The UK is facing a crisis in adult and lifelong learning. While widening participation is a strategic objective for key organisations including the Office for Students and Universities UK, and everyone from the Learning and Work Institute to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) stresses the need to improve adult skills, a recent report mourns a decade of decline, with nearly four million ‘lost’ mature learners since 2010.
We know that people need to be reskilled – and we know that the current gap in digital skills impacts people’s lives quite profoundly in terms of their earning potential and social mobility. It’s also likely that these problems will get worse if we don’t address them as the employment landscape shifts and workplaces become ever-more digital.
Indeed, Matthew Fell – chief UK policy director at the CBI – recently said: “Adult learning is heading in the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time for our economy and our society. Technology is rapidly changing the world of work and driving up demand for new and higher skills.” Nine in ten workers, he added, will need some form of reskilling by 2030, noting: “Lifelong learning will be one of the defining issues of our age. Countries who get it right will have an exceptional competitive advantage.”
Thankfully, UK colleges and universities are beginning to think creatively about how they can best support inclusive educational experiences. Forget ‘lifelong learning’, which tends to conjure up outdated images of local evening classes in dusty halls attempting French conversation or mastering the basics of digital photography. What we need is learning for life: a baseline belief that education supports every stage of every person’s career, no matter who they are or what their previous experiences of learning may be.
Technology has a big role to play in shifting the dial as digital delivery gives us the ‘reach’ to support social mobility, community engagement, UK plc, and business development for colleges and universities. In fact, it’s only with technology that institutions can put themselves at the heart of adult learning within hard-to-reach and underrepresented communities, providing individuals with easy online access to the opportunities they need, when they need them.
Such outreach projects target people who may not have participated in post-16 education before, as well as individuals who would not thrive in a traditional learning environment. For some, that may be due to the logistical and financial challenges of fitting in face-to-face learning around childcare, travel or work commitments. Meanwhile, for learners with sensory, mental or physical differences, inflexible practices have disadvantaged or even completely excluded them from campus-based courses. Others may simply have grown up with the belief that higher or further education was not ‘for me’. Given previous delivery – usually a set curriculum taught at a specific building according to an unnegotiable timetable over a defined period of time, often with an associated fee and unmovable assignment deadlines – they may have been right.
In contrast, learning for life is about taking the potential and the opportunity for learning out into communities that don’t naturally find their way into a university or college. Learning can happen online in flexible, modular and personalised ways, perhaps with further help in the form of voice-readers or other assistive technology.
In these ways, adult learning is – and will increasingly become – ongoing, user-led and ever-changing, both for learners and employers. We need to reskill and upskill diverse communities of adults whose jobs may not exist in the future as Industry 4.0 brings increased automation and new requirements. Technology-enhanced learning for life has potential to deliver, increasing social mobility, future-proofing universities and colleges, and reaching out to a wide catchment of people as it does so.
But whether informal or high-level, learning for life will have to be adaptable. Technology has the potential to break down barriers in terms of remoteness, access, non-neurotypical behaviours, cultural differences and more, but modes of teaching and learning are also part of the equation, and also need a rethink. Online collaboration, for example, is a great way of maintaining engagement and momentum for people who may have additional stresses outside their studies.
Though my work with Jisc, I support institutions to develop an inclusive approach to learning for life, considering how they may use technology strategically in ways that are right for them. We talk about Education 4.0, which is a vision for digitally-enhanced education that meets the demands of the fourth industrial revolution. Learning for life embraces this, with flexible pathways, personal portfolios, and learner-led, relevant learning experiences. We work with each college or university to consider their specific offer, position and audiences, thinking about how their investments in technology can maximise access and make delivery as personalised as possible. That’s partly about the specific technology institutions choose – but it’s also a conversation about when, where and how learners use it.
Now is the time to think long-term, reframing a vision of education to provide ongoing, flexible and relevant opportunities to support the broadest possible audience. It isn’t lifelong learning. It’s learning for whatever life may bring, whoever and wherever you are. And if the UK doesn’t address the need for continuous adult learning, I fear we’re in danger of leaving people behind.
Julia Taylor is a subject specialist in inclusion practice at Jisc, the UK’s leading education and technology not-for-profit. Lifelong learning is a key theme of Jisc’s Digifest edtech event, which takes place on 10-11 March 2020 at the Birmingham ICC. Booking is now open and tickets are free for Jisc members.