Lifelong learning – the end of adult education?

This article was first published on EPALE in German:

The report “Embracing a culture of lifelong learning” by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning from August 2020 describes a future-oriented perspective for education. Against the backdrop of global challenges such as the climate crisis, technological change and the Covid 19 pandemic, twelve international experts call for a fundamental shift towards a culture of lifelong learning.

The view of lifelong learning is often reduced to empowerment and education for the labour market. This reduction has meant that adult learning is often disconnected from the education system and education policy. Lifelong learning, however, should be understood as a fundamental concept of education and social policy. The report argues that individual lifelong learning opportunities and learning societies are necessary to address future inequalities. This can be achieved by making lifelong learning the guiding principle of education and creating a culture of lifelong learning globally, nationally and locally by 2050.

The report outlines characteristics of a supportive environment for lifelong learning and it contains ten key messages that are crucial for establishing a culture of lifelong learning. I would like to summarise these messages and some suggested ways of implementing them here and look at their relevance for German and, to some extent, European adult education.

Key messages to establish a culture of lifelong learning

1. Recognise and promote the holistic nature of lifelong learning

Learning can take place at any age, any time, anywhere (anyone). Splitting learning into, for example, school education, adult education, education for older people, continuing education etc. contradicts a holistic view of learning.

To ensure that learning opportunities exist everywhere and at any time, learning opportunities should be organised in a decentralised manner and learning paths and learning locations should be networked: The boundaries between formal, non-formal and informal learning become permeable in a culture of lifelong learning. In addition, each individual learning biography should reflect personal learning and learning achievements should be collected and made visible. Learning achievement here refers to all learning: informal, non-formal and formal and the word ‘achievement’ is to be understood independently of assessments.

This can be enabled, among other things, through the effective use of existing spaces (such as libraries, community centres, schools, colleges and spaces in the workplace), through micro-learning opportunities, or through mobile and hybrid learning activities.

2. Transdisciplinary research and cross-sectoral collaboration

Just as learning is to become more interconnected and permeable, so too is the knowledge gain about learning to be improved through extensive scientific collaborations. In addition, cooperation between researchers, policy-makers, companies, self-employed people, educators and learners is recommended.
Among other things, a platform is proposed that enables the continuous exchange between science and practice. A network created in this way can drive positive developments through synergy effects and jointly implement innovative learning initiatives.

In Germany, there is certainly still a lot of work to be done here. The interlinking of science and practice as well as interdisciplinary research is increasingly being implemented, but in my opinion we still seem to be a long way from networking all education actors at eye level, as envisaged in the report.

3. Putting disadvantaged groups at the centre of attention

The report calls for great efforts to provide learning opportunities for the disadvantaged and to eliminate inequalities. Diversity – i.e. diverse social backgrounds, life circumstances and lifestyles – is seen as the starting point for learning. Inclusive education based on this should both improve the framework conditions for disadvantaged groups and support people individually.
To achieve this, for example, learners and teachers should be involved in education planning. In this way, more needs-based learning opportunities can be created.

There are great efforts in all European countries to reach disadvantaged groups and to enable them to participate in education; the awareness of the problem and the will to solve it is undoubtedly there. But on the whole, adult education is often stuck in the project-oriented creation of remedies. Involving learners and teachers in planning also seems to me to be an exception rather than a continuous development concept.

4. Establishing Lifelong Learning as a Common Good / Social Good

Education should not be measured by its immediate economic value. It should be recognised as a social good that enables both individual development and helps to overcome crises (personal, societal, global). Therefore, the free availability of knowledge should be promoted and learning opportunities should exist in open networks. In particular, digital offerings should be usable with smartphones. This ties in with the demand to focus on disadvantaged groups, because mobile devices are much more widespread than notebooks, for example.
Open Access and Open Source concepts allow for a public good orientation, with collaboratively created material benefiting the community.

The potential of freely accessible education is increasingly recognised, acknowledged and sometimes financially supported. At the same time, however, a tendency can be seen globally that can lead to non-formal and informal learning opportunities in particular only being offered by a few companies (such as LinkedIn Learning). The development of open alternatives that take into account the diversity of offerings, user-friendliness, user experiences and a wide range of end devices is a task that still needs to be tackled in Germany.

5. Better and more equitable access to learning technologies

Educational technologies offer innovative opportunities to engage and support learners. Therefore, access to (learning) technologies is as important as their effective use. The potential of artificial intelligence is also addressed: For example, virtual assistants can provide suggestions for further learning opportunities, learning experiences can be compiled and validated. Nevertheless, the report also recognises that educational equity is not achieved simply through technology. For example, while MOOCs offer the opportunity for open use, in reality, people who already have very good access to education tend to participate. Educational technology should therefore focus on all learners.
Furthermore, social media are seen as important places for informal learning, but misinformation and disinformation can endanger the educational process. Therefore, digital competences need to be constantly developed.

The fact that access to educational technologies must be made more equitable quickly has been undisputed at least since the pandemic. But what learning technology is supposed to achieve in this country and how it supports learning still seems to me to be quite far removed from the ideas of the UIL report. In Germany, for example, the use of learning analytics is already controversial among many educational institutions, even though they can be used to promote individual learning in an excellent way.

Adult education in Germany usually sees social networks only as places for passive information transfer and marketing channels. If one recognises social media as spaces for informal learning, one can – building on this – develop learning activities that counteract their negative aspects. Here, too, a pandemic development is taking place as educational events have been streamed on the networks. To what extent social media will be conceptually integrated into learning processes remains to be seen.

6. Transform schools and universities into lifelong learning institutions.

A culture of lifelong learning will only be achieved if schools and universities are more open to different ways of learning. This has already been addressed in the holistic nature of lifelong learning. The fact that the involvement of formal educational institutions was included as a separate point in the report underlines its importance. In addition, the report also addresses the tasks of teachers: Arousing curiosity and promoting self-learning competence should become the focus of teaching.

Germany is far from having a permeable education system. Our two- or three-tier school system already cements life paths. Open courses offered by universities, such as guest auditor studies or continuing education courses, are usually aimed at an academic audience and sometimes have admission restrictions. Changing the rigid German education system is a political task. But in order to promote a culture of lifelong learning, a strong participation of adult education stakeholders in this discussion is certainly helpful.

7. and 8. Promoting the collective dimension of learning and local initiatives for lifelong learning

Collaborative learning, face-to-face learning and learning in public spaces concretise the holistic nature of lifelong learning. Locally networked educational initiatives offer the greatest opportunities to embrace the idea of learning in social community. In addition to the concept of ‘learning cities‘, ‘learning communities’ are seen as pillars of a culture of lifelong learning.
To support local initiatives, community spaces should open up further. The diverse learning opportunities offered by museums and libraries, for example, should be further networked. In addition, theatres, senior centres, etc. can become places of learning.

However, “community space” does not only mean geographical space, but also digital space. The interest-led learning communities that exist here enable social learning and thus social cohesion. Open digital learning platforms can therefore bring people together and support collective learning. Learning should also be celebrated collectively, which is also a way to better include people with negative learning experiences in the learning process.

Open digital spaces for local initiatives and interest groups hardly exist in Germany. People form communities (local or interest-led) in Facebook groups or via WhatsApp. This is a pity, because the importance of learning in community and independent of companies is widely recognised. Learning festivals also unfortunately do not exist in Germany with the broad impact that we see, for example, in the UK, in Ireland or even in Slovakia. In order to do more justice to the collective dimension of learning, we probably need further efforts here.

9. Revitalising workplace learning.

Great importance is attached to workplace learning, which fits in with demands for networked learning pathways and recognition of informal and non-formal learning. Learning at the workplace should not only support the immediate activity but also serve the personal development of employees. For this, flexible, individual learning opportunities are just as important as funding education for the workplace.

My impression is that there is a great understanding on the part of adult education of the importance of workplace learning and that this is increasingly being promoted through education and validation initiatives. This does not always seem to be the case on the employer side and also on the political level, but many education providers are setting out to support companies in organising learning processes and promoting learning opportunities.

10. Recognising lifelong learning as a human right

That lifelong learning should be recognised as a human right is a consistent demand of the report. The right to education should go far beyond school education and lifelong learning opportunities are seen as indicators of social justice. This importance of lifelong learning has long been demanded at the European level, among others by the Lifelong Learning Platform (link is external).

This requires, among other things, the development of a legal framework and a supportive government structure, for example through the creation of a ministry for lifelong learning.

Creating a culture of lifelong learning

The UIL report is a powerful illustration of the part that lifelong learning plays in a more sustainable, healthy and inclusive global future. Naturally, it calls for adequate funding and appropriate policy frameworks. But both demands are only parts of establishing a culture of lifelong learning.

The key messages enable the education system and the organisation of learning to be reflected upon. They are interrelated and cannot be seen in isolation from each other. Therefore, it does not stop at the call for better funding. The report asks us to rethink how we have delivered, organised and assessed lifelong learning so far. This rethinking is a first step towards creating culture. Because a culture does not fall from the sky and is not decreed. Further steps should follow and not every step requires money or legislative measures.

Adult education can promote lifelong learning by opening up more. Especially at the municipal level (adult education centres, museums, libraries, theatres) there should be more cooperation not only among themselves. Local cooperation is also important with private initiatives, foundations and the private sector. The same applies, of course, to education companies, which should not close themselves off to cooperation. Opening up to new forms of education such as FabLabs, Hacker or Makerspaces and new, also digital, places of education are most likely to come about through cooperation. Disadvantaged groups will only be at the centre if they are worked with and not exclusively for.

A prerequisite for good cooperation is that all institutions, organisations and people involved in education meet at eye level. Formal education in particular should start to recognise that hobby courses or private interest groups enable people to participate in further educational opportunities and that these sometimes ridiculed offers are important for the development of individual learning paths.

If we want to make lifelong learning the fundamental concept of education and social policy, I believe that rethinking what we do and cooperating is the way to do it. Only in this way can we show what lifelong learning – and thus also adult education – makes possible. And that is a prerequisite for political recognition and stable funding.

The end of adult education – as we have known it so far

The creation of a culture of lifelong learning would make adult education an equal part of the education system. It would no longer be a project-oriented tool for solving economic and social problems. Because projects are not a solution. Projects are necessary and important, they promote cooperation, gain knowledge and give us experience. This can be built upon and all the positive effects that educational projects have should be used to promote a culture of lifelong learning.

We live in a time of change and perhaps now is a good time to rethink traditional approaches and take steps that can lead to a culture of lifelong learning. If this culture with its holistic character is established, adult education would no longer be as it is at the moment – it would be part of a permeable learning culture accessible to all. I think that is a very motivating idea.

Lifelong learning – the end of adult education? by Dörte Stahl is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The linked works and the contribution photo are under their own licences. Please check before using.

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