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According to the European Commission 2010 'the scale of current economic and social change, the rapid transition to a knowledge based society and demographic pressures resulting from an ageing population in Europe are all challenges which demand a new approach to education and training within the framework of Lifelong Learning.'
This essay will examine how Lifelong Learning has impacted Distance Education whilst addressing the contested nature of the concept. An attempt will be made to summarise and produce explanations for the expansion of Distance Education. An analysis of the benefits and drawbacks will be made with reference to current Distance Education initiatives. A focus on Government policy and opinions towards Distance education will also be identified.
Lifelong Learning is a contested and problematic concept and there are different perspectives of Lifelong Learning. A Progressive view believes that learning should be enriching to the individual, allowing constant acquisition of new skills and knowledge to develop a persons mind. 'Policy makers and academics increasingly argue that we are learning from the moment we are born, to be in the world, to take our place in society and adapt to change as we pass through the different stages in our life.'( Dfee:1998) Others believe Lifelong Learning must maintain the status quo whilst focussing on 'higher order' learning. An instrumentalist view shows that employers want Lifelong Learning to accommodate to their business and allow them to compete in a global society. It can be argued that the Government promote Lifelong Learning in an attempt to repair the existing education and training systems and to restore the economy.
Distance Education is quickly becoming the most popular form of learning outside compulsory education. Distance education is a sub branch of Lifelong Learning as it promotes adult education. 'Distance education and training result from the technological separation of teacher and learner which frees the student from the necessity of travelling to a fixed place, at a fixed time, to meet a fixed person in order to be trained.'(Valentine:1995) Distance Education is a mode of education that facilitates flexibility of place and availability of time. Rather than attending daily classes in colleges and universities Distance Education courses can be studied at home in a person's free time. This allows people to pursue Lifelong Learning whilst having a family and fulltime career.
Distance Education started with correspondence study and has expanded considerably as technology has developed. 'As computer technology became prevalent in business, the print based correspondence courses progressed to computer based training, which included simulations and ultimately interactive course content that provided participant feedback and enhanced learning. '(Gaymer,2005) Educators and employers then invested in telecommunication equipment that distributed training programmes to their students and employees. These interactive television programmes allowed employers and educators to connect to the learners from across the country. The vast expansion of the internet has created the current variety of distance learning which is online learning.
The Distance Education movement started in the twentieth century, as a result of a more industrialised society. There are numerous environmental issues that are putting pressure on society to undertake Lifelong Learning these include, 'the abundant access to information, rapid technology changes, increased global interactions, industry shifts, as well as increasing entry level credentials and skill requirements.'(Gaymer, 2005) These factors collaborate in demanding people to constantly upgrade their skills and knowledge which can be done flexibly when taking a Distance Learning course. Distance Education gives adults the opportunity to re-train in a field they are more interested in or gain a recognised qualification if they did not acquire one first time around. Distance Learning also allows people to progress in the workplace without leaving full time work as the course can be studied at home, in the students own time.
It can be argued that it was Thatcherism that first encouraged society to take part in Lifelong Learning and Distance Education. She greatly enforced the ideology of taking responsibility for ones self and it is the fault of the individual rather than society if a person does not get involved in a skilled workforce. Lifelong Learning, social exclusion and the encouragement of learning are regarded as significant by the current Conservative Government. The continuation of learning is regarded as necessary for the economic competitiveness of a global society, the development of citizenship and increase participation in a democratic society.
Contemporary politics such as the successive Labour Government introduced a variety of Distance Learning initiatives in response to the need for Lifelong Learning which creates an increasingly educated society. The Union Learning Fund is an initiative which offers financial assistance to trade unions to encourage learning at work. '£34 million over three years has been allocated for projects ranging from basic skills to continuing professional development.' (Anonymous.2010) There is also UNISON which is an 'informal adult learning programme that has broadened membership participation in lifelong learning, increased engagement in workplace training, public policy and citizenship and helped facilitate routes into the union's own structures.' (Barker, 1998)
The Open University, Oxford Online and Learn Direct are Government backed initiatives that provide reputable institutions which allow people to gain recognised qualifications. The largest University in the world is the Open University with 250,000 students enrolled. The Open University offers courses from £115 which contrasts to the traditional courses offered by Universities and Colleges starting from £300. In an increasingly competitive, employment environment it is paramount for people to constantly develop their skills and knowledge. These institutions allow people to continue there education on a flexible level which develops the individuals knowledge, enhances career prospects and facilitates businesses to compete in a global society.
Businesses are increasingly valuing Distance Education in the pursuit for Lifelong Learning as they require their employees to be updated with the skills and knowledge needed to compete in a global economy. Many of the world's organisations, both public and private, are encouraging Lifelong Learning with respect to distance education as they believe that distance educational courses are compulsory in organisational competitiveness. 'India has created a new industry as an outsource venue for customer service which creates customer service training opportunities in India. Korean manufacturers have a solid history of identifying corporate and educational partners that satisfy their organizational educational needs.'(Gaymer,2005)
Employers depend on continuing education in the form of Distance Education as a tool for ensuring a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce. The employer now has the ability to train a large number of staff in a short period of time. They can 'meet specialised needs which generic training programmes do not satisfy.'(Rowntree,1994).Online Courses are substantially cheaper than traditional classroom based study. If the employer was not able to release the employee from work, the applicant can study online in their own time. Companies that used distance learning identified, higher pass rates, line manger satisfaction, better retention of information and increased opportunity for promotion. The employers also reported financial improvements in 70% of branches, reduced customer complaints and error rates in manufacture was down by 3%. (Rowntree,1994) It can be deduced from these findings that a small expense to the company by paying for distance education creates an abundance of other benefits.
Most education institutions such as Colleges and Universities now provide some form of Distance Education. As a result of a 'reduction in public sector funding, institutions now need to generate their own capital from the private sector, in order to maintain financial viability and to generate surpluses for investment in new developments, markets and infrastructure.'(Anoymous,2007) Universities have responded to the change in the market as a result of Lifelong Learning and very few Universities offer no form of Distance Education. The benefits of Distance Education with regards to the providers include, cutting contact hours on existing courses and acquiring more use out of existing facilities. Providing new opportunities for staff and catering for a greater number of learners without a proportionate increase in cost. Distance Education also caters for a new type of learner and exploits new sources of funding. (Rowtree:1994)
Students choose Distance Education courses for, 'job enhancement, upward career mobility and personal enrichment.' (Bradley:2000) The benefits of undertaking a Distance Education course include increased access. A number of specialised courses are not available at some institutions so the student may have to move a great distance in order to complete the course if they chose the traditional classroom based study. 'Short modular packages and accreditation of prior learning may mean that learners do not need to spend time and money on topics they are already familiar with.'(Tait,1992) Private learning and anonymous chat room discussions allows shy pupils to put forward their ideas without feeling uncomfortable which may be the case in a face to face situation in a classroom environment. There is more choice of what the individual wants to learn and how they want to be assessed in distance education. It is also argued that distance education courses offer a better quality of teaching than conventional courses and provide individual tutoring online.
Despite the ample amount of benefits surrounding the field of distance education it can be argued that there are negative elements within this form of Lifelong learning. Increasingly courses are predisposed by industrial developments. Slight emphasis is placed on what would benefit the individual's personal knowledge. 'Those who wield economic power in society are unlikely to encourage critical, non-conformist thinking.' (Stephenson,2001) It is argued that some forms of Distance Education facilitate censorship. There is evidence to suggest that employers will only fund those courses that have a direct effect on increasing capital within the business, regardless of what is considered as useful to the employee. Government funded learning centres and libraries are being affected by the popularity of online learning. People are now getting their materials online, which means the smaller institutions are receiving fewer funds and in some cases are being shut down. It is essential that the learner is 'self motivating, self directing and relatively self sufficient' (Hogson:1993) in order to succeed in this type of Lifelong Learning.
The future of Distance Education looks set to be more advanced than it is today, 'the abundant access of information, rapid technology changes, increased global interactions, industry shifts as well as increasing entry level credentials and skill requirements ensures that distance education will remain a valuable resource for managers in the future.' (Gaymer.2005) There is an overwhelming interest in Lifelong Learning and technological developments along with limited time, assures that learning will continue to be adaptable to the individual. Learning increasingly needs to accommodate to the students career and home life due to time constraints and competitive working environments. 'The growing global economy will continue to drive the development of learning activities that span geographical regions and time zones allowing individuals around the world to collaborate and learn together.' (Mulhearn,2010)
Lifelong Learning is a contested and problematic concept, different organisations have diverse perspectives as to what Lifelong Learning should encompass. Employers rely on Distance Education to create a knowledgeable workforce, adopting modern innovations which constantly need updating in order to compete globally. Educational Institutions rely on Distance Education to provide extra capital as the current Conservative Government is cutting funding in the education sector. Individuals need to increasingly engage in Distance Education to develop self knowledge, participate in a competitive working environment and to enhance career prospects. Lifelong Learning, social exclusion and the encouragement of learning are regarded as significant by the current Conservative Government. Whilst Distance Education is viewed positively, there are negative elements to this variety of learning. Increasingly courses are predisposed by industrial developments and minor emphasis is placed on what would benefit the individual's personal knowledge.
Lifelong Learning can be interpreted ideologically in a variety of ways, there is the promotion of personal development, inclusion and equality of opportunity in society. This type of lifelong learning is personally rewarding for the participants, however there is no direct economic benefit. Alternatively there is a more instrumental approach that emphasises learning for economic benefit. This variety of Lifelong learning focuses on employability, productivity and efficiency.