UNESCO/PASCAL Observatory Webinar 'Learning Cities’ COVID-19 recovery: from research to practice - The challenge of inclusion'

UNESCO Learning City of Melton

© Melton City Council
14 July 2020

On 17 June 2020, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), together with the PASCAL Observatory, hosted the first webinar of the series entitled “Learning Cities’ COVID-19 recovery: from research to practice”. This session focused on The challenge of inclusion in learning cities, building on the work of the Fourth International Conference on Learning Cities. An introduction to the topic was provided by the Mr Raúl Valdés Cotera of UIL, which was followed by an opening address by Michael Osborne, Professor of Adult and Lifelong Learning at the University of Glasgow, and PASCAL Director of Europe before the session launched into presentations on city initiatives by representatives of Medellín, Mantes-la-Jolie and Melton.

UIL Programme Specialist Ms Marie Macauley, who acted as moderator, pointed out that this webinar built on the Fourth International Conference on Learning Cities which was held in Medellín, Colombia in September 2019. She reminded participants that over the past two months UIL has been responding to issues related to COVID-19 in a variety of ways, which had included a previous series of webinars. She added that the new series jointly hosted with PASCAL would focus explicitly on issues of research on learning cities and their practical implications.

Raúl Valdés Cotera’s opening remarks reminded participants that the conference in Medellín had had two main objectives. The first was to build a better understanding of inclusion as part of lifelong learning and sustainable development. The second was the chance for cities to share experiences on the implementation of local actions which support inclusion through lifelong learning and which have an impact on vulnerable groups. He stressed that in this new webinar series, the knowledge that PASCAL is able to offer enriches discussions with a very interactive dimension, which can open up a dialogue based on research and also based on practices. Reflecting on the challenges of inclusion, he referred to the many challenges cities face as they grow, particularly issues concerning infrastructure. People come to cities in search of better lives, greater safety, basic services, and decent work. Learning opportunities must be of high quality, inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds and available to all. While cities must concentrate on inclusive physical infrastructure, particularly to include people with disabilities, cities must not forget inclusive learning in all its modalities (formal, informal, and non- formal) and the cultivation of social inclusion across all spheres and spaces (families, communities, workplaces, libraries, museums, digital platforms and beyond).

Michael Osborne reminded participants that the PASCAL International Observatory has been working in the field of learning cities for over 20 years. He commenced by referring to research that he had conducted in collaboration with Professor Norman Longworth and other colleagues in Europe, which had provided a foundation for much of PASCAL’s work, emphasising that the concept of the city as a locus of learning is long-standing. PASCAL itself has been operating networks of learning cities for some years. He reported some key concepts underpinning learning city development which were discussed in a Briefing Paper he had written for the Medellín conference with Sergio Hernandez. These concepts include: learning societies; formal, non-formal and informal knowledge; indigenous knowledge; equity; collectivism vs individualism; regulatory and policy frameworks; intersectoral collaboration; knowledge co-construction and a few others. He reported that the aspect of Indigenous knowledge is often missing in conversations around learning cities and cited the case of Victoria in Canada as an excellent example of an exception to this trend. He mentioned a number of other cities around the world which are focusing on specific disadvantaged groups, and offered examples of initiatives specifically designed for migrants, youth, older adults, prisoners, the disabled and people living in slums and deprived neighbourhoods. He also pointed out disjunctions between different city initiatives, noting that smart city debates often do not mention learning at all. He reflected that older adults, the disabled and prisoners are largely left behind in learning city developments and gave the audience some questions to ponder:

  • What levers can cities use to facilitate inclusion in education?
  • How are the needs and demands of excluded groups best addressed in cities?
  • Are there best practices of ‘joined-up’ service delivery to promote inclusive learning?
  • Is inclusion enough, or do we need to change the nature of institutions?
  • What can we learn from responses to COVID-19?

UNESCO learning city & PASCAL learning city of Medellín, Colombia

Medellín is a member of the Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) and has recently joined the PASCAL Learning Cities Network (LCN). Ms Alexandra Agudelo Ruiz, Secretary of Education for the city, began her presentation with an overview of developments. In the 1990s, Colombia suffered from extreme crime, much of which was connected with drugs, and Medellín was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Today, it has improved its health and education services, in line with principles to combat inequity. It has strong education policies in place which have helped to improve the social infrastructure of the city, including high levels of financial investment built upon the core concern of addressing student diversity. Ms Agudelo Ruiz highlighted Medellín’s support for individuals with disabilities from initial to secondary education and minors who are ill and hospitalized. She also reported that some 25,659 children and adolescents in Colombia who need international protection, regardless of their national and immigration status, are offered full education and protection. Finally, Ms Agudelo Ruiz described the strong focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), with a focus on female students.

UNESCO learning city of Mantes-la-Jolie, France

Ms Aminata Diawara, Learning City Officer-in-charge, contributed a presentation on behalf of UNESCO learning city Mantes-la-Jolie. She reported that the region surrounding the city was highly affected by COVID-19, with lockdown in place for over two months. It is one of the poorest regions surrounding Paris. There is a strong political commitment, also on the part of the mayor, for developing Mantes-la-Jolie as a learning city, and it was the second city in France to adopt the Learning City framework. Mantes-la-Jolie has regular exchanges with other French learning cities, including Clermont-Ferrand, Evry-Courcouronnes and Montpellier, and is the co-leader of the GNLC cluster “inclusion and equity” cluster. Many interventions have been offered during the COVID-19 pandemic, including several new municipal services such as supplying laptops to 250 families of primary schoolchildren and organising tutoring for families and students by young people. Ms Diawara further reported citizen-based initiatives concerned with the fabrication of masks, and the development of a special platform for community members aged 65+.

UNESCO learning city of Melton, Australia

Ms Cassandra Connelly, Lifelong Learning Projects Officer for the City of Melton, reported that her city is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Australia. Formerly a small town, it has now become a bustling suburb of greater Melbourne. Part of this rapid growth has been the need for additional community hubs and places for citizens to gather and learn in a social setting. In order to address community needs and interests, the city is using informal and formal feedback processes and then acts on their results, modifying programmes accordingly. This is done through a programme logic and evaluation system, with a focus on being responsive to need and demand. The governance body, the Community Learning Board, includes individuals from across various sectors of the Council and external stakeholders, and works on economic, social, personal and cultural well-being for all. The creation of the Melton Learning Directory has been one way to reach the community, as has been the annual Learning Festival. The learning team are also seeing an increase in people who have never attended in person engaging in the virtual space. The city is now targeting 200 seniors and people in non-English speaking programmes (NESPs) to have classes around digital literacy through a mobile digital literacy initiative.


Ms Macauley opened the debate with topics which had been raised by the audience, such as inclusion in education vs inclusive education; the role of adult learning and education (ALE) in promoting inclusion; pandemic responses and post-COVID-19 perspectives; education in prisons; violence and lifelong learning interventions.

Inclusion in education vs inclusive education

The main responses to questions concerning this aspect addressed rural/urban issues. Medellín provides learning activities in deprived communities using printed materials and radio regardless of geographical location. Also, through technology, there are attempts to reach out to rural deprived areas. Melton, whilst itself not providing opportunities for rural, deprived learners, reported that in Australia at the national level there has been a focus on the use of greater broadband connectivity to increase participation in learning. Mantes-la-Jolie is basically urban and also has no rural deprived areas. However, attention is given to families who do not possess electronic devices. PASCAL emphasised that smaller places are typically ‘left behind’ in many city-oriented initiatives and reported its focus on developing learning communities in such places.

The role of adult learning and education (ALE) in promoting inclusion

The focus in many learning initiatives continues to be children and youths, and though a number of cities have considered the involvement of parents and grandparents in family-based learning, the link made to adult learning is often missing. While there have been numerous observations about the digital and internet inequities, there has been less said about the valuable contribution of adult literacy to intergenerational learning. In Melton, a variety of activities have been offered to seniors during the pandemic, for example local performances for adults living in isolation. Online dancing, yoga and technology classes have promoted the engagement of seniors and it has also been important offer training in the use of videoconferencing platforms to facilitate contact with family and friends. The promotion of social life for seniors is also on the agenda in Mantes-la-Jolie in the acknowledgement of the importance of digital tools. In Medellín, the Secretariat of Social Inclusion and Family has designed a programme for elderly people that looks at the learning development of families as well as the provision of food and a safe environment.

Pandemic responses and post-COVID-19 perspective

In general terms, the COVID-19 pandemic has made inequalities more visible. It has however, helped to highlight the value of intergenerational learning. Some of the best responses to tackling exclusion have been multi-platform radio, TV as well as digital approaches. There are, for example, many new forms of engagement through the YouTube channel and other sources.

Michael Osborne reported many very good examples of community development and engagement with older generations and excluded people in Glasgow during the pandemic, and also of adult learning provision though online means. It seems that cities’ provision of education services should be more interrelated with other services, placing learning at the heart of all services. The crisis has provided a concrete opportunity to discuss and evaluate the important inter-relationship between health and education, and in general dialogues between different sectors is crucial to developing better responses to crises.

In some cities, non-formal education and family learning have been promoted during the pandemic as a new modality, albeit without much attention to adult learning. However, there are exceptions. In Melton, many teachers have been involved in promoting home activities which benefit all generations, such as cooking or gardening. In Medellin, non-formal education such as training and technical education is very important, reaching over 1.5 million citizens. Mantes-la-Jolie has launched its strategic educative summer with volunteers and different partnerships, aiming to provide activities both in the formal and non-formal sector.

Education in prisons; violence and lifelong learning interventions; measurement and monitoring approaches.

These topics all received questions from participants though without the possibility to respond at the time. Questions and comments included:

  • Is there evidence of impact of prison-related initiatives?
  • The reason why learning city activities rarely include prisoners in developing countries is that facilitators may interact with persons leaders may wish to hide away in prisons.
  • Can we use the learning cities approach to help reduce the increase of gender-based violence in cities and at home due to COVID-19?
  • Is there any specific inclusion initiative in Medellín with a focus on peacebuilding in deprived neighbourhoods?
  • What indicators have been used to keep track of the relationship between lifelong learning/education programmes and social improvements.
  • How effective are learning cities in improving their collection of data and information on people from different groups including those from marginalised groups as well as their formal and non-formal learning?

As Michael Osborne responded, these and other questions raised suggest that participants had identified a very significant and full research agenda for the future. Next UIL/PASCAL webinars are scheduled for the months of July, September, October and November. Mr Raúl Valdés Cotera concluded this session by expressing his thanks to all participants.

The summary was prepared by Michael Osborne, University of Glasgow/PASCAL Observatory; with support from Sergio Hernandez, University of Glasgow; Jac Torres Gomez, City of Wyndham; and Leone Wheeler, Australian Community Learning Network/Pascal Observatory.