A. Bell1, L. Emanuel1, R. Zhekova2, H. Oberg3

1University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UNITED KINGDOM)
2Varna Free University "Chenorizets Hrabar" (BULGARIA)
3University of Skovde (SWEDEN)
Learning places have traditionally been conceived as formal entities, organised in environments controlled by academics and trainers who greet participants as guests. The possibilities of learning places have been evolving, enabled by the construction of virtual spaces offered by online learning – participants can now learn from each other in Communities of Practice (CoPs) that are temporally and geographically dislocated. However, many of these online CoPs are formal learning spaces that continue to be controlled by academics. We take the view that Place is a social construct, derived from the people that contribute to it and imbue it with meaning, and virtual learning spaces can only truly become places when they are shaped and owned by the learners themselves. Drawing on the work of Pedler (1981) our suggestion is that educators do not belong in informal learning communities and that such informal learning places should naturally evolve as they are socially constructed by participants – rather than be guests invited into a pre-constructed learning environment, participants should be able to co-construct their informal learning places. With this in mind we have suggested an alternative learning model which combines aspects of formal and informal learning and is the focus of our European Union Lifelong Learning Programme, Leonardo da Vinci Transfer of Innovation Project, RE:ACT (Relating Experience: Advancing Collaborative Tourism). The context for the RE:ACT project and the vision behind it was presented in an earlier paper ‘Practitioner Designed Online Learning; Preaching What You Practice’ at INTED 2011. The focus of the learning is the development of social media skills, for learners who are part of the European tourism industry in Bulgaria, Sweden and Wales. Our learners are primarily small scale accommodation and attractions owner/ operators with little time to participate in learning which is not specific to their context, or which takes them outside their normal sphere of activity. The key to developing lifelong learners within the tourism industry is, we feel, to ensure that the learner is at the centre of activity, where academia and industry work in partnership. The RE:ACT model has since been piloted with tourism practitioners in Uppsala, Sweden; Varna, Bulgaria and South West Wales who have been engaging in an online training programme in social media for the tourism industry which is embedded within an online collaborative community. This paper reports on the findings of the pilot through a description of the experiences of the participants gained through a number of in-depth interviews with representatives in each country, combined with facilitator observation of practitioner based community development. The paper concludes by identifying key lessons for online informal learning and the practitioner development of online learning communities.