The new learning frontier

As he begins his first term as Chair of the UIL Governing Board, Daniel Baril reflects on the implications of technological transformation for adult learning and education

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In my first contribution to the UIL blog, and as I reflect on global issues for adult learning and education as new Chair of the UIL Governing Board, I would like to share a high-level analysis of what I consider a major and new educational challenge. In my view, we are entering a new learning frontier, principally characterized by the fact that human and machine are learning side by side and together. This ‘human-machine learning interface’, as it was described in a recent UNEVOC document, is characteristic of the so-called fourth industrial revolution that is dawning upon us.

In this context, the education landscape is being rapidly and deeply transformed before our eyes by technological forces, and especially by the computational and digital dimensions of those forces. Among other things, new technological means are widely distributed within the population and social arrangements are being transformed by them. In our world now, any two learners are just a click of the mouse away. The questions of the place and pace of artificial intelligence (AI) in education are symptomatic of those changes pressuring our educational world. In a recent forum on this topic, organized by UNESCO in June 2019, parameters for the policy debate were proposed. They are testimonies to the nature and the magnitude of the changes taking place. In particular, AI has the potential for ‘reshaping the core foundations of education, teaching and learning’. Unlocking that potential will move the frontier of our learning world.

Yet, as the learning agenda of the twenty-first century emerges, there remains major unfinished business from the twentieth century. First and foremost, literacy and basic education for all continues to be a necessary policy objective, in a world in which more than 800 million adults still lack those foundational skills, two thirds of them women. In the wake of the third industrial revolution in the nineteen century, literacy became an educational objective reflecting the changing learning needs of a workforce moving from agricultural work to manufacturing. In the following decades, the written word became a pervasive fixture of our literate society. It continues to be a fundamental prerequisite of life in the modern world.

In a sense, adult learning and education policies and thinking must now bridge two different worlds if we do not want to leave hundreds of millions of persons behind. For instance, as we conceptualize and deliver the engineering of personalized learning environments relying on AI, the 1990 Jomtien declaration on meeting the basic learning needs of all still resonates with acute urgency. A vertiginous educational gap risks widening the divide between people who lack basic education and those who are not only literate, but also autonomous learners operating efficiently in a highly technological educational and learning environment.

In the coming year, UIL has the opportunity to shed light on this educational world in transition. First, the UNESCO International Commission on the Futures of Education will be a unique forum. The terms of reference of this commission invite us to reflect on ‘how knowledge, education and learning need to be reimagined in a world of increasing complexity, uncertainty, and precarity’.

Second, the Seventh International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII), to be held in Morocco in 2022, will give Member States a chance to anticipate and shape the adult learning and education agenda for the twenty-first century. It will also be an opportunity to take stock of the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 and the Education 2030 commitments and give a new impetus to their implementation. The outcomes of CONFINTEA VII will include new international commitments on adult learning and education, anchored in this new learning frontier which is fast redrawing the educational and learning environment.

UNESCO’s Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education, adopted in 2015, roots its justification in actualizing the right to education in a fast-changing world. That work is far from achieved. For UNESCO, as a moral fiduciary of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, upholding the imperative of the right to education must be a guiding principle in this new learning frontier.

Daniel Baril is Chair of the Governing Board of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning and Director General of the Canadian Institute for Cooperation in Adult Education.

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