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Headlines Published on 19 October 2004

Title Life-long learning’s usual suspects

Efforts to lure people to new educational technologies and to promote a culture of life-long learning resemble a case of preaching to the converted, according to a new UK study.

ODLP, which aims to help socially disadvantaged groups become life-long learners, is part of a cluster of projects called the Learning Citizen © Image: Learning Citizen
ODLP, which aims to help socially disadvantaged groups become life-long learners, is part of a cluster of projects called the Learning Citizen
© Image: Learning Citizen
The technology has improved. The level of accessibility is unprecedented. European governments and the EU are doing their best to promote e-learning and construct an equitable and inclusive ‘learning society’ of ‘life-long learners’. However, a new study suggests that education in the digital age largely attracts the ‘usual suspects’ – in the UK, at least.

The Adult Learning@Home project, which was funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), concluded that ICT has not increased participation and achievement rates in adult education. Instead, e-learning tends to be associated with the same factors that influence when students leave the education system, such as sex and socio-economic background. "It would seem that patterns of participation in adult education are not being changed for the better by changes in education policy," says Dr Neil Selwyn.

The study shows that, although access to computers and the internet is pretty much 'universal' in the UK, actual use is limited to just over half of the adult population. In addition, the internet was primarily used to communicate with family and friends, produce documents and search for specific information and general knowledge. Learning a language or other new skill was a secondary use.

The findings were based on a large-scale door-to-door survey of just over 1 000 adults and semi-structured interviews with 100 respondents, followed by a year-long, in-depth ethnographic study of 25 ICT users, their friends and families. Although the results are drawn from UK citizens, they may have implications in a broader European context.

The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and post-graduate training relating to social and economic issues. It invests more than £93 million (€135 million) every year in social science and, at any time, is supporting some 2 000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes.

Electronic equalisers
As Europe steers a course towards a knowledge-based economy and society, the speed at which knowledge and skills become obsolete makes it imperative that Europeans ‘learn’ to be adaptive. The EU recognises that this can only be achieved through a policy of open and equitable life-long learning. And ISTs (information society technologies) offer a perfect medium for this new focus in adult education.

To help break down the barriers of exclusion, and narrow the potentially widening gap between the ‘knows’ and the ‘know-nots’, the Commission has launched a number of important initiatives. One example of this is the piloted on-line distance learning services. Run by IST project fellows, as part of the EU-backed Open Distance Learning Platform (ODLP), it aims to “e-include the excluded”.

“The ODLP aims to enable and facilitate the on-line training process, from training course design to tutoring and monitoring of trainees, and course administration,” a project spokesperson said. “It is a complete software suite that can be tailored to the specific needs of any training institution due to an innovative software architecture and a wide set of application programme interfaces.”

Under the programme, training institutions in Austria, France, Germany and the UK set up a pilot environment to help socially fragile groups to develop vocational skills, build personal confidence and commitment to life-long learning.

Source:  EU sources

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • ESRC press release
  • Background on ODLP

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