Pew Research Reveals Three Barriers to Lifelong Learning

overcoming-barriers-to-technology-assisted-reviewPew Research Center’s recent report, “Lifelong Learning and Technology” gives insight into how Americans perceive and engage in lifelong learning (Horrigan, 2016). It’s a worthy read. It contains valuable data and insights for stakeholders involved in education planning and decision-making. Yet I’ve identified three themes I consider most instructive and compelling; three significant barriers that the education sector as a whole needs to acknowledge and address in order to improve and move online education programs forward.

Three Barriers
1) Limited Access: online education has not, up to this point, democratized education—adult learners with limited education do not engage, for various reasons, in learning aided by technology, 2) Lack of familiarity with online learning options persists among all adult learning groups; for instance only 14% are “very familiar” with even the concept of distance learning, and MOOCs—only 5% are “very familiar”, and 3)  Learning gap: there’s a significant gap between how some adults view learning in general and their actual lifelong learning behaviours—the majority of Americans (87%) believe learning new things is “very important” yet only 73% of adults consider themselves lifelong learners.

1. Online Education Fails to Democratize
We’ve long heard how digital education platforms such as Coursera and edX will democratize education by overcoming barriers associated with higher education by lowering costs and reaching populations with limited education. Yet Pew’s findings suggest otherwise. It reveals that these same groups, those with low levels of education and household income, are less likely to engage in any form of online learning. One finding is particularly telling—less than half of respondents with a high school education or less have used the internet for personal (43%) or job-related learning (49%) (Horrigan, pg. 7). This suggests that education providers need to determine how to leverage and implement technology as a learning tool to serve the groups that need education most.

2. Limited Awareness of Digital Platforms for Learning
Quite surprising is the fact that the majority of adult learners are not familiar with digital learning options. While most readers of this blog are likely (very) familiar with MOOCs and for-credit online courses, it’s startling to consider that most adults, even those with higher education levels are not (see screenshot below for details). This phenomenon has implications for educators and institutions; the most pressing is the need to inform the general population about digital learning options. Going further, there’s also a need to educate adults how to learn effectively in a digital world. Accomplishing this will require a strategic and concerted effort by education institutions involving a multi-pronged approach, utilizing multiple communication channels to promote learning options. Other alternatives may require forming partnerships with unrelated institutions as Khan Academy did with Bank of America for their Better Money Habits® program. There is much work to be done.

PI_2016.03.22_Education-Ecosystems_5-03
Lifelong Learning and Technology, John Horrigan. Pew Research Center (section 5).

3. The Learning Gap
According to the report Americans value learning greatly. It indicates that 87% of adults state that it’s “very important that people make an effort to learn new things about their jobs”. Yet the same survey finds that 73% of adults agree that “I think of myself as a lifelong learner” applies “very well”. The numbers suggest there’s a segment of the population who view learning as very important, yet they don’t engage in lifelong learning activities for their own personal or professional growth. Why? It’s worth further examination. There is an opportunity to reach a group of adults who value learning greatly but don’t engage for whatever reason. The report does identify factors that play a role in lifelong learning activities, e.g. household income, education attainment, etc (section 2). One avenue to consider is the role educators could play in closing the gap.  Possibly by instilling skills and modeling behaviors associated with lifelong learning in elementary and/or high school, granted the logistics of ‘how’ is a barrier in itself.

There is no easy solution to closing the gap, and it is closely linked barriers one and two.  Yet this gap deserves special consideration—further discussion among educators involved in all levels of education. How can we as educators encourage and develop skills and behaviors in students, young and old where learning is self-directed and lifelong—where students forge their own learning path based upon their, interests needs, and passions?

Closing
The Pew Report yields important and helpful insights that can drive meaningful dialogue about education: professional, elementary and higher education. Also the role of technology in education, it’s reach, and shortcomings. The report hopefully will serve as a catalyst for action, action by education institutions and individuals to advance and improve institutions and platforms reach and impact, to build and grow engaged communities of lifelong learners.