Adult learning and adult education in 2020: new realities and emerging requirements
Professor Stephen Billett – Adult and Vocational Education, Griffith University
It is May 2020. The year is a third completed. But it has already been a momentous one for adults’ learning in Australia. Barely had the year commenced when what we knew about bushfires was recalibrated, and for those directly involved learning how to prepare for, flee from and fight these fires was a first order priority. For the rest of us, new learnings included witnessing the manifestations of climate change and comprehending its menaces for the future.
Then, the pandemic with its social, economic and health care consequences arrived. We all had to learn quickly about social distancing, reorganising ways of working, and maintaining family and social connections in lockdown circumstances. Schooling from home and caring for isolated elderly relatives required new learning. For very many, the learnings have been even more profound with the almost immediate cessation of their employment, including that which had been secure, well-paid and regarded, and now needing to cope with changed subjectivities from independent and employed adults to welfare recipients. Reconciling the cessation or potential destruction of careers will have been a searing learning experience for many.
For those remaining employed, work practices have had to change, requiring quick and effective learning to engage with new technologies, more distal forms of engagement and novel ways of working. For instance, healthcare workers in critical roles had quickly learnt how to reorganise hospitals, surgeries and patient care. Some have learnt to remake clinical care procedures in the absence of sufficient personal protective equipment and uncertainty about the extent and acuity of their patients. Teachers in schools, colleges and universities have quickly adapted to distance education provisions via electronic platforms; café and restaurant owners convert businesses to takeaway only, and provision of home deliveries, etc. The salient point is that all of this has been premised on adults’ learning. Thereby emphasising its absolute salience to societal and personal continuity and advancement.
But, where does this leave adult education: the provision of experiences to intentionally support that learning? It would be wrong to conclude that adults’ propensity to respond to challenges, to problem solve, and find ways forward obviates the need for organised educational experiences (i.e. adult education).
A current research project mapping the lifelong learning of a cohort of Australian adults indicates that educational provisions are particularly necessary when adults encounter and negotiate life transitions. In nearly every instance, these adults’ ability to successfully negotiate significant transitions is premised on some form of educational provision. Whether it is the refugee migrant coming to learn English, engage in an occupation they view as being worthwhile and securing financial independence; the young person who left school with limited literacy becoming a beauty therapist, receptionist, teacher, local government worker; the person transitioning from working in pubs, into manufacturing, then into the Armed Forces, and onto the transport sector, all were premised upon educational provisions, broadly cast.
Some of these provisions were conventionally taught courses leading to qualifications. Others occurred in workplaces, family businesses, and through engaging in work tasks and observing and imitating other workers and direct guidance from more experienced workers. Then, in-house training, mentoring and support offered by vendors, equipment suppliers and franchises were also reported. Yet, when these provisions of support were unavailable, ineffective or wrongly directed, there were negative consequences for these adults’ learning and progression.
It remains unclear what the rest of 2020 holds. However, many adult Australians face a range of significant transitions. These will include changes in their occupations, requiring new skills and ways of working. The evidence suggests that the educational provisions to support these transitions need to be local, accessible, relevant, effective and, importantly, pertinent to adult learners’ needs and their challenges.Ultimately, it will be adult education provisions of these kinds that will be required in the changed social and economic circumstances of the post-pandemic period.
Adults will always continue to learn and progress. But there will need to be a strong focus on accessible adult education provision to assist negotiating transitions brought about by this pandemic. Consequently, no longer can adult education be viewed as a mere nicety, but something essential to the social and economic well-being of Australia and Australians.