Lifelong learning in the age of AI

Developments in artificial intelligence are driving change in education and pose new questions of educators and learners. Annapurna Ayyappan cuts through the noise to identify the core issues for lifelong learning

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From television and radio broadcasts and podcasts to social media platforms, massive open online courses and open educational resources, technology has greatly expanded the horizons of informal and non-formal learning (UIL, 2022). It has also presented learners and educators with new challenges, as well as opportunities for empowerment and exploration. Now, with the advent of generative artificial intelligence and other AI applications, this trend is set to accelerate even further, as highlighted by Oleksandra Poquet and Maarten de Laat (2021), who describe AI as a ‘transformative force reshaping how individuals encounter information, navigate their surroundings, and make decisions’.

Although the term ‘artificial intelligence’ emerged in the 1950s, recently the field has begun to outpace policy development. In the absence of ethical frameworks, it has the potential to perpetuate existing biases and discrimination, exacerbate societal divisions and jeopardize fundamental human rights. A 2022 UN report on the impact of digitalisation stresses the importance of promoting the right to education and adding value to existing practice. Furthermore, in 2021, 193 UNESCO Member States adopted the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, which underscores the values of respect for human rights, peace, diversity and inclusion, as well as environmental flourishing.

In 2024, the European Union agreed the first-ever legal framework addressing the risks of AI, setting out different levels of regulation for each level of risk, with education included in the high-risk category. However, the implications for institutions deploying AI-based technologies in non-formal programmes and in informal settings need further consideration.

The 2023 AI Index Report shows that 62 countries have published national AI strategies. Several comparative studies of such strategies have emerged, highlighting important considerations for further research and policy. One study, for example, found that ‘human capital’was the single common theme in all national AI strategies when it came to functions of the state. The same research showed that the approach to AI strategies differs by region in terms of approach, leadership and priorities. In some regions, the focus is on bolstering research and development, with governments taking the lead. In others, there is a more cautious approach, emphasizing the importance of ethics, regulation and data protection. Some countries actively champion AI, placing strong emphasis on enhancing human capital and fostering innovation. Consequently, there is a disparity in investment, research and development of AI knowledge and applications. According to the OECD AI observatory, a select few countries dominate the AI research landscape, highlighting the urgent need for greater international collaboration and knowledge-sharing.

The strong emphasis on human capital in national AI strategies can sideline the transformative power of lifelong learning in nurturing human development. Lifelong learning is not just about ticking boxes – it is about putting people at the heart of the process, ensuring everyone has the chance to flourish regardless of where they start. It is about recognizing and responding to the diverse needs of learners, contributing not only to economic growth but also to building a more inclusive society. To realise this transformative and emancipatory power of lifelong learning, the 2022 Marrakech Framework for Action calls for effective policies and instruments that bridge the digital divide, increase access, address online power relations and prevent the abuse of technologies, such as AI.  

As lifelong learning takes place throughout life and across all sectors and settings, different departments, ministries and agencies share responsibility for its implementation. Furthermore, given the transversal nature and application of technology, advancing lifelong learning in the age of AI calls for intentional, conscientious and concerted policy and programmatic efforts that recognise not only how emerging technologies such as AI represent essential tools in accelerating progress, but also the critical importance of a human-centred approach in using technology.

When it comes to implementation, multi-stakeholder partnership and commitment are essential in dealing with barriers and unanticipated consequences. Participatory approaches should be applied to policy and programme design and efforts made to enforce regulations and steps to mitigate bias and safeguard data privacy, fostering trust in AI-driven educational systems.

In the classroom, it is important to leverage existing resources and build on what learners and educators already know, using devices with which they are familiar rather than reinventing the wheel. Innovative approaches such as edge computing can provide AI supports on local devices, for learners with limited access to ICT infrastructure, thus offering them the possibility of sustainable and affordable learning. Free, participatory and democratically controlled resources, such as open educational resources, Wikipedia, open-source tools, can foster a positive environment for AI use, while gender-sensitivity AI literacy courses developed with and for different stakeholders can support capacity building.

It is essential to investigate, document and share promising case studies and to invest in the use of universal design for learning as a principle for leveraging emerging technologies for inclusive learning.

Lifelong learning and advancements in the digital era, particularly AI, are already aligning, both conceptually and, in some instances, practically. Self-directed learning, critical thinking, empathy, collaboration, decision-making, self-reflection, learning spaces and approaches are the cornerstone principles of lifelong learning. When these elements are in place, individuals can embark on a continuous learning journey, empowered by safe, effective and ethical technology, and supported by systems that prioritize their inclusion and growth.

UNESCO advocates a human-rights and gender approach to AI, emphasizing the necessity for collaboration among policymakers, educators, developers and learners to leverage AI’s potential while safeguarding learners’ rights and advancing inclusive education. AI has the potential to enhance access to learning. However, for it to truly contribute to sustainable development, investment in lifelong learning is crucial. This calls for focused attention in policy, research and practice.

So, the pivotal question is to what extent these two domains are aligned – in terms not only of philosophy and approach, but also of policy and investment – and, crucially, what implications this alignment holds for our collective advancement in the future.

Annapurna Ayyappan is Assistant Programme Specialist, Quality Learning Ecosystems, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

2 thoughts on “Lifelong learning in the age of AI

  1. Lifelong continuing education is moreover significant for the adult and senior citizen. When this category person can’t do any heavy work, then the technological education may have a vital role for them and society. So, this education must be focused and impressed for motivation.

  2. Really valuable contribution to the debate on the different approaches to lifelong learning on these new frontiers of digitalisation. Policy makers all to easily ‘embrace’ the claims of human capital theory – critical scholarship argues that a human rights and gender approach to AI is core to sustainable and inclusive lifelong learning discourse and practice

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