Most Americans consider themselves Lifelong Learners (Horrigan, 2016). In most cases, what is meant is career development or personal development in the broadest sense.
If we look at a narrower type of Lifelong Learning — “Serious Informal Academic Learning for Adults” — the cadre of Lifelong Learners is dramatically smaller. Technology, by providing improved access and support, may have a significant role to play in expanding this segment, to the great benefit of society.
The question we ask is this. Is special technology required for this category of learning? Would it make a difference in the quality of the experience, the quality of the outcome, or cultural uptake, if it were supported by technology optimized for the purpose?
Let’s start with conventional formal education and its support technology.
Formal Education and Its Dimensions
Almost everyone who has experienced formal education has a rough idea how it works. Groups of students are assigned to a teacher. The students are exposed to a curriculum through presentations by the teacher, learning materials, individual or small-group assignments, and group discussions. The primary purpose is to attain sufficient mastery for whatever comes next, typically a career or the next level of education. A second purpose is the acquisition of general knowledge generally expected of members of society.
- Subject matter Academic
- Age of learner 4-26
- Learner’s purpose
- preparation for career or further education
- expectations of authority figures;
- social status
- joy of learning
- Time invested per subject: typically 5-10 hours per week for 3-8 months
- Social setting a consistent group of peers learning the same subject
Technology for Formal Education
In this framework, Educational Technology is deployed to support teachers and students, often in a public or private institutional setting, as students attain and demonstrate competence.
For decades, educators have relied on support technology: filmstrip, instructional TV, language lab, programmed learning, and many varieties of computer-assisted learning and course management software.
Almost all of this technology is designed for situations where the parameters of the learning experience are as described above. Furthermore, especially in the United States, the value of the technology is often judged by measuring the student’s mastery of a subject through formal assessment.
Because the structures of formal education have a large footprint in our society, we might assume that broadly similar technologies will be effective for serious informal learners in general, whatever their motives, stage of life, or learning situation.
This assumption clearly demands further scrutiny.
What is Lifelong Learning?
The term Lifelong Learning is somewhat vague — as vague as the term learning itself. According to the Pew Research Center (Horrigan, 2016), 74% of American adults consider themselves “Personal Learners” and 63% “Professional Learners”. In that study, Personal Learning refers to performing any of the following activities over the last 12 months:
- Read how-to magazines, consumer magazines, or other publications related to some area of personal interest (58%)
- Attended a meeting to learn new information (e.g., book club, sports club, health-related support group) (35%)
- Attended a convention/conference to learn something of personal interest (e.g., garden show, sci-fi convention) (30%)
Clearly, to draw meaningful comparisons to Formal Education and its support technology, it is necessary to narrow the scope.
An Important Special Case: Serious Informal Academic Learning for Adults
The phrase is unwieldy, but the concept is clear.
If adult learners make a significant commitment to master material generally taught in colleges and universities, in roughly the scope and depth presented there, they have many options, from registering at local universities, to a variety of online sources (many free), and other media and formats.
This type of “committed” learning, though clearly Serious, Informal (self-directed), and Academic, hardly exhausts the category.
When a 45-year-old woman picks up a book like Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (Tyson, 2017), or Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman, 2011), she is generally looking to gain knowledge of an academic subject for personal intellectual growth. She proceeds at her own pace. She doesn’t expect to be formally assessed. She may discuss it with a few friends, or at least mention that she is reading it, but the measure of success is whether she enjoys the experience and feels smarter in the end. What factors underlie success, and what role can technology play?
What Kind of Technology Is Needed for “Serious Informal Academic Learning for Adults”
To answer this question, we must consider the typical life situation of the serious informal adult learner. Let’s look at the dimensions discussed above.
- Subject matter Academic
- Age of learner 30+
- Learner’s purpose of learning
- understand the world more deeply, through the lens of academic knowledge
- joy of learning
- social status
- Time invested per subject: typically 1-3 hours per week for 1 day to a month or two.
- Social setting individual, or social engagements that are haphazard, ephemeral, and brief
The most significant factors affecting the serious informal learner are work and family obligations that claim attention and reduce available time. Equally significant is the absence of external structures that curate scaffolded materials, reinforce habits, and provide social support.
Under these conditions, learning methods typically include casual “foraging” on the Internet (Wikipedia, subject-specific websites or YouTube channels, TED talks, etc.), reading popular texts or exploring online courses (Coursera, EdX, OpenCourseware, etc.) on one’s own. Learning “projects” are often pursued ad hoc and abandoned when interest flags or distractions beckon.
In practice, access to materials is rarely the problem for serious adult learners. The real issues are cognitive, social, behavioral, and motivational. Traditional technology does not work nearly as well in the fluid, informal world of self-directed learning as it does in formal education.
What Would Work Better?
Here the space for innovation is wide open.
On the content side, the key challenge is to provide a structure that allows fragmentary intellectual experiences, of various lengths and depths, to be related to one another over periods of time from days to years. The technology should allow learners to make sense of what they are learning, fit it into larger structures, recall past learning experiences with ease, and plan future explorations without needing to be overly rigid.
As for motivation, the main driver should be curiosity — caring about the questions as much as the answers, and gaining deep satisfaction when a question is answered and leads to more questions. The “adaptive” component of a support technology should be visualized in two dimensions being explored in tandem: knowledge and interest. Each supports the other, and neither can get too far ahead of the other (unlike educational experiences where the institutional and societal imperatives are sufficient to overcome a great deal of incuriosity).
Social engagement and shared discovery are strong additional sources of motivation, and here too technology can provide an effective boost. The experience provided by social software may offer some clues, but designers should be wary: that category serves a multitude of functions, observes rules of engagement very different than what an intellectual pursuit would require, suffers from a business model that rewards “stickiness” and “eyeballs” rather than meaningful episodic engagement, and in any case is experiencing skeptical backlash from users and public agencies.
Rethinking the nature of social engagement for academic learning in an entirely informal and voluntary mode would be very fruitful. The default would be “no assignments” and “no assessments”, and whatever conventions (many cultural) to allow peers and experts to form networks that are both emotionally supportive and intellectually sound.
All things being equal, it seems likely that a smarter society in which individuals are committed to thinking more deeply and more clearly about nature, society, and cultural matters would be a move in the right direction.
If technology could help shift some Personal Lifelong Learning from garden shows to meaningful intellectual growth, society would be the better for it. Parents would be in a better position to inspire their children and understand what they were studying. Civic discourse would be conducted in a more sophisticated register. And a sense of shared wonder at our complex world would infuse our lives with new meaning.
Ok, that’s a pretty tall order (and would take a lot more than technology!) — but still, a worthy challenge for disruptive technologists who want to change the world.
Horrigan, John, Lifelong Learning and Technology, Pew Research Center, 2016
Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. W. W. Norton & Company, 2017
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2011