Annette Foley, ALA President
The broader benefits of adult learning: Post COVID-19
Adult Community Education (ACE) is well understood to provide economic benefit to the community by providing people with increased levels of literacy and numeracy, general education outcomes and skills developed through pre-accredited and accredited programs. The link between education attainment and improved economic outcomes is widely accepted. What is less well recognised in relation to outcomes and value to the economy is the link between adult learning approaches and its benefit for health and wellbeing.
Adult learning across the country is recognised for its engaging approaches, its ability to meet local learning needs, its community contributions, and its capacity to be flexible and learner centred which are shown to empower and engage diverse learner groups. Much of the real work in adult learning is not always associated with formal education outcomes but rather those informal practices and comfortable spaces that engage older and younger learners alike often who have barriers to learning. Many adult learning organisations and centres are located in towns across regional and metropolitan Australia that provide for their communities the opportunity for people to gather and benefit from each other’s company, which develop positive relationships and self-efficacy (Field, 2011). This I believe is the soul and substance of adult learning success, that is, the wrap around approaches and learning spaces that engage and prepare learners to be ready to learn.
For some people, learning may create stress and anxiety, which can erode confidence. The creative, learner centred approaches and practices of ACE prepare people to learn by developing their resilience and self-efficacy. The economic benefit of adult learning is not only associated with skill development for improved economic outcomes but also with the socio-cultural benefits (Field, 2011) that strengthen and support the building of social networks, and the development of resilience that is connected to the development of greater personal agency.
This year has brought with it significant challenges for this country that are unprecedented. We have experienced fires across Australia, floods and now a 1 in 100-year pandemic. Many of the people who gain refuge and friendship in community learning organisations across the country now find themselves unable to come together and learn in a social and supportive atmosphere because of necessary social distancing measures. Some are in locations across the country that have also been devastated by fire. Community members in these regions will be affected in many ways which are likely to have profound negative impacts on their health and wellbeing.
There has never been a time in my memory where the work of ACE in all its guises is more important than it is now. And never was there a time for governments to acknowledge the positive, health and wellbeing benefits that adult lifelong and life wide learning brings. The health and wellbeing benefits of adult and community learning are equally as valuable as the improved economic benefits gained through skills acquisition and qualifications.
Governments across Australia should start to pay attention to this community work and assign an equal economic value to the health and wellbeing outcomes that the sector provides to its community members. There is an important and critical role for adult community education post Covid-19 through resilience building and re-training community members across the country.
Field, J. (2011). Adult learning, health and well-being-changing lives, The Irish Journal of Adult & Community Education. pp. 13-25. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ954303.pdf
Associate Professor of Adult and Vocational Education, Federation University