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Understanding and Serving the Lifelong Learner (Part 1)

Understanding and Serving the Lifelong Learner (Part 1)
It’s widely understood that lifelong learning is of critical importance for an adult’s career advancement; but how much do we really know about adult learners?
If you’re a full-time employee, chances are you will pick up new bits of information quite frequently, adding to your knowledge and ability to manage your job’s tasks. However, whilst this may drip-feed knowledge acquisition, it will probably not help you in expanding your broader knowledge, or offer anything of personal benefit outside of the workplace. On the other hand, you may be experiencing a spell of unemployment and feel your skills are either not good enough, not transferable to the work you would like or not up-to-date with the rapid developments that take place in a healthy and fast-moving economy and expanding cosmopolitan culture.

When most of us think about lifelong learning, we’re usually considering it in context with employment. However, lifelong learning must extend beyond the immediate workplace and into the whole of a person’s life, where being receptive to learning and desiring to know more can (and some say should) be a fundamental component, and even a right, of normal human existence. As an example of this, when I worked for a further education (FE) college back in the 1990s, they offered additional learning opportunities beyond the usual continual professional development (CPD), not just in relation to a person’s role, but also to include options having no obvious relevance or benefit to that role — the sort of things one might opt for in non-certified evening classes, rather than to pursue in an employer’s paid work time.

Many organizations offer in-house CPD and, in my experience, this can be quite a mixed bag, not only in terms of available options, but also in the quality of teaching and learning. Furthermore, sourcing of the relevant learning opportunities is either determined in-house, in relation to skills that can be transferred from one area to another, or the onus put on the individual to find an appropriate external provider. On two [in-house] occasions, I opted for additional learning at intermediate level, only to discover it was below my existing level of ability, and on another occasion, bearing in mind previous experience, put myself in an advanced class that was beyond the starting level of my existing knowledge. It would perhaps have helped if I could have received a short assessment first to see which areas and levels would benefit me most. On another occasion, I found it difficult to source the training I needed, either internally or externally. There was no one designated to help within the organization and the result was that I didn’t bother pursuing it.

This brings me to another point: bespoke learning, relevant to the individual’s needs. It’s all very well opting for additional learning in a measured, one-size-fits-all, but if your classmates have broad and mixed ability levels of varied experience, some are going to feel left behind and others are going to become impatient to move on.

For many, formal learning ends after leaving school. For a number of those leavers, learning is associated with having to, rather than wanting to, learn. The feeling amongst this group can sometimes be one of resignation; that even as they grow older, they feel it’s “too late” to learn new things; that they squandered their time at school and didn’t then have the necessary basics to attend college or university. For some, if they have to enroll on a one or two-year program, they’re then one or two years older at the end and the panic of ageism operating against them may deter further progression.

Enter the use of technology, electronic learning, portable devices, online courses and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), etc. Developments in technology have opened up a Pandora’s box containing a labyrinth of possibilities, a maze of choices and a new Holy Grail: distance learning, which takes place at any time and any place, with large numbers of students paying fees without requiring physical space.

Given that the completion rate of MOOCs is often below 13 percent from an average intake of 20,000 students (though some courses boast completion rates of approximately 40 percent), some organizations are making a lot of money through venture capital investment out of failure to complete.[1] Further feedback seems to suggest that courses of shorter duration are more likely to be completed successfully than those that run for several months.

This is the first of a two-part series on understanding and serving non-traditional, lifelong learners in the postsecondary space. To read the conclusion, please click here.

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[1] Katy Jordan, “MOOC completion rates,” February 13, 2013, available from

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