Since the start of the pandemic, crisis management in education has focused on children and young people, but adult education is just as critical in times of crisis, argues Daniel Baril
The COVID-19 pandemic is shaking our societies, and testing our capacity to act, to the limit. Each major sector of society must contribute, whether through caring for and supporting those infected, stopping the spread of the virus or ensuring the supply of essential goods and services to cloistered families. Much is demanded too of the education sector, especially given governments’ decision to close schools and other educational establishments.
Ministries of education have encouraged educational institutions to use online and distance education to ensure ‘continuity of learning. However, adult education has not yet caught the attention of governments. Public adult education services are conspicuous by their absence from the first wave of government decisions, and concern about continuity of learning for children and young people has not been extended to adults.
However, going beyond state action, it is clear that adult education is far from dormant. The private online training market is taking advantage of a unique opportunity to publicize its services. In addition, spontaneously and to varying degrees of organization, people confined at home are carrying out various types of online learning, in various subjects.
Meanwhile, taken by surprise by the abrupt closure of their services, the adult education community, like society as a whole, is most likely thinking about implementing contingency plans. Some may be able to adapt the services they offer to the adults they serve, while this may be impossible for others, in particular those whose pedagogical approach is intrinsically based on a sustained face-to-face relationship. It will take a little while to clarify the situation, particularly if, as seems likely, the exceptional context of closure of organizations continues.
Adult education is often forgotten in education policy and action. With the exception of prioritizing workforce training in order to match demand for and supply of skills, notably in the fight against labour shortages, adult education is rarely a government priority.
While the education of children and young people is considered essential in the prioritization of education activities, including in the extraordinary context of crisis management, adult education remains a marginal field of activity, specifically called upon to fill emergencies, such as illiteracy, the lack of a first diploma for young adults or the skills mismatch of the workforce. Public education policies still struggle to give form to the perspective of lifelong learning, which they have evoked since the turn of the 1970s.
However, as the intensification of health education operations, and the high demand for digital skills, personal financial management skills and parenting skills during periods of confinement have shown in the past few days, adult education is a fundamental component of modern societies the proper functioning of which demands of citizens an increasingly extensive baggage of knowledge and skills. This is why the objective of maintaining the continuity of learning must also extend to adults, in public educational establishments, in networks of community organizations and among the workforce, whether people are still in employment or in forced unemployment. Specific actions in this direction should be taken.
Undoubtedly, the education of children and young people is essential, since the future of our societies is at stake. However, adult education is strategically important, since, through it, the present of these societies can be assured. For example, our capacity to manage this crisis, to mitigate its consequences and, eventually, to overcome it, is based on the knowledge and skills acquired by adults. This is why public education policies must go beyond the dichotomy that prioritizes the education of children and young people and marginalizes adult education. This approach is no longer in tune with the reality of societies that makes knowledge an engine of development, both in normal times and, to an even greater extent, in times of crisis.
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 (ICEA)
A longer version of this article was published in French on the ICEA website.