Is now the time for a full embrace of lifelong learning? – Times Higher Education (THE)

Posted: August 25, 2021 at 1:43 am


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The pandemic brought disruption and chaos to education around the world, but experts and leaders have sought out silver linings from the switch to online learning, hoping to find positive lessons for the future of education.

Experts say that one benefit is likely to be a greater emphasis on lifelong learning, allowing students access to education throughout their lifetime.

William Locke, director of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, says that for most universities, lifelong learning usually described as continuing education has seldom been a core activity, as their focus has been on full-time undergraduate and taught postgraduate courses.

However, the pandemic, and the switch to online learning and homeworking, will increase the demand for shorter, work-related courses with clear benefits to learners in employment and those wanting to change their careers, he says.

There is no doubt it will rise up the agenda, Locke adds. Already many universities have flirted with developments such as short courses, Moocs [massive open online courses] and microcredentials because they recognise that lifelong learning will become the norm and these are ways to dip their toes in the water. However, whether the quality and volume of current provision is sufficient to meet these needs remains to be proven.

The pandemic has already prompted some universities to focus their efforts into improving their lifelong-learning offerings. Last year, UNSW Sydney announced plans to entrench lifelong learning as a new chapter in its history, while allowing staff and students to continue working remotely after the pandemic passes. The flexible working and study arrangements will free up an estimated 22,000 square metres of lecture theatres and offices and enable community organisations, business and industry to work on campus directly with academics.

Chris Styles, dean of the UNSW Business School, says that even before the pandemic, the world of work was constantly changingdriven by new technologies as well as social change and increasing customer expectations.

Covid-19 has accelerated the need for businesses to be able to upskill and reskill at scale and quickly as well as a desire for employees to have a range of learning experiences and credentials beyond the traditional degree, and delivered in a flexible and targeted manner, he adds.

Styles says that the university is still working to ensure we properly understand specific market needs and where the UNSW can best contribute. But he envisages that the institution will deliver flexible, skill-focused learning experiences of perhaps shorter duration as part of the plans.

One institution with a jump on embedding lifelong learning into its education is the National University of Singapore (NUS), which implemented its Lifelong Learners programme, where undergraduates are enrolled for 20 years from the point of admission, in 2018.

Tan Eng Chye, president of NUS, says the programme was a response to the widespread disruption and job displacement caused by global mega trends, such as digitalisation and artificial intelligence, sweeping rapidly across many sectors of the economy and society.

We need people to be more agile, nimble and multifaceted in the way they approach things, and in their skills and abilities. The only way they can learn new knowledge, upskill and reskill is to continually learn, as things change, over the span of 45 to 50 years of their working life, he says, adding that lifelong learning is central to future-proofing the NUS education experience.

To achieve this, the institution has implemented flexible ways of teaching and learning, ensuring that students are offered multiple pathways to a wide range of disciplines. NUS students are also taught a common curriculum, meaning they have a grounding in both science and humanities from the outset. Tan says this approach builds students competencies and interests and helps develop an enhanced emphasis on interdisciplinarity in teaching and research.

For NUS, a key element of lifelong education is close industry alignment. This also supports the Singaporean governments Industry Transformation Programme, which will see the development of road maps for 23 critical industries, such as manufacturing, built environment and healthcare.

However, while industry can be an important partner for lifelong-learning strategies, Locke warns that one of the problems for universities is that they are competing and collaborating with commercial organisations that have very different cultures and ethos.

Educational institutions can offer the academic and professional credibility, especially in assessment and accreditation. But, given their current financial and logistical constraints, can they invest sufficiently in the expertise and infrastructure required to really make a significant contribution to lifelong education? he asks.

The recent announcement that 2U, an online education company, has paid $800million (580million) to acquire edX, the non-profit platform founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has demonstrated the success of online short courses and microcredentials in the commercial space. It also offers an insight into how universities can collaborate with for-profit companies to provide non-traditional offerings that are easier and often cheaper to access later in life.

One option,according to Locke, is for universities to draw on their alumni and industrial and professional networks to keep ahead of the changing nature of work and to anticipate future skills needs, although, he adds, that in order to respond quickly to these changes, they would need to ensure that their curriculum approval processes are fast and efficient.

Jonathan Michie, professor of innovation and knowledge exchange at the University of Oxford and director of the institutions department for continuing education, agrees that flexibility and agilityare key to implementing lifelong learning in university education.

The pandemic has shown that universities need to change their mindset and recognise that flexible learning is going to be the future, he says.

In the UK, the Westminster government has signalled it is ready to get on board, launching its Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which will create a new lifelong learning entitlement, allowing individuals flexible loan funding for four years of post-18 education, including for shorter, modular segments.

However, Michie says the bill will need amending to make it truly effective. For example, there is a strong emphasis on skills, but it fails to recognise that it is important that adult educators and people in the community should be able to decide for themselves what they want to learn. Recognising this is good for democracy and good for communities, he says.

Former universities minister and conservative peer Jo Johnson has also criticised the bill for putting restrictions on the lifelong learning loan on non-STEM subjects and for failing to recognise the economic value generated by the wider creative industries.

Michie adds that interdisciplinarity is central to upskilling and says that moving towards more bite-sized chunks and accreditation of smaller courses will make it much easier for students to gain a wider range of knowledge and competencies.

What is needed is for universities to develop lifelong-learning strategies across the whole university. Currently, a lot pay lip service to lifelong learning without having a proper strategy, he says.

Michie says the starting point for universities should be recognising that they will be teaching people of different ages and different experiences.

Locke agrees. The optimal mix of online and short, intensive in-person education would need to be found for each target group of learners, including a considerable amount of choice to meet individuals preferences and to suit their circumstances, he says. This would include opportunities for synchronous (real time) and asynchronous learning, especially when reaching learners in other time zones.

However, ultimately it is the quality of the teaching staff that will make all the difference to the success of a universitys move to lifelong learning, Locke concludes. How current their knowledge and experience is, how expert they are in using the new technologies, whether they have reasonable workloads and time to refresh their knowledge and expertise, and if they have access to professional development opportunities and career progress.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

TheTimes Higher EducationWorld University Rankings 2022, which includes metrics on universities' teaching environments, will be published at 00:01 BST on 2 September. The results will beexclusively revealed at theTHEWorld Academic Summit(1-3 September), which will focus on the interrelationship between universities and the places in which they are located.

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Is now the time for a full embrace of lifelong learning? - Times Higher Education (THE)

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August 25th, 2021 at 1:43 am

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