Internet alone cannot boost participation in adult learning

Woman using laptop
New research reveals that the information superhighway has not had a pronounced effect on participation in adult learning. A study, conducted by Dr Patrick White from the University of Leicester's Department of Sociology, shows that despite improvements to internet access and connection speeds, participation in adult learning has not increased or widened during the past decade.

"Given the rapid development of the internet during these years – both in terms of capability and accessibility – our findings suggest that online technologies have not fulfilled the promise of their advocates who believed they would break down barriers to learning and expand access to previously excluded groups," said Dr White.

The study, published in the British Educational Research Journal, utilised multivariate analysis to analyse data from over 47,000 participants collected as part of annual surveys commissioned by the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE). Dr White found that the majority of adults questioned from 2002 to 2010 had not participated in any form of learning during the previous three years. Those who had engaged in educational activities tended to be young, well-educated and economically active individuals, working in skilled, non-manual occupations.

Dr White's research showed that participants with non-manual occupations were one-and-a-half to two times more likely to have recently participated in learning than those involved in manual or unskilled work. Other factors, such as continuing full-time education beyond the age of 16, being active in the labour market and being under 55 years of age, increased the likelihood of engagement by a similar amount. However, participants from households with children were approximately a third less likely to get involved in adult learning.

Whilst Dr White discovered that those who had been involved in adult learning were more likely to have home-access to the internet, he found no evidence to suggest that the internet itself had enabled groups with low participation levels to re-engage with education.

Dr White told ScienceOmega.com that participation levels are more likely to be affected by people's mindsets than by factors such as internet access.

"Whilst this isn't something that is demonstrated in my research, previous studies have suggested that participation is influenced by dispositions and attitudes towards learning, rather than by physical or financial barriers," he explained.

"Most of the research conducted over the last ten years has suggested that however easy you make it for people to learn, if they've had bad experiences of initial education, they are turned off learning for life. The people we most want to encourage into learning are usually those who left school at the earliest opportunity and have not engaged with much learning throughout their lives. The main reason they haven't engaged with such learning is because their early educational experiences were quite negative, and it's those things that we need to change in order to attract these individuals.

"How to make these changes is a different matter. Obviously, it's more difficult to change people's attitudes than to provide them with internet access."

Dr White noted that policymakers tend to set ambitious targets in relation to adult learning, and that his findings do not necessarily indicate underperformance.

"Often, with issues such as participation, you do get a ceiling effect whereby however hard you try, you cannot pass a certain level," he explained. "Whether 40 per cent represents that ceiling is not something that we have any kind of evidence about, but it is remarkable how stable patterns of participation have been over a 10 year period. This might suggest that we're being overly ambitious in what we are trying to do."

Dr White concluded by highlighting the importance of the benefits obtained from adult learning, as well as levels of participation.

"It is very easy for people who are highly educated – often those making policies or conducting research – to assume that it's a good thing for everybody to be in education," he said. "We must think very carefully about what people are going to get out education. We should not assume that the educational learning that we consider to be beneficial will necessarily be beneficial to everybody in the country."

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I think the Germans did similar research during the period 1940-1945. Maybe you should look into the results. Also you should read the brilliant book Brave New World by A. Huxley.

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