‘Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the University?’ he asked. ‘Answer: Because of Coffea Houses, where they spend all their time’ (Standage, 2013a, online; note that ‘coffea’ is the coffee plant). As well as complaining that Christians had abandoned their traditional beer in favour of a foreign drink, critics worried that coffeehouses were keeping people from productive work. However, rather than acting as enemies of industry or distractions to academics, coffeehouses in the 1600s were in fact often crucibles of creativity and communication because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas. As the poet Samuel Butler put it, ‘gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece’ (Standage, 2013a); the implication being that people from different sections of society and skill sets could meet and network. Indeed, members of the Royal Society, England’s pioneering scientific community, frequently retired to coffeehouses to extend their discussions:

Scientists often conducted experiments and gave lectures in coffeehouses, and because admission cost just a penny (the price of a single cup), coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as ‘penny universities.’ It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his ‘Principia Mathematica,’ one of the foundational works of modern science. (Standage, 2013a, online)

Now the spirit of the coffeehouse has been reborn in our social-media platforms which are readily accessed via mobile devices. For example, a McKinsey Global Institute report (Chui, et al., 2012) claims that social networking within companies could increase the productivity of ‘knowledge workers’ by 20 to 25 percent. OpenWorm (2014) is an open-source project dedicated to creating the world’s first virtual organism in a computer and fostering growth of a completely open computational biology community. Surprisingly, one of the earliest examinations of online research communities is about one for worms (Star and Ruhleder, 1996). Modern fears about the dangers of social networking are overdone. However, as we explore in the Learning Layers case study below, we will see that these concerns are very real and need to be investigated and ‘designed for’ if we aim to build tools to give access to the potential of social media and the benefits of the knowledge economy.

Other work (Cook et al., 2012) has examined how using social media and personally owned mobile devices can provide a bridge from media use in everyday life to the expectations of school and higher education. A key notion in this respect is provision of equity of access to cultural resources facilitated by digital media from a wide perspective; here a cultural resource could mean a learning resource, health information, a cultural event, an employment opportunity, etc. The purpose of this undertaking was to reclaim the notion of cultural resources for educational discourse as it seems powerful in the context of discussions about social mobility and fairness of access. Colleagues and myself (Cook et al., 2012) went so far as to claim that our work would present a new educational paradigm combining formal and intentional informal learning processes centred on Social Networked Sites (SNSs), like Facebook, and mobile technology. However, our case study in schools and our review of the reported research in higher education showed mixed results. Some research (reviewed in Cook et al., 2012) suggests that in higher education, Facebook, for example, provides affordances that can help reduce barriers that students with lower self-esteem might experience in forming the kinds of large, heterogeneous networks that are sources of social capital. ‘Trust’ is a key issue in this respect. Thus, there appears to be considerable potential in terms of sustainability in the integration of intentional informal and formal institutional dimensions of learning. However, although a new educational paradigm is emerging, there exists a need for more debate and further research. As it stands, there still appears to exist a small conceptual gap around cultural resources and the nature of lifelong learning.


Given the above discussion about the concern over individualization in a knowledge-based economy and the potential for social media platforms for enhancing learning, we now turn to examine the underlying drivers of lifelong learning.

Eraut has made the observation, based on empirical work (2004, p. 269), that factors affecting face-to-face learning in the workplace, such as feedback, support, challenge and the value of the work, can lead to individual self-efficacy in terms of confidence and commitment. Eraut (2009, pp. 15–18) has documented the problems in the transfer of knowledge between people in the workplace. The heterogeneity of most workplaces in terms of human resources is undoubtedly a strength, as well as a challenge, in terms of asset identification and management. How best to identify and access relevant expertise? A related challenge for fewer, as well as more established colleagues, is that of (perceived) vulnerability associated with power relationships and giving the appearance of lack of knowledge and expertise, etc. The art of discourse about practice then becomes one of establishing affinity with colleagues through work-related discourse and giving the appearance of being generally cooperative, without giving anything away that might increase one’s vulnerability (Eraut, 2009, p. 16).

A critical review of the way technologies are being used for work-based learning (Kraiger, 2008) found that most ‘solutions’ are targeted towards a learning model based on the ideas of direct instruction in a formal manner, such as transferring lectures and seminars from face-to- face interactions to computer-mediated ones. A more comprehensive framework for examining the way technologies are being used for lifelong learning is needed. Economic, social and cultural changes in a converged mass communication system can be seen to have resulted in strong individualizing tendencies and a requirement for permanent learning (reflexivity). Therefore, even the benign colonialization of everyday life by a convergent communication system requires critical practice in everyday meaning making, which builds on reflexivity in the sense of Habermas’ ‘reflexive relationship with the world through communicative actions’ (‘reflexive Weltbezüge im kommunikativen Handeln’) (1995/1981, p. 143 ff.).

Generally speaking, reflexivity is the process of interacting with and relating to the inner, personal world and the outside, social world. Reflexivity is activated by appropriating socio- cultural structures, dominant agency patterns and pre-given cultural practices (Pachler et al., 2010, p. 290). Specially, this means that we need to design for the activation or scaffolding of reflexivity in the context of the following socio-cultural ecology (Pachler et al., 2010). Socio- cultural structures includes digital tools and media use in a context where educational institutions no longer define learning and knowledge on their own, and they are certainly no longer the only site, or even the main site, where learning and knowledge can be accessed and take place. From the perspective of these structures, we are seeing a move from push to pull in terms of media consumption. Furthermore, in terms of socio-cultural structures we are witnessing a change in mass communication structures and platforms, as well as media convergence, and we are seeing individualized mobile mass communication and social fragmentation in different milieus (e.g. the danger of individualization discussed above). Agency is a capacity to act on the world involving the formation of identity and subjectivity where the environment is a potential resource for learning. Agency also necessarily involves a different habitus of learning and media attitudes whereby a new habitus of learning is one of the characteristics of at-risk learners. Pre-given cultural practices are routines in situations in institutional settings, be they school, university, the workplace, etc.; they also include media use in everyday life (which includes intentional informal learning).

The above ‘socio-cultural ecology’ was in part informed by Livingstone (2009), who summarized the results of the research network on the Changing Nature of Work and Lifelong Learning (WALL) conducted in Canada between 2003 and 2007:

Basic findings to date are that incidence of intentional informal learning far exceeds rates of participation in further education courses, is not very closely related to either level of formal education or participation in further education and – unlike participation in further education – does not diminish greatly as one ages … We’ve asked people to give us their self-reports on whether or not they do informal learning. The basic point here is that the vast majority of people are engaged in intentional informal learning activities. There is a slight tendency for those with no diploma to indicate that they are less engaged in such intentional informal learning activities, but about 80 percent of those who did not complete their secondary education actively engage in informal learning activities. (p.44)

Livingstone (2009, p. 48) dug into the data and found that ‘the majority of employed people are engaged in learning around new general knowledge, new job tasks, new equipment, computer-based learning, health and safety, and various kinds of problem solving activities’.

The above high rates on intentional informal learning activities are echoed by UK engagement in media communications. Britons spend more time on technology than asleep, according to a recent UK Government regulatory body called the Office of Communications (or Ofcom) which in a report notes that: ‘The average adult in the UK spends over half of their waking hours engaged in media or communications activities. On average, UK adults sleep for 8 hours 21 minutes in a 24-hour period, while they spend 8 hours 41 minutes engaged in media or communication activity’ (Ofcom, 2014, p. 5). But, the UK report does not address activities in the way the above work in Canada does. However, the UK Ofcom work does give a recent view of UK social software usage trends, which is important for design. For example, ‘Facebook had the greatest active reach across both laptop/desktop computers and mobile devices. Active reach is highest among laptop and desktop audiences (66%), eight percentage points higher than for mobile phone audiences. LinkedIn and Google+ also had a greater active reach on laptop and desktop computers, with LinkedIn in particular used by only 8% of users on a mobile’ (Ofcom, 2014, p. 288). Thus, what we are seeing is that over recent years there has been a shift to technology-mediated conversation using social media. Finally, Knipfer et al. (2013) point out that as workplaces provide individuals with a social context, individual and collaborative learning are intertwined and must be considered together.


In this section, I give a selective overview of work that has explored how to design technology to mediate lifelong learning in traditional and emerging sites of lifelong learning. Sharples (2000, p. 177) outlined a framework for ‘the design of a new genre of educational technology – personal (handheld or wearable) computer systems that support learning from any location throughout a lifetime’. Since then, there have been many national and trans-national projects in a wide range of contexts such as the European Commission’s MOBIlearn and m-Learning projects (Kukulska-Hulme et al., 2009) that investigated learning with mobile technologies in lifelong learning settings including homes, museums, workplaces and outdoors. One of the major challenges has been to bridge learning activities between different contexts, be these in professional or private lives. However, Tabuenca et al. (2014, p. 4) note that ‘there is little support for lifelong learners that typically try to learn in different contexts, are busy with multiple parallel learning tracks, and must align or relate their learning activities to everyday leisure and working activities’. Consequently, Tabuenca et al. (2014, p. 4) present the LifeLong Learning Hub project (2014) or 3LHub as a ‘mobile seamless tool for self-regulated learning’ that aims to enable lifelong learners to ‘learn in a variety of scenarios and [to] switch from one scenario or context to another easily and quickly, using the personal device as a mediator’. Users can set learning goals, which are linked to Near Field Communication (NFC) tagging using a mobile device. Specifically, learning activities (e.g. write a blog, read a pocket book, listen to a podcast, watch a MOOC video on a tablet) are bound to a person’s daily learning environments by tapping on an NFC tag to start/stop. The 3LHub features various ‘visualizations with the aim to foster understanding on learning habits, optimise learning, and, bind successful learning environments’. 3LHub is of interest from a design perspective because it aims ‘at giving an open, flexible and low-cost prototyping framework for defining and linking everyday learning activities to contexts, physical artefacts, everyday home media solutions, and supporting to link sustainable learner tracks to these components’ (Tabuenca et al., 2014, p. 4).

Many museums and similar organizations provide lifelong and informal learning support, often taking the form of web pages, to support families and schools on trips to such places (e.g. Group for Education in Museums, 2014). In terms of the literature, Q&A and narrative crop up as successful approaches to providing support in a variety of contexts. For example, Borun et al. (1996) found a correlation between family museum learning and specific behaviours such as commenting on the museum display and asking or answering questions. A study by Kahr- højland (2011, p. 66) looked at ‘mobile phone facilitated narrative, which was planned as a so- called scaffolding remedy in the hands-on based exhibition … to support young people’s involvement and reflection in the exhibition at a Danish science centre’. Another study (Walker, 2006) looked at how a ‘digital learning trail is constructed from a museum visit using location tracking and mobile technologies, and this trail is narrated by the visitor to create, in turn, an audio tour for others’. Walker (2006, p. 103) points to useful design issues from the perspective of lifelong learning in and from museums:

This adds a quantitative dimension to narrative, while emphasizing the constructive and creative aspects of storytelling. Technologies such as these are usually used for personalized or contextualized information delivery; here no such type of intelligence is built into the system, but remains for the visitor to construct. More recently, the After Dark (2014) project used four robots to let the public experience a visit to the sleeping art at the UK’s Tate Britain in August 2014 (in a limited sense, they are the ‘my robot’ mentioned in this section’s title). According to The Guardian newspaper (Hadfield, 2014, online): ‘It has won the first IK Prize for a project that widens access to art through digital technology … Although only a few people will be able to operate them – with the design team on hand backstage to intervene or cut short a session in case of disaster or dullness – anyone will be able to watch their progress via live stream’. In a similar vein, the National Museum of Australia has set up Robot Tours: ‘It is now possible to visit the National Museum virtually – via laser-guided robots that provide remote visitors with an experience of mobile telepresence … Community groups will also soon be able to access virtual tours using the Museum Robots from computer terminals at the Digital Hubs in libraries and community facilities’ (National Museum of Australia Robot Tours, 2014, online). These projects are providing lifelong learning access to cultural resources in the traditional sense. Some people call these innovations telepresence robots or ‘Skype on Wheels’. Furthermore, a link to a ‘human telepresence’ could be achieved by wearing technologies like Google Glass or wearable cameras plus mobile devices.


The section above provided a selective review of key work in the areas of mobiles, museums and ‘my robot’. The phrase ‘Designing for’ takes up the first part of this chapter title. Indeed, as the preceding sections have shown, much work is needed on how to design e-learning or ICT support for lifelong learning in traditional and new sites of learning. Consequently, below I will raise various socio-technical design issues for lifelong learning.


A key design issue for robots that can provide ‘assistive living’ includes the need to develop a deeper understanding of the emergent nature of context and social situation awareness. For example, Caleb-Solly et al. (2014) investigated older adults’ perceptions and expectations of domestic care service robots and found that these ‘are vital in informing the design and development of new technologies to ensure acceptability and usability’ (p. 380). This work found that facilitating conditions, which are key to acceptance of the wide range of functionality offered by a domestic care robot, could be grouped into the categories of cognitive, physical and social. For example, in terms of the cognition there ‘is an assumption that if a person is being reminded or encouraged to drink (tea for instance) to prevent dehydration, then they should also know where the tea is and how to make it. Otherwise, the robot would also need to help them by giving structured guidance and support them in making the tea’ (2014, p. 380); in terms of the social category, the ‘provision of social media tools [by the care robot] assumes that the person has family and friends who are alive and/or available to be called’ (p. 380). As we will see below, these findings about the need for scaffolding on tasks in the home and the need for care to be taken when introducing social media have also emerged in the domain of providing help-seeking support for healthcare professionals.

Livingstone’s (2009) summary of the Changing Nature of Work and Lifelong Learning (see above) also reports that with regard to general interests not specifically tied to our work, the issue that is central to most people is health and well-being. Since 2004, the date of the WALL survey, the ubiquity of digital devices for health and well-being has exploded. The assistive living in the home example above gives one example of designing for ubiquitous technology. However, more generally, digital devices are giving us new ways to measure, track, visualize, understand and optimize our bodies, health, fitness and well-being:

The benefits could range from low-cost genetic sequencing to the layering of distributed mobile devices and sensors, wearables and implantables. The network of devices that makes up the internet of things could bring about the internet of the body. (Kraft, 2014, online)

Sometimes referred to as the quantified-self movement, or less commonly ‘monitor me’ in a 2013 BBC Horizon programme, this trend started with fitness-focused tools such as the Fitbit digital pedometer, but it is expanding to make use of a growing array of devices that can track metrics ranging from sleep patterns to brain waves. For example, various apps are available which measure the ripples in your mattress as an indicator of sleep habits (Lifehacker, 2013). The BBC (2013) Horizon MonitorMe programme suggests that when self-monitoring things such as sleep, we can actually change our habits and behaviours.

However, a big issue for lifelong learners is that these devices give us a lot of information, and consequently reflexivity is needed to construct knowledge that is meaningful for our own context. Nevertheless, the trends summarized in this and the preceding section can be seen as giving citizens access to a range of cultural resources. A key design issue is scaffolding the reflexivity needed for meaning making and the case study below investigates this issue. Furthermore, the medical device market is highly regulated, so to get around this some developers are marketing ‘monitor me’ devices as consumer products. For example, CellScope provides an approach to ‘visualizing the ear by converting your phone into a connected digital otoscope’, i.e. your smartphone plus an attached tip become a medical device which is used to look into the ears (Cellscope, 2014). Such a trend raises ethical issues about how to support a diagnosis (e.g. an ear exam selfie) that may be cause for concern. If the user sends the scan to a remote doctor, this could potentially be efficient for villagers in a remote area, giving them access to cultural resources (as defined above). However, there is a trust issue related to convincing a doctor about the veracity of a scan image or indeed the danger of overloading health professionals with a deluge of data and information. As we will see below, the latter issue is already a problem for UK health services as is the ability to adapt to new technology.

In this section, I have raised various design issues for lifelong learning in order to set the scene for my own research in this area in the following section.


In the Learning Layers project (2014), we develop technologies that support informal learning in the workplace (healthcare professionals in north-east England and the construction sector in northern Germany). We aim to understand how we can improve trust and interactions between people and enhance the construction of learning networks.

I am currently leading on a sub-set of Learning Layers work that aims to develop a socio- technical system to support lifelong learning amongst healthcare professionals in the form of a Hybrid Social Learning Network (Cook, 2014b; Cook et al., submitted). The Hybrid Social Learning Network is a conceptual framework for smart lifelong learning environments that provides a systematic and rigorous approach to warranting claims; it has emerged from an extensive critical literature review and earlier co-design work. For Cook et al. (submitted), hybridity in professional lifelong learning has two dimensions:

1. A hybrid combination of formal and informal social structures in terms of power and control in an activity system, i.e. the professional role we adopt or are positioned into in terms of structural relations of the power and control in institutional and cross-institutional settings (Daniels, 2008, pp. 148–178). This recognition attempts to address the concerns raised in the introduction to this chapter with respect to individualization in a knowledge-based economy, leading to a lack of support for segments of society.

2. A hybrid in terms of combining physical and digital tools; how cultural-historically developed tools (physical and digital) mediate the individual’s relation to the world where the competence to handle such tools is acquired in social settings through guidance from other persons or guidance from digital tools in a ‘50–50 partnership’ (this latter is a metaphor derived from Shadbolt et al.’s concept of ‘social machines’, 2013).

In other words, people connect and interact through a hybrid network of physical and technology-mediated encounters to co-construct knowledge and effectively engage in positioning practices (‘power and control’) that are necessary for their work. In our vision, professional learning will be transformed by introducing tools which are designed specifically for this Hybrid Social Learning Network mode of mediated learning. These tools will include recommender systems, Help Seeking Services and knowledge management tools. Within the Hybrid Social Learning Network, users can ask questions to people they trust and recommender services suggest relevant people, discussions, Q&A and documents. Our analysis of pilot co- design sessions in our design research approach revealed a barrier in that there is reticence in the UK healthcare sector to use social networks and mobile devices in workplace practice. A related challenge is that our recommender systems are based on cognitive models; these need extending to meaning making in social networked contexts. We are responding by conducting three in-depth co-design workshops and by evolving a conceptual basis for Hybrid Social Learning Networks (see Cook et al., submitted, for details of the latter). Following a brief summary of the background, this section presents an overview of the findings from our pilot and in-depth co-design sessions and presents design criteria for our Hybrid Social Learning Network.


The challenge of the ‘unfilled’ potential of the Internet has been identified by Tim Berners- Lee (Berners-Lee and Fischetti, 1999; Shadbolt et al., 2013); our response is Hybrid Social Learning Networks (Cook et al., submitted), whereby users and recommender systems work together to achieve a task or solve a problem. Our users are at the heart of emergent co-designs (Ehn, 1988). Specifically, we are interested in co-designing a Help Seeking Service that lets healthcare sector workers ask questions to people they trust and that also recommends relevant conversations and documents. We want to exploit the potential of recommender systems (e.g. when Amazon’s algorithms suggest to you that ‘Customers who bought this item also’) as partners for people, as well as take advantage of networking to support online collaboration in work-based learning. However, we face the dual design challenge of the scaffolding of cultural- historical practice and ensuring the technical software development fits with our chosen theoretical orientation.

Help seeking in the workplace can be viewed as a learning process (Cook and Pachler, 2010). What is of particular interest for our purpose is the fact that the majority of learning activities through and at work seem to involve other people, for instance through one-to-one interaction, participation in group processes, working alongside others, etc. This, for us, underlines the centrality of identifying relevant ‘others’ from and with whom to learn – and the possible role of social media and Social Network Sites (SNSs) in it – particularly given the documented problems in the transfer of knowledge between people in the workplace (see Eraut, 2009, pp. 15–18). We want to supply computer support for a range of workers in the UK’s healthcare sector to assist them in identifying relevant ‘others’ from and with whom to learn (lifelong learning and intentional informal learning).

To get a realistic sense of how groups of users will interact within the learning network that we are designing, we place these users at the heart of our emergent co-designs, framed by a design research approach. Co-design (Ehn, 1988) is a development process where we as design professionals guide users to develop solutions with us. In co-design, no perspective is regarded as more important than another. Co-design is applied to understand, analyse and confirm the users’ needs by interacting, discussing and negotiating in order to improve and support users’ learning practices. We have developed relationships with two healthcare sector groups in the north-east of England: general practice (GP) managers (includes data quality) and practice nurses, who will be users of the final system. The work reported in this section took place over a period of two years.

In our preliminary investigations, we ran a series of pilot co-design sessions using wireframes, use, mock-up, etc., which revealed a barrier in that there is reticence in the UK healthcare sector to use social networks and mobile devices in workplace practice (see below). Furthermore, a parallel analysis of interview data from a related study (empirical data gathered by the University of Innsbruck with the University of Leeds in Year 1 of the Learning Layers project, i.e. September 2012–October 2013; see Holley et al., submitted) found that with respect to the current use of email, practice managers have a sense of losing information or even of not having any control over their network of contacts. Commonly, practice managers use the term ‘overwhelming’ to describe their feeling about the torrent of emails. Holley et al. (submitted) also found that practice managers want to improve their networking capabilities to strengthen their voice and the impact of their self-organized practice managers’ network within the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG). In addition, Holley et al. (submitted) found that most of the nurses in our study (NE England) work in a single-handed manner at their practices (in this area, GP practices often have only one nurse working in them) and this is the main reason why nurses tend to feel a little isolated. One of the most common feelings for nurses was that of isolation due to the lack of opportunity for sharing opinion and facing problems; our earlier analysis thus suggested that nurses have little communication and sharing by email. It was also noted that the CCG Committee is GP and male dominated and that in this area in fact most GPs are male (this is not the case across the UK more generally, where female GPs outnumber male GPs). So, the local context is one in which, from our analysis at least, nurses tend to feel they do not have a strong voice.

As a result of these analyses, we are responding by conducting three in-depth co-design workshops (for detail, see Santos et al., submitted) with potential users to gain a deeper understanding of their help-seeking activities in networks and to ensure that the tools being developed meet their needs. A parallel but related challenge is that there are certain assumptions built into the Learning Layers recommender systems used as a service by the Help Seeking tool (they are based on cognitive models). This very cognitive approach still needs resolving with respect to the cultural-historical approach (Vygotsky, 1978) of our Help Seeking Service, where meaning making in a social context is paramount.

As we looked at the results of the three in-depth co-design workshops (Santos et al., submitted), we realized many problems needed to be addressed. Gradually, a set of design criteria emerged that frame how and when to recommend to a user certain people, conversations to participate in or resources to look at. These design criteria included privacy and trust issues and form the basis for primary scaffoldings linking the user to a more capable peer or relevant conversation, thus providing the impetus to move a user from one learning context to another.

From a socio-technical perspective, the Hybrid Social Learning Network (Cook et al., submitted) is central because it frames how we mediate between people and technology. We are answering questions like: How can we reconcile post-Vygotskian theory (and particularly recent cultural-historical work on hybridity) with the core idea of social machines, the ‘50–50 partnership’ between people and machine? How can we design technology that fits with the working and learning practices of our target group (e.g. healthcare professionals)?

Quite naturally, the above questions have driven us to examine how we can ‘scale up’ the use of the Help Seeking Service (scaling up adoption is an objective of Learning Layers). On this issue, it is worth noting that taking innovation from concept through to scalable delivery is a complex, contested and under-theorized process. An external review of our initial scaling framework (Cook et al., 2013) has highlighted that the approach was too linear and may rely too heavily on the diffusion of innovation paradigm originally proposed by Everett Rogers in the 1960s (Rogers, 1995), which is less appropriate for scaling innovations in our project. Consequently, we are evolving our approach surrounding the processes of ‘scaling up’ by building upon the theoretical concepts suggested by Coburn (2003), Greenhalgh et al. (2004) and Dede (2007). We are not sure if we will end up with one or two revised models. However, our continuing work (Holley et al., submitted) suggests that we will go on to propose that the typical measure of success ‘by number’ needs a more nuanced analysis. In any case, emerging model(s) will continue to enable the orchestration of team discourse about theory, the production of artefacts as tools for design discourse, and the identification of scalable systemic pain points. Finally, in order to assist our scaling ambitions on a project-wide basis, we have led on the development of an Open Design Library (ODL, 2014).


Lifelong learning and the perception of the emergence of a knowledge economy are seen as problematic notions by some. For example, there seems to be some hype surrounding the move to a knowledge economy and its role in transforming the way we work and learn. However, the idea that learning has to be supported and encouraged throughout the life course adds to the debate surrounding the equity of access to cultural resources. Consequently, in this chapter I have taken the view that designing (e-learning) for lifelong learning should also, if not first and foremost, be about offering opportunities for personal and individual growth, inclusion in networks as well as social equity. Indeed, the focus in this chapter has been on designing for the transformative possibilities of e-learning for lifelong learning but with an emphasis on learning in social networks that take into account hybridity in terms of power and control. Specifically, above, I argued that there is much that we can learn from the past as we explore the issues raised when designing innovative social media and mobile apps for learning; I point out that modern fears about the dangers of social networking are overdone. Furthermore, I highlighted that the ubiquity of digital devices – for example, robots for museums, the home and for health and well-being – is increasing, but are ethical considerations of these developments keeping pace?

Humans have used social media in its widest sense for the last 2000 years, that is until the last century with the arrival of a broadcast pattern of mass media consumption (Standage, 2013b). Now the Internet is heralding a revival of social media. However, co-design tells us that for the ‘Internet-powered coffeehouses’ to work for the public sector, workers would prefer their own private booths within the coffeehouse, while also wishing to occasionally interact with other booths when required. This confirms the findings of Eraut (2009, p. 16), discussed above, i.e. that the art of discourse about practice is one of establishing affinity with colleagues through work-related discourse and giving the appearance of being generally cooperative, without giving anything away that might increase one’s vulnerability. Based on our two years of design research with health sector workers, described above, the following questions arise:


What balance/form should the partnership between humans and recommenders (machines) take in our Hybrid Social Learning Network? What are the related implications for public sector workers, who appear to prefer closed online social networks? What ethical issues are there? Is there related work that we can draw on (i.e. beyond social machines, social network analytics, robotics, cybernetics and trust)?


I gratefully acknowledge the input of users in the Learning Layers project, as well as Tribal (for pilot designs), Pontydysgu (for the WordPress version and related design ideas) and Ralf Klamma (for useful comments on ideas). Learning Layers is a 7th framework large-scale integrating project co-funded by the European Commission, Grant Agreement Number 318209 (

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