Sewing, technology and self-directed learning

Sewing, technology and self-directed learning

I recently wrote a blog post for work. My day job is as a Senior Technology-Enhanced Learning Designer at The Open University. I was interested in reflecting on the self-directed learning methods I'd been using in teaching myself sewing/dressmaking skills. In particular,  what I could learn from that to apply to the way we develop our teaching materials at the OU. As the boundaries between informal and formal learning become increasingly blurred, so too do my boundaries between work, personal life and the sewing community. So I'm sharing this for anyone that might be interested, from whatever angle.

In early 2014 I decided I wanted to develop my basic sewing skills and learn about dressmaking and garment construction. A little over two years later I am making wearable clothes (for myself and others), designing patterns for magazine publication, writing a regular blog and contributing to an exciting online community through social media. While the skills I am learning belong more to an art and design curriculum than the traditional OU subject areas, I have found it interesting to reflect back on my self-directed learning journey and what has made it successful.

Task-based learning
I took a deliberately active approach to learning, launching myself almost immediately into a simple project, drawing on theory, online skills tutorials or reference books only when I got stuck. I was careful not to take on overly ambitious projects, but to stretch myself enough each time to learn something new. I have made conscious decisions about what I wanted to be able to do, and then selected projects that would get me there.

Blended approach
I have used a variety of different media to learn from. Print, in the form of printed patterns, books and magazines have been very useful reference points while working on the more practical aspects of each project. I have also drawn on video, blogs and online tutorials to supplement these. Online tutorials have been particularly useful in developing Adobe Illustrator skills when designing my own patterns. I have also attended two real-life workshops (8 hours each). These were mostly an opportunity to practise the skills I’d been developing on my own and get some help where I needed it (finally getting my head around invisible zips!). It was also great to sew with others and start to build up a network.

Flexible learning
As this learning journey was very much a personal one, unlike OU modules, I haven’t had had a study planner to stick to or assessment deadlines looming. However, I have been very motivated and had to fit my learning around a full-time job and young family, very much like OU students. Weekday evenings have become very important for this, and the odd weekend afternoon or day of leave. It’s amazing where you can fit things in if you really want to: 30 minutes reading over lunch, a podcast in the car on the way to work, keeping a regular eye on relevant social media feeds during quiet moments.

This is an interesting one. Initially I thought “well, there is no assessment for this type of learning”. But then I realised that I’d actually created assessment points for myself through the magazine submissions. There’s a process of self-drafting a pattern, making up a sample and then sending photos to the relevant magazines. When you get an acceptance, you’re given a deadline, a template to work to and often the materials to work with. You then have to make the garment again, taking good quality photos at each stage, writing step-by-step instructions for others to use and then put together the pattern pieces in multiple sizes options. All to a strict deadline. You also get feedback – from readers and bloggers who review your pattern. It feels very much like the processes involved in traditional assessment, but its authenticity makes it much more enjoyable.

Personal learning network
This has been really important to me. Building up a network of supportive, like-minded people to chat to about dressmaking challenges or offer feedback to has made the whole process much more social. The contacts I’ve built up have been through meeting people at workshops, friends of friends and other bloggers, designers and crafters. My online profile has been central to building an appropriate online presence in this area.

Social media and learning from feedback
I’ve discovered Instagram to be the social media platform of choice for a lot of sewing folk. Its photo-based format really lends itself to sharing makes/designs and getting feedback. It is a very friendly and supportive online community, with feedback taking a very constructive tone.

Writing a personal blog has been a great way to reflect on my experiences and things I’ve learnt. When I started writing it I had no idea how I’d use it, but I’ve really got into the swing of writing up a blog post after each project. I’ve loved promoting each post on various social media platforms and delving into the analytics of where and how the blog gets read.

Life-long learning
Although I’d like to consider myself now an intermediate-level dressmaker, I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning. There is always a new project, a new design to create and other people’s creativity to admire.

So, is any of this relevant to the OU context? What expectations do our learners bring with them to their studies? Are some of our students teaching themselves new skills in a similar way? Are there any different approaches we could adopt or trial? Would a more active, task-based approach be appropriate for some of our modules? What about a more central role for social media? Or a blog? Or more authentic assessment? And should we take a more holistic approach to the learning our students take part in, fostering independence, autonomy and a passion for life-long learning?