Prof. Dr. Buket Akkoyunlu, Hacettepe University, Faculty of Education, Turkey

In the 21 century, the rapid pace and complexity of technological, economic and cultural changes require individuals to adapt and re-adapt throughout their lives – all the more so in the context of globalisation. Developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) have changed our way of life, whether it is at home, at work, at school or at leisure. The internet and the development of digital technology (computer-based technology) in particular, have made the most significant impact in the field of ICT in our lives. In ICT innovations have become smaller in size, more efficient and often more affordable.

Briefly, advances in ICT are reshaping the economies and societies of many countries around the world and, it is a driving factor in the process of globalisation.  There are many different definitions of globalisation but it is a difficult term to define because it has come to mean so many things. In general, globalisation refers to the trend toward countries joining together economically, through education, society and politics, and viewing themselves not only through their national identity but also as part of the world as a whole (OECD, 2013). Globalisation is a  processes by which the peoples of the world are incorporated into a single society, global society and  impacts all aspects of society such as economics, business contents and education (Albrow , 1990: 9; Altbach, Reisberg, & Rumbley, 2009).

In the changing world of the twenty-first century with the effects of ICT advances and globalisation the value of competences expires with time and new skills are needed for labour market or workplaces.   The rapidity of those advancements improve the quality standards and make it more difficult for highly qualified workers for workplace.  Adults must pursue continue their learning and up-skilling throughout their lives. These developments not only highlight the importance of adult learning in general; they also demand that adults keep on acquiring more information, upgrading their skills and reexamining their values. In the 21st century, adult learning has become more important than ever and characterised by some factors such as advances of ICTs, globalisation, labour market and lifelong learning.  Adult learning is placed at the center of a neccesary change for lifelong learning, and its borders have been broden (Alheit & Dausien, 2002).Lifelong learning may be broadly defined as learning that is  followed throughout life: learning that is flexible and available at different times and in different places. In other words, learning is open, flexible and personalised for adults at all stage of their lives  whenever they need and they want (Torres, 2009). The European Lifelong Learning Initiative defines lifelong learning as “…a continuously supportive process which stimulates and empowers individuals to acquire all the knowledge, values, skills and understanding they will require throughout their lifetimes and to apply them with confidence, creativity and enjoyment, in all roles circumstances, and environments.” (Watson 2003: 3). It  simply underlines what an individual learns throughout life as a citizen, as a parent or as a retiree etc at work, in family or in society.  

Today, adult education and lifelong learning’s principles, policies and practices are mixed for social and economic change.  In the shift towards lifelong learning, adult education has a very important role to play in ensuring the progress for democracy, human rights, economical development etc. The lifelong learning is an opportunity for people to equip themselves with new skills to face the social, political, economic, cultural and technological challenges throughout their lives (Medel-Añonuevo et al., 2001).  And adult education has been defined as a vehicle for social change and transformation (Baumgartner, 2001; Mezirow, 1990; 2000).    As Solis (2010) mentioned, by 2016, four out of 10 new jobs will require some advanced education or training.  Therefore,  most of the countries are aware than ever that education is the foundation of a strong economy, for a peaceful world and human rights.  Individuals with better training and qualifed skills can improve their life standards in a society (Blanden et al, 2009).  

Adult education could be considered as a subset of lifelong learning which forming lifelong learning and adult learning. Here, learning by adults occurs both within the framework of adult education, and also beyond it.  There has been a shift in much of the literature and policy discussions from adult education to adult learning, and differences was underlined between learning and education as a cognitive process internal to the learner, that can occur ‘both incidentally and in planned educational activities’, while, ‘it is only the planned activities we call education”. Adult learning is defined as ‘the entire range of formal, non-formal and informal learning activities which are undertaken by adults after a break since leaving initial education and training, and which results in the acquisition of new knowledge and skills  (NRDC, 2010).  The European Commission defines adult learning as, ‘all forms of learning undertaken by adults after having left initial education and training, however far this process may have gone (e.g. including tertiary education)’ (European Commission 2006, p. 2).

Adult learning is important for the 21st century. Because, it contributes to human capital development, both economic and social. And, the changing skills demand, especially over the 40 years of working life. Therefore, we  have to look at adult learning. We should not forget that societies‘ future prosperity depends on the strength of its learning sector and a range of complementary learning opportunities that meet the needs of all adults — regardless of educational attainment, age, socio-economic status or level of skills.

Future of Adult Learning

As mentioned above, individuals, societies and workplaces are impacted by economic, social and technological developments. The changes in the economy, politics, culture and social living have uncovered the necessity for change in the existing social structure and new skills are required. Consequently, employers are increasingly seeking skilled workers with a more education-based set of skills. In the 21st century humanity are facing many emerging issues such as global warming, famine, poverty, health, unemployment, wars etc… All those need new knowledge  and  new capabilities. Besides, according to Population Reference Bureau (PRB, 2014) results,in 1970, just under one-half (48 percent) of the world's population was younger than 20, a nearly equal percentage was ages 20 to 64, and only 5 percent was 65 and older. Today, as a result of lower fertility rates and longer life expectancy, the share of global population under age 20 has dropped to about 35 percent, the population between ages 20 and 64 represent 58 percent, and ages 65 and older represent 7 percent. United Nation (UN) report (2013) underlined that  life expectancy was 65 years in 1950 in the more developed regions compared to only 42 years in the less developed regions in the same year. By 2010-2015, it is estimated to be 78 years in the more developed regions and 68 years in the less developed regions. By 2045-2050, life expectancy is projected to reach 83 years in the more developed regions 75 years in the less developed regions. Thus longer life spans will contribute to future ageing and adult learning in all major regions of the world. That is why,   work-related training and adult learning should be provided for a better world.

Briefly, the economic crisis, the need for new skills and the demographic changes facing people have highlighted that adult learning has very important role, contributing towards policies that seek to competitiveness, employability, social inclusion and active citizenship. Those are just some of the issues that those in future of adult learning needs to be discussed with the needs and realities of individuals and societies.

Adult learning can occur in many contexts, including in the home, at the workplace and in the community, and can be beneficial to adults of all levels of education and skills development. Through continuous learning,  adults may maintain the skills and knowledge needed to make informed decisions and lead successful lives as workers, citizens, and as members of families and communities.

We should remember that the demand for adult basic skills education continues to increase. Therefore,  we need to be flexible in response to the changing needs of adult learners and ready to provide the educa­tional opportunities they need, when they are needed. For future success of adult learning should be flexible and use technology wisely.

Flexibility for adult learning means to provide  a continuum of approaches in terms of time, place, pace, content and mode of learning applied in varying degrees. Its overarching purpose is to increase opportunities and options available to learners and give them greater control over their learning through a variety of learning modes and interactions. It is not an alternative mode of education but an overarching driving force that provides learners greater choice.  There is no common definition of flexible learning but definitions, given below, are meant to convey an overview of the term.

’Flexible learning expands choice on what, when, where and how people learn. It supports different styles of learning, including e-learning’ (Casey & Wilson, 2005).

‘Flexible learning is a movement away from a situation in which key decisions about learning dimensions are made in advance by the instructor or institution, towards a situation where the learner has a range of options from which to choose with respect to these key dimensions’ (Collis & Moonen, 2001, p. 10).

Flexibility derived from the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) with recent technology advancements and the rapid adoption of social collaboration, learning and development has come a long way. Therefore, technology provides adult learners flexibility in program deliv­ery methods and access to formal education.  

Technology plays a central role in this process. Therefore, flexible learning is not a distinct educational mode but it embraces, extends and combines a number of familiar, existing and evolving approaches to learning and teaching. Flexibility can be found in:

  • On-campus classroom learning
  • Distance education
  • Open learning
  • Independent learning
  • Online learning
  • Mobile learning
  • Multimedia learning
  • Resource based learning
  • Teleteaching
  • Computer managed learning
  • Computer assisted learning
  • Blended learning
  • Virtual learning

Through flexible learning, we can reach non-conventional students. It extends learning opportunities to conventional school leavers who may not enter university and  students request for greater flexibility related to time, place and mode of study (Casey & Wilson, 2005).  Flexible learning is a methodology that breaks traditional models and allows people to learn at their own pace.  Adults who need training can be monitored individually and in real time to determine what learning approach will best suit their needs. Flexible learning can be effective at improving efficiency.

For adult learning,   technology should be used wisely to educate adults.  With recent technology advancements and the rapid adoption of social collaboration, learning and development has come a long way.  Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn  can be used for social collaboration and foster a learning culture. Besides, technology helps using document sharing, discussion forms, and blogs, using video or micro-blogs to improve adult learning functions.

However, as mentioned before, digital technologies offer new social activities and new opportunities for individuals to take part in education and workplace. The need for individuals and institutions to acquire digital empowerment in conjunction with rapid change in digital technologies and the information explosion has come to the fore (Norris, 2001).  To fully benefit from the power of digital technology, it is necessary to be digitally competent as well as comfortable.  New technologies have made it compulsory for individuals to participate in the information society, acquiring new skills in order to express themselves and take advantage of various opportunities. The concept of digital empowerment gains importance in the sense of both having digital skills and using them to their full potential. “Empowerment” is used to express the concept of an individual’s competence in both awareness of what is important and their ability to conduct those operations; to have control over their lives and environments. While empowerment is defined as the development of the information, skills and abilities that are necessary for individuals to control their own learning activities, digital empowerment refers to the ability of an individual to use digital technologies effectively in order to develop life skills and strengthen   his or her capacity within the information society (Makinen, 2006).   Within the scope of these discussion, being a ‘digital participant’ is to enable digital technologies to be used in our daily life consciously. Therefore, every society get responsibility to equip their citizens with digital skills for success of adult learning.

For success of adult learning, one of the most important issue that higher education institutions – universities should be passionate about late-life learning and opening their doors to older learners.

Role of Universities in Adult Learning

Universities have become one of the key elements of today’s world.  Universities and university systems may be influenced more by what is happening in the wider society – and increasingly in the wider world – than they are direct causes of social change (Hedge & Hayward, 2004).

That is why, universities have frequently been regarded as key institutions in processes of social change and development.

Universities should  transform their basic form and structure to become as a part of ‘lifelong learning’ institutions, which enable employees and unemployed people to access relevant learning opportunities at different times, in different ways, for different purposes, at various stages of their careers. There are some reasons why universities should take responsibilities for adult learning. 

  • Economic Forces
  • Social Factors
  • New Expectations for Universities
  • New Understanding of Adult Learning
  • Universities within the Community

Economic Forces: Universities face increasing pressures to respond to market forces and technological opportunities, in the context of the competitive global economy and the consequent need for continuing education.

Social Factors: In tandem with the economic pressures are increased needs as communities become more socially active; participants are expected to expand their competencies and increase their capacity for change and renewal in their skills and daily life.

New Expectations for Universities: The combined economic & social needs lead to new expectations for universities to respond and take a lead role.

New Understanding of Adult Learning: There is also a shift in our understanding of adult learning toward a more inclusive definition to respond both to labour market demands and to the needs of civil society, and to meet the multiplicity of demands which come from a range of local, regional, national and international communities and organisations.

Universities within the Community: More and more, universities are called upon to address, both in their academic and research functions, urgent social issues such as health, newcomers, marginalized groups, non-traditional learners and the applications of technology in our communities.

Moreover, Lifelong learning has been on the European agenda since the European Year of Lifelong Learning in 1996, and its importance has been highlighted in the Bologna Process, the Lisbon Strategy and EU 2020. Nevertheless, the integration of lifelong learning strategies into the mission of higher education institutions is still marginal across Europe even if lifelong learning activities (e.g., part-time studies, continuing education, professional up-grading, children’s and senior universities) have formed an important part of universities’ contribution to societal development (Smidt & Sursock, 2011).

Universities as a part of lifelong learning institutions have to be responsive to the needs of different economic sectors and able to meet the training and education needs of adult learners in flexible and appropriate ways.

As we know the landscape of higher education is changing.  The need for adult learning are growing. In order to meet this growing demand, higher education institutions should consider different programs such as MA or certificate programs in Lifelong Learning  Professional Education into a ‘super cluster’, which will offer students various pathways.

Universities may  provide opportunities for flexible learning through incorporating and combining a number of elements such as:

  • access to learning resources via contemporary technologies (e.g. the use of a learning management system, internet technologies);
  • flexible delivery of learning experiences and assessment, (e.g. iLectures, podcasting, online portfolios);
  • collaborative and interactive activities (e.g. via learning management systems, social software, online 2-way real time communication tools); and
  • face-to-face and distance education.

Advanced Technologies could and should allow universities to make a major contribution to adult learning in this networked world.


Universities are becoming increasingly involved in the continuing education / lifelong learning / adult learning  of the members of the communities they serve. Universities have to be responsive to the needs of different economic sectors and able to meet the training and education needs of adult learners in flexible and appropriate ways. Today, societies need universities and higher education more than ever before for adult learning. Universities serve and help  the people to develop skills.   When universities take the responsibilities, they can also help to promote an open, modern and democratic societies.

Flexible Learning  as a new wave in higher education is an innovative way that has allowed massive numbers of people to discover new knowledge and improve the conditions within their own societies. Universities may consider the digital technologies for growing need for skills upgrading  and flexible learning.  Technology provides adult learners flexibility in program deliv­ery methods and access to formal education.In higher education, flexible learning environment through technology  has provided a new way to provide and disseminate knowledge, particularly to working adults (Daniel & Alluri,  2006). 

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