Has the ‘lifelong learning house’ been pulled down?

An article in today’s Morning Star suggests ‘the lifelong learning house has been pulled down’. Doug Nicholls, General Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions, is downbeat about the current situation. ‘Only isolated pockets of excellent practice, largely unsupported by the state, and funded on something far more precarious than a shoestring, now seek to keep alive what were once internationally pioneering services and educational interventions throughout life.’

He is particularly concerned about the future of residential adult education. Read the article here.

Lifelong learning must ‘increase in scale’, & ‘expand in scope’, says Bank of England’s chief economist

Writing in The Guardian, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane calls for a more and better vocational and lifelong education to ‘meet the skills challenge facing the UK economy and limit the long-term scarring to it’: ‘the only way of immunising against economic long Covid will be through a skills programme every bit as large-scale, sure-footed and front-loaded’. Read his Guardian article here.

Andy Haldane contributed a preface to the Centenary Commission’s report praising its ‘compelling recommendations for transforming and embedding adult education’. You can read the report and his preface here.

Zooming in Adult Education

As we complete a year since the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown began, William Tyler reflects on his growing online skills. William spent his professional life in adult education, retiring as Principal of The City Lit, London, in 1995.  He is also a freelance historian. Awarded an MBE for services to adult education, William has been particularly involved with older learners, chairing a Council of Europe Working Party on the subject, and completing an MPhil degree in educational gerontology.

All those of us who have spent our professional lives advocating educational gerontology need no reminder that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

This time last year I hadn’t heard of Zoom, let alone given a lecture via it.  Now, I am almost a veteran. 

On a personal note, I have found Zooming a marvellous additional arrow in Adult Education’s quiver, and moreover it may allow me in five years time to continue teaching into my ninth decade.

My very first history class for JW3 (London’s Jewish Community Centre, offering a full programme of adult education courses), on Zoom saw me in a mild state of panic.  The lecture was delivered in a rather hesitant and self-conscious way.

However, I persevered, buoyed by supportive comments from the students, the majority of whom I had known for a number of years.  The students, aged 60+ to 90+, were as nervous and as unsure of using this new medium for study as I was.  It was good to share our concerns in a 15 minute open chat before the class began.  We soon realised how important these classes were to all of us, providing a fixed point in the week when everything else seemed to have been cast adrift in a new Covid world. 

The first point, therefore, to note about Zooming is that it enhanced, rather than diminished, the social aspect of Adult Education.  Not always in the past has this role of Adult Education been fully appreciated, either by political decision makers or budget holders. 

Zooming has some definite educational benefits for older learners.  No longer should Adult Education be restricted to those able to access it physically, but can now be made available to those who are prevented from attending either by lack of provision in their area or through their physical or financial inability to travel to a class.  Earlier attempts made by Adult Education to meet these issues have by and large been a story of failure.  No longer need that be the case.  

The second lesson, therefore, learned from zooming is universality of provision.  The challenge will be to utilise this new knowledge and technology.  A regional college hub, for example, will not be limited by student travelling distance thus enabling it to reach those who otherwise would be deprived of provision.  Such an advantage need not be limited to England alone but can reach out internationally. 

The other Zooming I have been involved with has been the delivery of history lectures to an international audience via the Lockdown University initiative of The Kirscher Institute.  This initiative has opened up even more possibilities.  There is now the possibility of team teaching by tutors based in different countries.  Thus a study of The American War of Independence could be co-tutored from The States and from England, or the consequences of The French Revolution by co tutors from France and Britain.  The possibilities are endless. 

The third lesson learned from the experience of the Lockdown University is that class size is no longer limited.  My webinar audiences for the Lockdown University have risen to 1,500.

As well as the tutor, as said above, the students have had to learn zoom, and soon became proficient enough to use chat rooms with confidence and to provide intriguing backgrounds, ranging from a picture relevant to the topic under discussion to one student who appears before a background of France’s greatest gardens.  Many have been grateful to grandchildren showing them the ropes.  A wonderful example of inter-generational teaching and learning.  It also show that learning by exploration still has a role to play as an androgogical tool.

Two further points learnt by this rookie zooming tutor:-

  • Synopses of classes, posted on tutor’s blog, have proved very popular, and interestingly as a revision aid after the class rather than as planned a pre-course handout.  Book lists have proved even more popular than normal, leading to a series of additional reading suggestions, fiction as well as non-fiction, posted on the blog. 
  • E-mails between students and tutor have helped keep people in touch and led to both sides gaining new insights.  I was sent, after a lecture on The Second World War in The Far East, a copy of a letter from a member of a student’s family to his brother giving a first hand and contemporary account of Japanese cannibalism.

However, as any adult educator will attest nothing can replace the face to face interaction between student and tutor.  I have always emphasised that Adult Education is theatre not cinema.  So the new challenge is how do we build this aspect in when we return to a new normal, in which we have learnt the advantages of Zooming?

Well, we can look to the past and seek to re-invent the short residential experience offered to adult students.  Sadly there is today a mere shadow of what was once a widely distributed system of short term residential colleges, LEA, University, and Independent.  Linking the idea of residential back up to Zooming, with the possibility of international Zooming, reminds me that in the 1960s Kingsgate College in Kent hosted an Anglo-French Summer School for students drawn from the Paris WEA and Kent WEA.  Old ideas can be refreshed to meet new demands.

I finish, therefore, as all adult educators should, with a comment from a student, ‘Thanks for helping to keep me sane and motivated this last year.’   I thoroughly re-endorse that sentiment from my own perspective.  Zooming has been a lifesaver for many older tutors and learners alike.