Lifelong learning is a concept which throws down the gauntlet to the whole of the education sector, business, professional bodies and government. The challenges are brought into even sharper focus by the wide availability of information technology and broadband communication, which enables learning to take place wherever and whenever it suits the student. The biggest challenge of all must be that of determining how education can be funded to ensure quality and innovation.
Our traditional view of learning has been that it is a process in which children engage from age five (or so) until they are 16, when they either continue studying academic subjects, in sixth form or FE college, take full-time vocational courses, or enter employment. An increasing number of these young people, from academic or more vocationally-oriented backgrounds, have ended up going on to higher education (HE). Those universities which have embraced this diversity are well placed to be significant contributors to lifelong learning.
Sir Ron Dearing holds several keys to the future of education in this country. In his Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds, he laid down a framework for national awards, in which he attempted to incorporate, if not integrate, vocational and non-vocational awards. His subsequent and current assignment is the review of higher education, the remit of which is to make recommendations on the shape, nature, size and funding of the sector for the next twenty years. Dearing himself might characterise his present task as determining the role of HE in the process of lifelong learning, which makes it all the more a pity that his remit does not embrace FE.
Let me look at lifelong learning first from the perspective of a university, which I will then link to the role that Information Technology (IT-which I will take to include broadband communication) will play. Subsequently, I will consider some challenges to other stakeholders in lifelong learning, not the least of which is to the nation.
The Challenge to Universities
Our core teaching business has, since time immemorial, been the three-year full-time degree programme. (The Open University is a noteworthy exception to this.) Notwithstanding HNDs, part-time provision and taught postgraduate programmes, it is the full-time undergraduate degree upon which we have tended to focus. This, together with the funding mechanism for higher education (HE), has helped fuel the notion that higher education is a "one-shot deal", the very antithesis of the concept of lifelong learning. This worked in a world in which change was slow. Of course, graduates continued to learn, but not in any planned or formal way, nor in a way in which there was tangible evidence that could be presented to a new employer. All this must change, if lifelong learning is to be a concept with any value and meaning. It is commonly stated today that many degrees have a shelf life of at most 5 years.
The government's targets for participation in HE, which have seen a six-fold increase over the last 30 years, and a doubling over the last decade, have also seriously challenged the HE tradition. Students entering HE now come from a broader variety of social and economic backgrounds, enter with a wider range of qualifications and are variously motivated. Expecting all these students to cope with exactly the same material and mode of delivery is unrealistic and somewhat dishonest. Academic programmes need to be flexible enough to take entrants from all backgrounds, so that they may succeed in obtaining a qualification at a level commensurate with their ability and performance.
To implement that flexibility requires a modular framework, a skeleton on which the flesh of credit accumulation and transfer (CATS) hangs. Almost all universities have now gone modular. However, the incompatibility of schemes in different universities has made CATS more of a dream than a reality. In order to rectify this situation, working parties are now trying to produce a unified framework, whereby academic credit from any one institution will map formulaically onto the scheme of any other institution, just as it does in North America.
Indeed, it is in North America, where modularity has been around for about 100 years, that lifelong learning is closest to being realised. High School gives students a broadly based education, with six subjects being studied in the final two years. In order to graduate from High School, certain minimum standards have to be achieved. Higher thresholds determine eligibility for entrance to community colleges (broadly equivalent to our FE system) and universities. Through a flexible APEL (accreditation of prior experience and learning) process students can come to FE and HE when they are ready. They can and do return-"going back to school" is a frequently spoken aspiration.
The final step in providing a framework for lifelong learning is to map Dearing's qualification framework onto a "universal modular scheme" applying the principles of CATS not just within sectors but across them, so that the much vaunted "seamless robe" of academic and vocational education qualifications is in place. Once we understand that, we are in a position to appreciate just how powerful information technology becomes in the context of lifelong learning. We will also see the additional challenges the technology poses to universities.
Information Technology and Lifelong Learning
Information technology is often referred to as an "enabling technology." It is certainly that, but, if sensitively applied, it is an "empowering technology," for it shifts the power away from the institutions and puts it in the hands of the student. Information technology will fuel student choice, choice over where they choose to study, when they study, and at what rate their circumstances dictate that they study. This insensitivity to place and time has to be accommodated by the flexible modular framework outlined in the last section.
While the technology will enable universities and colleges to reach out to students, whether they be at home, at school or at work, in the UK, North America or South Africa, it will also bring about a revolution, a paradigm shift on campus. The old paradigm of teaching is being supplanted by the paradigm of learning, a process which information technology can support. Through IT, we can import the best material, use the most appropriate media, provide diagnostics and remedial support. Broadband communication technology extends the support over any distance.
Put all of this together with digital libraries and you have the concept of the "virtual university" which is being translated into a real phenomenon at a number of universities around the world (De Montfort among them.) The virtual university-there must be a better term-poses some interesting challenges, which include copyright and ownership. However, perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the cultural shift, the change of mind set, to effect the shift to the learning paradigm.
Having earlier introduced the notion of a seamless educational spectrum, imagine how information technology can bridge the gap between, say, HE and secondary education. At De Montfort, we are creating partnerships between school teachers and university lecturers to provide resource hubs for schools, to provide students in schools with a taste of HE, and even to allow them to accrue HE credit while in the sixth form.
The Challenge to Employers
Employers are increasingly voicing their concerns about deficiencies they perceive in the skills and competences of their employees. However, it would be wrong to focus only on short-term requirements, which tend to reduce our horizons to the level of training. Training might be valuable for the next project but will be much less relevant to a subsequent one and it is certainly not a foundation for lifelong learning. For true lifelong learning, there has to be a broad foundation-we specialise far too early in this country-and an inculcation of core skills, not the least of which is the ability to take responsibility for learning.
I am disappointed when employers become more vocal in articulating expectations of their workforce yet shun all financial responsibility for meeting those demands. My last institution (in California) has delivered postgraduate modules to industry live via satellite across the continent since 1985. All the students' fees are paid by their employers. Rather than fuel high employee mobility, this support fosters a strong sense of loyalty to the enlightened management that values lifelong learning. It is, as they say, a "win-win situation."
The Challenge to Professional Bodies
I will base my argument here on an area with which I have some familiarity, namely engineering. On the face of it, the "continuous professional development" notion would seem to be a synonym for lifelong learning. Sadly, the new SARTOR proposals for professional status as a chartered engineer place heavy weight on the A-level points score of the would-be engineer and thereby contravene the redemption that lifelong learning permits. Do the best engineers of today all have three Bs or better at A level? Why can't we give incentive, rather than a disincentive, to the person who comes up through a modern apprenticeship? The institutions must keep in phase with employers and the education sector.
It will certainly be a challenge to retain motivation to keep knowledge and expertise current, when employment is not high and is likely to be for a short term. Only those with learning skills are likely to succeed. An even greater challenge, though, is the funding of lifelong learning. The cost may be prohibitive to many. We are already seeing how cost, even when tuition fees are paid by LEAs, is affecting not just where students go to university, but whether or not they go at all.
Rather than count the cost of education and lifelong learning, government should consider the cost of not having an educated society. Rather than focus only on having a skilled, competent, numerate and articulate labour pool, let us also think about values and social cohesion as a function of education (which are behind Dearing's emphasis on cultural, moral & spiritual dimensions.) Surely, the adoption of the term lifelong learning is an acknowledgement that education is a long-term investment. WYRIWYG-what you resource is what you get!
The decrease in unit funding to HE is already compromising the ability of universities to be innovative, whether in research or new learning strategies. Let us stay with the latter, as it is germane to lifelong learning. Developing (or even finding and evaluating) resource-based learning materials is time consuming and expensive. (A national clearing house would be a useful resource.) Also, the reduction of capital equipment funding by over 50% through 1996-98 will make it very difficult for universities to cable up campuses and hang machines off network sockets. Could the private sector help?
PFI, we know, is not the answer. But what about tax incentives? Companies in the US enjoy tax breaks for donations made to educational institutions. Why can we not do this in the UK? Also, what financial incentives are there for companies to fund lifelong learning for their employees?
We must ensure that our educational products are fit for purpose wherever they are delivered. Historically, the UK has earned hard cash and many intangible benefits from being an exporter of education. If quality is perceived to be inferior to that obtainable elsewhere, we will lose the small market share we currently hold. In our pursuit of excellence, let us move away from a quality assessment system which has opportunity costs so great that the very quality we are trying to achieve is compromised.
Characterising IT as a vehicle of empowerment makes it easier to see the concomitant danger of relying increasingly on IT as the preferred platform for flexible lifelong learning provision, which is the potential to alienate the sectors of the population which do not have access to computers and the Internet. We must all be ever mindful of this.
Government should facilitate the adoption of a national CATS framework which is compatible with ECTS and other international schemes. National standards should be set for all levels of achievement, for vocational and academic routes. However, a national curriculum for HE is wholly inappropriate, as it would stultify innovation in education, which would in turn kill innovation in industry. Unfortunately, OFSTED has not exactly championed innovation in schools.
Finally, there are two other factors which contribute to the lifelong learning philosophy in the US. The first is "The American Dream," the dream that anybody can reach the office to which they aspire. Education is seen as the key to realising that ambition. Then there's Al Gore, whose vision and championing of the information superhighway has captured the imagination of the people. Where is our champion?
The recent focus on lifelong learning is a reflection of the realisation that learning must be more active than passive, more structured and long term-all the pieces must interlock. If UK plc is to be competitive, then all the providers and beneficiaries (which include society at large) must rise to the challenge of creating and sustaining an environment which encourages and supports lifelong learning.
[A slightly edited version of this article appeared in "Information Technology and Public Policy" (the Journal of the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee), Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 1996, pp 41-43.]