As part of the European New Skills Agenda, the 'upskilling pathways' initiative is one that each Member State has to implement for itself. The aim of the initiative is to offer individuals with low levels of basic skills the opportunity to at least improve those skills to an acceptable level, or to guide them towards a qualification. That is a fine goal. However, it fails to properly address the many millions of adults in Europe who are beyond the reach of regular and traditional adult education and who could certainly improve by utilising new ways of learning. There is an urgent need to pay special attention to this group and recognise the need for this type of learning.
In order to move adult education forward and guide a large group of people with a lower level of education through an ever-changing world filled with new types of technology, we are in need of a paradigm shift. We need to move from the idea of classroom teaching to a fundamentally different approach where ICT solutions play a large part, where there is plenty of recognition of both informal and non-formal schooling, where we recognise that adults develop their own learning patterns and take control of their own development, and where we use other forms of guidance, incorporating marketing techniques and stimulating partnerships in order to help develop that market properly from the start.
Adults are often unable to take part in group lessons, whether these are formal or informal, and meet the required study load. Furthermore, people with a lower level of education often have a certain resistance to the idea, due to previous experiences. We know that they create their own patterns and self-study methods to fit their professional and private lives. The knowledge they acquire through informal learning translates into progress with regard to their language skills, economic impact and the goals they wish to achieve. Access to the opportunities presented by digital tools would benefit this group greatly. However, that requires a different approach to adult education than has been adopted until now. More emphasis should be placed on non-formal tracks and digitisation – including the use of other programmes, and a different approach to supervision and support that better utilises digital means.
It is highly important to include people with a lower level of education into a world that increasingly manifests itself on the digital plane. Taking part in different ways of learning, even if the learning is brief and informal, familiarises adults with digital learning. Adult education is important in order to maintain and improve a level of (basic) skills in a rapidly changing society. It is something that benefits individuals, companies and society as a whole. However, that does mean that we should recognise other ways of learning and self-learning. Learning how to navigate the learning process can encourage the student to have fun with it – without formal ballast and thresholds such as moving to a new level and having to meet formal requirements.
This is best done in small steps, and using modern tools such as social media, for instance. We could help people to apply language in their day-to-day lives. With less formal solutions, offering the sort of easy-to-use applications that people actually need, and an emphasis on shared – social – learning. Gradually working towards a cooperative learning environment, where learners take the initiative to learn and decide for themselves which learning goals they would like to work on with others. Formal adult education does not try hard enough to meet the needs of a very large number of adults who do not have a sufficient level of basic skills. A new approach in order to enhance capacity can be facilitated by means of crowdsourcing, a method that allows for a part of the required effort to be outsourced to a large group of people connected through the Internet to help this large group of learners.
This would require different materials – bite-sized and easy to combine – that are intended for mobile applications and offer compatibility with e-coaching and learner communities. In order to cater to individual learners, we would need a direct-to-learner model. By using technology, we can better serve the massive market of people with a low level of education and offer them tailor-made solutions.
To help that large group of people, different enterprises would need to work together, such as parties with direct access to the target group, parties with marketing expertise and parties that offer technological solutions. Furthermore, it is important that this also works on a local community level. We should approach potential learners at locations they visit every day, and show them what we have to offer and how these products and services can help them improve their skills as well as their confidence, and how this will allow them to better participate in society.
Digital tools can help people manage their own circumstances and involve their social networks. Furthermore, there are also digital tools that collect and analyse data, allowing for earlier intervention and the preventive offering of services that work to improve the yield for users as well as lower the costs.
To that end, it is important that we offer people truly tailor-made services by using ICT solutions such as profiling and targeting, techniques from the marketing domain aimed at offering clients information that is tailored to them specifically by creating profiles for them. Using data in order to enhance our offer certainly has a place in the future of adult education.
Should we continue down our current path that will irrevocably cause a large group of people – who already carry too little baggage to keep up with our ever-changing world – to fall behind even further. However, there is also a significant group of people who do not use the Internet. Using technology will allow these people to familiarise themselves with it in bite-sized chunks, through highly practical everyday solutions. That is all they require and it allows people to help shape their own development. Of course, this problem will eventually become less prominent, as more people become familiar with technology as a part of their daily lives and today's 'digital natives' will support that process in the future.
In order to promote and stimulate the marketplace for adult education content, we need serious impulses and incentives, but these are sorely lacking from Dutch and European adult education and its policymakers. The question, then, is whether it is the government that should be primarily responsible for this going forward. Existing policy, budgets and institutions make it difficult to create the relevant partnerships and develop the relevant content. What we need is a platform that allows innovative parties to initiate a transfer to a new style of learning.
Ben Vaske, director of the Expertise Centre Oefenen.nl (‘Practise.nl) in the Netherlands