Social Enterprise Learning Exchanges

CHAPTER

Social Enterprise Learning Exchanges

Networking and Partnerships MODULE

What is a learning exchange?

A learning exchange is an opportunity for individuals, groups, and communities to visit and learn through the exchange of ideas and the sharing of common solutions. 

Exchanges create opportunities for information sharing, and learning from people with similar interests, or facing similar challenges. 

Exchanges are particularly useful within the rural context, where communities in different locations face similar challenges and there is a willingness to share learning and experiences from approaches taken, including social enterprise experience. 

This can be particularly useful when a group is starting out on a new area of work, and they are able to learn from others who have implemented a social enterprise solution. 

Travelling to other geographically rural or remote social enterprises can provide shared learning about how both groups deal with rural-specific opportunities or challenges.

Benefits of attending or hosting a learning exchange

There are benefits to both the host partner and the visiting partner of a learning exchange, which are based on sharing learning between partners around common interests and challenges. 

The visiting partner will have the opportunity to view how a similar group, organisation or community approach shared challenges, and will come away armed with new insights and perspectives. 

The hosting partner have the opportunity to explain their project to a new and interested audience, often seeing their own projects afresh through new eyes. 

Each partner group will meet new people, make lasting connections and expand their networks. In the rural context, networks for peer support are especially important due to the isolating nature of rural remote locations.

 

See an example of a learning exchange in this video about a learning exchange to the Lahemaa National Park, which was run in Estonia by the ERASMUS team from the ‘Social Entrepreneurship for Local Change’ project.

How to plan and get the most from a learning exchange visit

Planning is a key element of any learning exchange event, but particularly so for visitors from rural communities, where the total cost and time of travel is greater than that of their urban counterparts.

For this reason, it is wise to thoroughly review all aspects of your plan, taking into consideration logistics and cost, to maximise the learning you can gain from your journey.

This could include planning to visit more than one location during the journey, to maximise the benefits from the travel and time away and to bring a range of experience to inform future plans. 

Identifying who and where to visit can seem like a difficult task to begin with, but you have to first consider what it is that you want to learn. Make a list, and once you have identified the key things you want to learn, you can start to consider who you might be able to learn from.

There may be regional or national organisations that can assist you to identify suitable partners to visit, or via contacts you have made through existing networks.

 

Generally speaking, most people want to attend a learning exchange to learn about specific information, opportunities, or ways of dealing with challenges. This should make it easier for you to identify places to visit by:

Enterprise Activity

If you are already delivering an enterprise activity or are planning to develop a new area of business activity, it can be useful to visit another organisation with experience in this area of work.

This can provide a deeper understanding for both the preparatory work for taking forward a new area of activity or opportunities to refine and improve operational activities for existing activities. This can also provide opportunities for ongoing collaboration.

Quite often, a social enterprise may operate activities across more than one area of business activity to achieve social and environmental benefits for their local community.

Fitting in more than one learning visit during your journey makes a lot of sense if you are travelling from a remote or rural location.

This will make the most of the journey, and the additional learning you will gain will balance out the cost and time of travel. For more information about this, see our case study about Orkney Zero waste.

Before you attend any learning exchange visits, you must have a clear outline of what you want to learn, and identify key questions to ask.

Geography

Perhaps you are connecting with this organisation because they face similar opportunities or challenges due to their rural location.

You might also choose to learn from organisations because they are within close proximity to you and deal with the same contextual factors, or you might choose to go further afield to learn how things are done in different locations.

Having a list of pre-prepared questions will ensure that you don’t forget to ask anything, and gain the maximum amount of learning possible from the exchange. There will also be further questions and discussions that arise from the visit.

If you are engaging in a learning exchange as a group, it is well worth meeting with your group before attending the exchange to discuss what you collectively want to learn. This will bring diverse perspectives and ideas to the discussion, and might flag up questions which otherwise wouldn’t be considered.

Hosting a virtual learning exchange

In the Covid context and beyond, learning can still be shared more widely through hosting learning exchanges virtually, over Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms. In Scotland, social and community enterprises have embraced virtual delivery methods, which are especially suited for rural organisations because:

  • They save in terms of cost and time of travel to other locations
  • Enable more people from a range of places to join in
  • Learning can be recorded as a video, podcast, or case study

Inspiralba have produced a guide – How To Run a Virtual Learning Exchange, available at the Rural SE Hub website – which covers the main elements including:

  • How to select and identify a theme or learning to share (including examples)
  • How to identify and reach your audience, and market your event
  • Setting up your event online (Eventbrite, Zoom, writing a blurb)
  • Structure of a learning exchange
  • How to prompt discussion and collect feedback

Case studies

How to Run a Virtual Learning Exchange Guide

This short presentation provides a comprehensive guide to running or hosting a community learning exchange online.

(Written in English)

Estonia Lahemaa Community Innovation Laboratory

A good practice example of how universities and local community groups can collaborate with rural entrepreneurs to network and learn from each other. This creates a new environment for the co-creation of knowledge and the co-visioning of sustainable solutions.

Describes a research approach called Participatory Action Research (PAR), which engages academics and students in deep and extended partnerships with civil society, aimed at uncovering context-specific and action-oriented strategies to deal with sustainability challenges in the community.

(Written in English)

Orkney Zerowaste Learning Exchange

Orkney Zerowaste was set up to reduce the volume of rubbish going into landfill sites and incinerators, and also aims to provide employment and training, as well as addressing other social and environmental concerns.

A learning exchange offered the opportunity to learn from other like-minded organisations, an experience which would not have been possible within Orkney, due to it’s small size and isolated nature.

(Written in English)

Scottish Community Alliance

The ‘Community Learning Exchange’ initiative creates the opportunity for communities to learn through the exchange of ideas and the sharing of common solutions.

They fund the costs of community groups to make visits to other communities, to connect people with similar interests and allow them to gain new insights on shared challenges and grow their networks for peer support.

Visit their website for case studies and ideas.

(Written in English)

EU Rural Review - Networking

This report defines and highlights the role of networks and networking in rural development, giving an overview of European & Member States’ network structures.

Section 3 gives examples of learning exchanges from across member states, for example where Latvian forest owners visited Finland and Sweden to learn about forest management practices.

(Written in English)

Romanian Demonstrative Farm and Training Centre

Networking abilities are further improved through this learning exchange experience by integrating the farmer’s activities with international volunteers who teach them English. Knowing an internationally-spoken language helps famers to better interact with peers from other countries and develop networks for better connection.

(Written in Romanian)

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