Adult education 2.0

As preparations begin for the seventh International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII) in 2022, Daniel Baril, Chair of UIL’s Governing Board, argues that we need a new generation of adult learning and education policies

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In matters of adult learning and education, we live in paradoxical times. On the one hand, learning needs are diversifying and adult education resources cover a wide spectrum of learning possibilities, formal, non-formal or informal. On the other, adult education policies strive to mobilize all available educational resources to answer different learning needs. That is why I think that a new generation of adult learning and education policies is needed, policies that would aim to draw on all educational resources to answer a wide array of learning needs.  

In my view, in our new century, two phenomena are shaping adult education. First, we are witnessing a new social demand for knowledge and competencies. In all countries, literacy and basic skills remain a major educational need and, overall, work-related training is prioritized. But, beyond those important learning domains, we can observe a wider demand stemming from many spheres of people’s daily life. In its research and normative work, UNESCO has referred to some of those growing learning needs: education for health and well-being, education for sustainable development, education for citizenship, digital skills and human rights education. The so-called twenty-first century skills are also an example of an expanding social demand for learning.

Member States have recognized these learning needs. Through Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.7, they committed to ‘ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development’.

Second, the adult education offer is expanding. Adult education policies can count on a network of public institutions and community-based organizations. Also, learning activities are present within civil society organizations, enterprises, cultural institutions, etc. Moreover, autonomous learning and peer-to-peer learning are expanding, notably by means of the internet. UNESCO’s work on ICT in education and, more particularly, on mobile learning and artificial intelligence in education, is taking stock of some of the new possibilities added to the established adult education offer.

Thus, a growing and diversifying learning demand and an expanding educational offer challenge adult learning and education policies. In 2000, Paul Bélanger and Paolo Federighi described the ‘centrifugal growth in learning opportunities’ and how adult learning policies, from the 1990, were responding to the ‘fragmented world of adult learning’.

In recent years, the case for a structured approach has been advanced. Both the Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education and the Belém Framework for Action call for comprehensive adult education policies that are based on sector-wide and inter-sectoral approaches and that integrate adult learning and education in its various forms.

In two years’ time, UNESCO will hold a new CONFINTEA, the seventh. The preparatory process for that conference will be the occasion to reflect on the need for a new generation of adult learning and education policies that keep pace with the accelerating expansion of the learning needs of adults and of the educational resources available to answer them. In 1997, the final declaration of the fifth CONFINTEA stated that adult education is the key to the twenty-first century. Twenty years into that century, and anticipating the challenges of the decades ahead, adult education is a much-needed key of our time.

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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