Lifelong Learning


The need for broad and varied learning opportunities to cope with social, economic and technological changes is increasing. For many, lifelong learning seems to relate primarily to activities undertaken by retired people (as manifested by the growth of adult courses related to personal health and hobbies). To others it means leading more productive lives. Mission statements of a number of educational institutions, K-12 and post-secondary schools have as one of their goals that students must be prepared with skills for lifelong learning.

Many definitions of lifelong learning seem to exist. For example:

  • To teach students to become critical throughout their lives of what they learn and why they learn.
  • Opening colleges and universities to the community for the study of both specialized occupational skills and liberal arts subjects.
  • Assisting people to learn at any time in their lives, freely choosing from a variety of learning opportunities.

A definition adopted by UNESCO in 1976 at a meeting I attended was discussed for a long time: "The term lifelong education and learning denotes an overall scheme aimed both at restructuring the existing education system and developing its potential in such a way that men and women are agents of their own education."

Continuing education programs are gaining respect as they become important sources of revenue for many universities. New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies brings in about $92 million a year in revenue, up from about $3 million in the early 1970s. Harvard receives about $150 million per year from continuing education classes - roughly 10 percent of the university's $15 billion annual budget.

Business is also more aware of the need for workers to continue their education and learning throughout their lives. In industries such as information technology, certain knowledge and skills are only adequate for a short period of time.

In 1998 the Manufacturing Institute - the educational and research affiliate of the National Assn. Of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C. - published a pamphlet called "Education-Training for America's Future." Included in the policy description is "Employer and Employees alike must make a commitment to lifelong learning. Employers should aim to invest at least 3 percent of their payrolls to educate and train their employees and should consider a range of programs that are both innovative and expansive, including tuition reimbursement and 'on the clock' programs."

Opportunities outside of work for learning are exploding, with many individuals taking advantage of the technological tools increasingly available. Many libraries are holding classes for adults on a variety of subjects. Washington, D.C. Public Library holds classes on how to use the Libraries on Line Network that links several libraries to the Internet. Classes also include introduction to personal computing, word processing, spreadsheets, and the use of the Web. Many retirement communities have installed computer laboratories for their residents.

In the 1999 Education Budget, $10 million was added for anytime anywhere learning partnerships to support access to quality post-secondary education through the use of distance education technology. The variety and number of special products and services has increased and learners can now truly learn "lifelong." However, the government could play a more active role in promoting lifelong learning, primarily with regard to the less educated sectors of the community.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.