Responding to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education – just do it!

If you are a UK adult educator, you are probably a bit taken aback by the sheer number of current inquiries into lifelong learning. The Liberal Democrats and Labour Party both have their own inquiries, another is being led by the college sector, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Education has just announced its own study of adult skills and lifelong learning. And these come on the heels of a variety of high level reports in the past couple of years.

No wonder that some of us are inquiry-weary.  When I tweeted a link to the Select Committee Inquiry, one person responded: “I cannot see what else there is to learn. It’s essential end of! Back it fund it do it stop talking & I dare to add spend more money on finding out what we know”. Another commented: “Not again! I’ve been seeing these reports all of my long life – and learnt nothing”. So I hesitate, if only briefly, before urging you to respond to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education.

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Members of the Centenary Commission (from Cooperative News)

The Centenary Commission’s starting point is the 1919 report of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s committee on adult education. The report was a landmark in adult education history, and is often credited with persuading the Government to expand the role of local authority adult education, and inspiring the formation of the British Institute of Adult Education (now the Learning and Work Institute).

While the 1919 report is certainly open to criticism, not least for the unmanageably large number of its recommendations (and its neglect of Scotland), it offered an inspiring vision of the broad and constructive contribution of adult education to a vibrant functioning democracy. And that is something we need to explore all over again in our new times.

So if you are interested in adult learning and education, let me urge you to overcome your inquiry fatigue. It is really easy to do, and the more of us who take the time to do so, the more likely it is that the Commission will have some impact. Of course, if you don’t respond, then I think you lose any right to pop up later complaining that you don’t like their report.

Not wishing to influence your own thinking, here’s what I said in reply to the Commission’s question about examples of good practice:

  1. The French approach to individual learning accounts (the compte personnel de formation) is one of a number of learning account schemes that seem to me well worth looking at. While it has not yet reached huge numbers, it nevertheless provides a model of incentivising learning by funding learners rather than simply increasing funding to institutions.

  2. The concerted and intensive awareness-raising of Adult Learners Week made a real contribution to culture change. In England there is now a rather less focused month-long festival; in Scotland and NI, ALW lost its funding, and now no longer occurs at all. By contrast, Wales has maintained ALW, and my impression is that it continues to retain a momentum and impact that is missing elsewhere in the UK. I’m sure you are already speaking with LWI Wales about the WAG approach to ALE, and it would be useful to know also what their view is of ALE vs a month-long festival.

  3. OER/MOOCs. Digital resources and mobile devices are game-changers. Of course there is considerable hype around MOOCs as well as equally vacuous counter-hype, but they present opportunities for extending and widening participation that we really shouldn’t ignore. I suggest contacting Peter Shukie to share his knowledge of who is doing what with COOCs.

  4. Transformative learning. The forthcoming Global Report on Adult Learning & Education (GRALE4) will show that while ALE is in reasonably healthy condition at global level, ALE for citizenship is an exception; in fact it is in parlous health. UNESCO will formally launch report at its November 2019 conference in Paris; if you want a preview of the findings, you should contact the UIL. Incidentally, the UK chose not to respond to the GRALE survey (neither did it respond in 2015).

And here’s how I replied to the invitation to specify ‘the single most important recommendation the Commission could make ‘:

Reintroduce a system of individual learning accounts, supported by guidance, and favouring those who have benefited least from publicly funded post-16 education. Drawing on experience elsewhere, as well as previous experience in the UK, redesigned ILAs will incentivise learners and improve institutional responsiveness. It might take the form of an entitlement, but I wouldn’t at this stage be too prescriptive about administrative shapes – better to get the min design principles right. This will of course be resisted by HEIs and colleges, who would prefer any additional funding to come to them, so recommending something along these lines will send a very clear message about your priorities.

Adult learning and social mobility: the state of Britain

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) has published its most recent ‘state of the nation report‘, in which it concludes that social mobility in England is stalled. It provides evidence to support this claim, and then goes on to consider a number of reasons for this stagnation, with recent changes in the education system being the largest.

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Their analysis encompasses adult learning, where the Commission has a number of criticisms of current policy as well as constructive suggestions for the future. Some of these come in discussions of other educational sectors; their discussion of early years education, for instance, looks at qualifications and career structures for the (overwhelmingly female) workforce, and at the importance of family learning in giving small children a strong start; the section on further education also looks at teacher recruitment issues.

When it comes to adult education and training, the Commission draws heavily on its own study of the adult skills gap, which it issued in January 2019. This showed that the least skilled are the least well placed to access opportunities for upskilling, at a time when the fourth industrial revolution is starting to impact most on the least skilled jobs.

The most highly educated, meanwhile, find it relatively easy to refresh their skills and qualifications. The report notes that this appears to be as true of open education programmes such as MOOCs as it is of more conventional opportunities. The consequences, if things are left as they are, will be that adult learning serves as a block to social mobility rather than an enabler.

And all of this following a period in which, as the Commission notes, ‘almost all forms of adult education are in decline’. They produce figures showing that the UK spends two-thirds of the EU average on adult training, well below that of such comparable economies as Germany and France. They show that regional imbalances increase problems of accessing training, and note that those who are most likely to move between regions are the most advantaged. While the new national retraining scheme for England may have potential, they note that it will need to be both large and highly targeted if it is to have the impact required.

While the SMC has no remit to improve social mobility in Wales and Scotland, it notes that while challenges remain, neither has seen the same stagnation as is evident recently for England. They note that the Scottish Government has reponded to a steep decline in on-the-job training with a £10m in-work training programme, while the Welsh Government’s employment policies include proposals for skills and training.

So far as England is concerned, the SMC’s main recommendation for adult learning is that the Government should follow the action plan set out in the SMC’s report in January 2019, and in particular that it should ‘equalise adult education funding with EU statistical averages and reduce the underspend of its adult education budget through more flexible funding structures’. The new regional combined authorities have powers to achieve greater flexibility, but it will be for national overnment to release additional spending.

Clearly, then, the report offer much to encourage those of us interested in adult learning. Of course it focuses largely on adult learning for or in work, but that is for the obvious reason that our occupations tend to shape our life chances. More seriously, the current obsession with Brexit among politicians of all colours probably means that the SMC’s report will have a marginal influence on policy in the immediate term.

But with several committees of inquiry beavering away currently on lifelong learning policy, the SMC has provided further evidence of the wider benefits and policy importance of adult learning. It also provides fresh food for lobbying and advocacy at local and regional level.

Transforming Adult Learning: the case of South Korea

South Korea is a fascinating country for a lot of different reasons. To snatch a few random reasons why I love the place, public transport is fantastic, the food is superb, and you’re never without a view of the mountains. It has high education standards, though these are infamously linked to high stress levels among students. And the fine walled city of Suwon is busy becoming a model learning city.

Now the country is transforming its support for adult learning. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education announced its fourth Lifelong Learning Plan. Covering the period 2018-22, the Plan envisages

  • a guarantee of lifelong learning rights (including paid training leave and targeted learning vouchers) for every citizen;
  • a focus on lifelong learning in preparation for job change, exploiting the potential of MOOcs and personalised learning;
  • promoting lifelong learning in other areas of life, with stronger local and regional instgitutions and support for civic completence;
  • improving quality, for example through monitoring performance and making better use of participation statistics.

Th use of vouchers was already proposed in the country’s second lifelong learning plan, which set out proposals for a pilot scheme involving 50,000 basic livelihood support recipients aged over 20. What became of the pilot scheme I do not yet know, but I will return to it here if and when I find out.

Broadly, the Plan seems to me strategically focussed, while broad enough to embrace people’s different life areas. Hopefully we’ll be able to see how it develops over time, as there are bound to be interesting lessons for other nations.

Adult education and the referendum

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As with the Scottish referendum in 2014, the UK’s European Referendum provided a fantastic opportunity to engage adult learners in civic debate. Living in Germany, I’ve had to watch the campaign from a distance (the media here only started covering the issue in depth when it became clear that Leave was gathering support in the polls). But I tried to look out for any examples of adult education providing a space for open and reasoned debate.

And there were plenty of examples of adult educators promoting active citizenship in just this way. Branches of the Workers Educational Association held a number of open discussions, often working with the active citizenship consultancy Talk Shop. In Leicester, for instance, the WEA teamed up with Talk Shop to run a fun, open and balanced discussion ‘in a thoughtful and friendly atmosphere’.

Some local trade union organisations held similar open discussions, as in Haringey. And a number of colleges, libraries and community centres hosted one-off meetings or mock debates around the issues.

Universities didn’t have their finest hour. Some individual academics contributed their expertise to public events organised by others. MOOCs came into their own, with FutureLearn commissioning a small set of courses, such as the terrific Towards Brexit course from Edinburgh.

Otherwise, universities have promoted events for their students but seem to have done little or nothing for the public. That hasn’t stopped them from sitting on their hands and complaining that voters don’t really know enough to make a decision.

Even in its much depleted state, then, the adult education system responded. The WEA and other providers have helped show what was possible. We can imagine how much better-informed the debate might have been if adult education providers had been in a position to support a much earlier and systematic campaign of public information and discussion.

My favourite event was undoubtedly this one, held in a pub/microbrewery that describes itself as ‘more folk than punk’ (a sly dig at the BrewDog brand, as my fellow ale-lovers will realise). The Twisted Barrel in Coventry regularly hosts debates under the name of Skeptics in a Pub.

New Picture (1)It really sounds my kind of place. But that is the core of the problem. While people like me will feel at home in a bar where we can drink craft beer and discuss politics with like-minded people, quite a lot of people would feel deeply uncomfortable in that environment. I sense that we have a declining number of spaces for face-to-face dialogue, particularly with those who do not share our views and values. Adult education used to be one of those places, and we kill it at our peril.

MOOCs and adult education: complementary or competing?

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MOOCs have attracted hyperbole and scorn in roughly equal measure, or so it seems to me. Intrigued by all the fuss, I’ve taken a couple of MOOCs, and the experience has been informative. I completed one and got half way through the second; in both cases I was deeply impressed by the content and the blend of learning activities; and I loved learning at my own pace and places, and also valued the lack of guilt about leaving when I’d got what I came for.

That doesn’t make me a MOOC-maniac. There are all sorts of problems with them, and  quality issues will be critical, as will the availability – or lack – of preparation and support for those who aren’t well placed to undertake self-paced technology-enhanced learning.

Nevertheless, I do think that the combination of digitization and mobile technology plus good pedagogic design might turn out to be a game changer for parts of the lifelong learning system. And judging from the knee-jerk negativity, I am guessing that many of my colleagues suspect that MOOCs might be bad news for them personally.

In the field of adult learning, there is every possibility that MOOCs will thrive while organised face-to-face provision nose-dives. It doesn’t take much imagination to conceive of a policy maker or two who asks why the state is funding courses in adult education centres when tens of thousands can follow a MOOC much more cheaply.

But MOOCs and publicly funded adult education can rub along quite nicely. That’s the message I take, at any rate, from hearing that this year’s National Adult Education Prize in Austria was awarded to a MOOC called ‘Gratis Online Lernen’ (‘Learning Online for Free’).Its aim was to offer an introduction to online learning for people who have only mastered the basics of using the internet.

Taken by 1,500 people the first time it was offered, the MOOC was developed jointly by researchers in e-learning and worker education working in collaboration with the Austrian Adult Education Association and over 40 different providers.

The prize was duly handed over by Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek, a Minister in the current government. That’s nice. Our ministers, sadly, are more likely to sneer at adults who need an introduction to using the internet. But we do have plenty of experience of celebrating adult learners and providers, and we should be happy to welcome the creators of MOOCs to our ranks.

 

Lifelong learning and the global market – will Europe benefit from American competition?

Should lifelong learning be opened up to competition? In particular, wwould the world be better if American providers were allowed to enter the European market – and, presumably, vice versa?

This idea is being discussed as part of the free trade treaty that the European Union is currently negotiating with the United States. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it is fair to say, isn’t at the tip of most people’s tongues in Britain. Essentially, it is a set of negotiations over free trade between the EU and US. In so far as people have heard of it, it is probably in connection with the health service, where the proposed treaty will make it much easier for private health providers to compete across the Atlantic.ttip

But the treaty will cover many areas, including at least some education services. Precisely how these are being handled in the negotiations is something we will probably never know. The whole process takes place behind closed doors, in secret and without democratic oversight, and thse responsible issue only a minimum of officially-sanctioned ‘news’.

Higher education is an obvious target for private firms, particularly in the UK where the universities are legally private (charitable) corporations, albeit that many of their activities are publicly funded. The Universities and Colleges Union has expressed grave misgivings over the likely consequences for higher education in Britain.

But the treaty could also cover other areas of post-school education, especially if they operate in any kind of ‘mixed economy’. This covers further education and skills training, which may involve a mixture of public funding and both private (including voluntary sector) and public provision, as well as adult learning. The American negotiators have explicitly expressed interest in ‘privately-operated adult and other education services’ – including vocational training, and covering services provided digitally along with those delivered face-to-face.

You may well think that the benefits of American corporations providing numeracy skills, second language teaching or local history classes probably aren’t immediately apparent. Past experience, though, shows that where the US has introduced particular services into free trade treaties, it is because someone has lobbied for them to be included. The bubbling world of MOOCs is another likely target for commercial competitors. And their track record suggests that the larger corporations will use the force of the law to protext their rights, challenging regulation and inspection regimes, and blocking the publication of unfavourable comment.

At this point, I should declare an interest: since the mid-80s I have been a card-carrying member of the only political party in Britain to campaign against TTIP, the Greens. So you may decide that I am an untrustworthy witness, or you may share my unease over what I see as a threat to standards and – given the lack of transparency over this process – to democracy. If so, you should at least be writing to share your views with your regional MEP.

Getting along with my MOOC

Thank goodness for Christmas. A nice fortnight’s break, punctuated only by hearty walks and bouts of over-consumption, provided the ideal opportunity for catching up on my MOOC. It’s only a six week course, with an estimated study time of two hours a week. But it’s surprising how quickly you get behind.

Or perhaps it isn’t surprising. Finding two hours in an already crowded schedule was always going to be a challenge, mainly because the two hours are not timetabled. The very flexibility that makes a MOOC such an attractive proposition is what also makes it easy for learners to fall by the wayside. You can engage with the course materials at any time, any where (as long as it has Wifi).

But like old friends, you can also easily forget it for days at a time, and plan to catch up ‘later’. And my MOOC has started to feel like a friend, but a very distant one. There is space for sociability among the various learning activities, with a very lively forum for chatting. But MOOCs are massive, and there are too many names for any individual to stand out, or to get any sense of the people behind the names. On the other hand, you do form an attachment to the course director, who appears regularly on audio recordings.

I’ve found it especially easy to forget my MOOC during the working week. This is partly due to an underlying feeling that it ‘isn’t really work’, because I chose to study a topic that interested me, rather than something related to my job. And an academic’s job has fuzzy borders, spreading over into all sorts of ‘spare time’. While this is not nearly so exceptional as some of my colleagues seem to think, it does mean that I have explicitly to remind myself that, actually, taking a MOOC is a form of professional updating.

I’ve learned to negotiate a splendid app on a medieval abbey in Norfolk, and have reflected on the bundle of learning activities that the course designers have used. I’ve wondered how the academics have got on with the learning technology people, and whether they’ve encountered challenges and difference of opinion along the way. And I’ve contrasted and compared the ‘student experience’ of a MOOC with that of teaching an evening course.

Of course, it isn’t a formal training programme, and I think it unlikely that any of my senior managers will know or care that I’m taking a MOOC. Like many in higher education, they will worry about MOOCs as and when MOOCs have an impact on their own institution. And that is why it matters that people like me, who claim to be specialists in learning, should be open-minded and curious about MOOCs, rather than either yodelling about the ‘next big thing’ or dismissing them as a technologically-driven fad.