This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).

Lifelong learning (LLL) is a social good whose public value needs to be developed further for the future benefit of nations, states, cities, and institutions. To that end, LLL matters to each successive generation of individual learners regardless of educational attainment, employment experience, and professional affiliations.

If lifelong learners (and that is all of us) were marketable commodities, then each successive generation would have to demonstrate considerable advantage in terms of their employability and the value of their contribution to society over the preceding cohort to warrant further investment in their learning. As the innovation of continuous learning has grown, LLL has been converted to a commodity and been increasingly subjected to the vagaries of the marketplace. Consequently, LLL institutions not only compete with each other for learners and revenue but also with all places where learning occurs (e.g., universities, museums, art galleries, bookshop events) as well as learning innovations (e.g., all forms of social media). This has led to many LLL institutions (independent and those affiliated with universities) losing patronage, revenue, and eventually closing down.

However, the sustainability of LLL is less about institutional brand (e.g., the well-regarded research-intensive universities) as it has been in the past and much more about ease of access, flexibility, process and price of learning so that emerging generations of learners can manage their life’s transitions to address their learning needs. Most adults are motivated toward learning when they are intrinsically interested in the subject rather than when it is imposed upon them (Knowles 1984). This is even more so today given the new social media at everyone’s fingertips. Learners co-create and produce their own knowledge using, for example, blogs, YouTube, and other collaborative online tools, creating a participative culture which enhances knowledge and information input as well as creating opportunities for its synthesis. All of these, together with enhanced creativity outputs, go hand in hand and potentially move us toward a “we” economy (Schor 1998).

The aim of this paper is to examine:

  • potential challenges for LLL and their implications,
  • how to strengthen and widen “engagement” beyond institutions,
  • potential “intellectual entrepreneurship” of LLL, and
  • the case for and conditions necessary to safeguard LLL through social equality, sustainability, and ethical leadership.


Challenges to LLL

Challenge of Higher Education Structure and Processes

Lifelong learning is challenged first by the vicissitudes of higher education, training, new technology, and the dynamics of the labor market. Globally, the revenue model for higher education has shifted. It can no longer meet the demand for continued learning nor provide access for an expanding diversity of learners across the generations. Governments and sponsors demand quality and yet this is immeasurable. Learning innovation requires continuous investment in information and communications technology (ICT) to provide flexible learning and open up new pathways to the diversity of learners that are upon us. All this contributes to a greater complexity to traverse for LLL providers.

Within universities, working collaboratively with faculties is a challenge often due to a lack of shared and focused points of view about learning, who for, and how to do so. While faculties share a physical and geographical location and an overarching commitment to learning, they are bound by cultural differences arising from diverse disciplines, often preventing greater innovation and unbounded learning between them. At best this impedes any potential interdisciplinary and coordinated curriculum—so often what lifelong learners crave.

Educators charged specifically with leading lifelong, continuing, and professional studies in universities often operate in a haze of poorly articulated expectations as well as pressured budgets and vexed accountabilities, contributing to the variety of conflicting and frequently paradoxical demands, reacting rather than being an equal voice within their own university.


Challenge of Labor Market Dynamics

In terms of labor market supply and demand, nations are concerned about innovation, viewed in light of their investment in human capital, research and development, education, and training as well as policies to forecast and manage a “brain migration”—the loss of citizens to other nations without their skills being replaced, exposing some nations more than others to economic risks. Knowledge loss includes:

  • underutilization of accumulated knowledge and skills of experienced early to midcareer residents;
  • underemployment of accrued knowledge and skills of older workers, who exit or are forced out of employment (brain atrophy);
  • not keeping-pace with midcareer renewal (that is, the potential upgrading of midcareer workers, who may never fulfill their later career potential);
  • lack of skill development keeping pace with technological innovation and know-how; and
  • under-fueling aspirations of youth, especially those without wide access to further or higher education. Aspirations can be distinguished from expectations, reflecting differences between what the young hope to achieve and what they expect to achieve.

Research in the United States a decade ago, cited by Florida (2005, 109), maintains that “brain circulation” is a more accurate description of the worldwide movement of skilled professionals. Florida questions the extent to which brain circulation works in a nation’s favor particularly when the inflow of creative minds appears to be decreasing together with declining university enrollments in science and technology and when shortfalls are not being made up from a nation’s internal population. Increasingly limited research funding is invested mainly in medical and engineering and cognate disciplines, with declining funding for both the basic sciences, on which medical and engineering disciplines rely, and the humanities and social sciences, which assist in the translation of all disciplinary research into practice. These challenges make the case for having LLL institutes and divisions deeply embedded in research universities in ways that can assist the pipeline effect of research, providing they can assist in the incubation and application of knowledge as well as translate it into skill development.

This makes the case for the importance of safeguarding the next generation of lifelong learners to defend, uphold, preserve, protect, and sustain them for not only their future survival and well-being but also for that of their nation’s talent pool. This is not a short-fix budgetary measure by governments, sponsors, and universities; rather it is a long-term investment strategy. Safeguarding each generation of lifelong learners is not for the fainthearted due to its long lead time for return on investment: ten to fifteen years and an additional ten to twenty years to witness the outcomes beyond this.


Challenge of Twenty-First-Century Learning

The rise of a “participative culture” (Tapscott and Williams 2008) has led to a sense of entitlement, fueling a demand for learning and skill development to be addressed. Educational leaders and current university presidents and deans feel increasingly accountable for this and have long navigated the competing values of government, boards, employers, and professional associations attempting to address the different voices and demands. This is tricky given the multiplicity of worldviews and opinions (Putnam 2007), especially when the purpose and functions of LLL are not always clear to those working within or being served by them.

Notwithstanding this, the problem is exacerbated by the uniformity of LLL institutes, which are roughly comparable to each other within their own countries and states, given the types of programs taught, range of disciplines offered, learning contact hours, qualifications and outcomes, and even fees. Many LLL institutes’ missions focus on incremental improvements rather than how to realize a longer-term vision of the sustainability of a generation of lifelong learners of various age/experience cohorts and their changing needs.


Challenges of Creating a Learning Vision

Lifelong learning is challenged by a highly technical and rapidly changing environment that requires teachers, curriculum, and andragogies to be adaptive and proficient. Emerging technology and government policies monopolize attention, often at the expense of other important aspects of learning and student engagement. A vision for learning is required and contains several components, commencing with the learners themselves.

Standing with learners and working from the inside out is the most important and central aspect of LLL, that is, understanding and acting on the facilitators and impediments to learning. Unempathic interventions have an adverse effect on a learner’s capacity to engage and result in untimely or an intense release of unfamiliar feelings; an overly intellectual or remote stance of learning distances facilitators from learners, leaving them disempowered, hassled, and interrupted in determining their own learning. And there may be a lag time to realize this disappointment.

Safeguarding LLL is about aiming to create a sustainable LLL generation long into its lifespan by investigating how discipline knowledge can be used to engage learners. Many disciplines are seen as irrelevant today, sometimes erroneously, and the challenge for LLL leaders is to engage researchers, business, teachers, and others in identifying how conventional knowledge can be applied to current issues and debate, as well as popularizing research to inform the general public (Howell 2010, 273). Further it requires publishing research outside of the usual channels. Low and Merry (2010, 203) canvas different forms of engagement such as “sharing and support; teaching and public education; social critique; collaboration; advocacy and activism.”

Envisioning sustainability also entails changing incentives for staff promotion and tenure to include extension and community engagement activities; using alumni; and making significant changes in the creation, discovery, and organization of knowledge, as well as curricular and programmatic shifts facilitated by better understanding diverse learning approaches, patterns, and multiple learning practices. However what is blocking this is a mismatch of assessment, incentives, and rewards for staff and students, both seeking to balance workload with personal demands.

Assisting in building collaborations with diverse staff and students is critical. More and more students are studying double degrees, for example, combining science with liberal arts, music with medicine, and law with business. However, many staff are not incentivized to cross their own disciplinary boundaries to work together in a way that would solve problems for the learning demands of individuals, groups, and organizations looking for solutions to complex problems. There needs to be a greater incentive for universities to encourage faculty members, administrators, and students to focus on developing collaborative relationships with each other and with their communities.

A learning vision requires an andragogical strategy that underpins it so as to

  • transfer good knowledge and experience including a hands-on approach, reflection and critical thinking, understanding teamwork, and an ability to work with others;
  • pose relevant questions about work and influence others to make improvements, rather than resort to the micromanagement of people (Hamel 2009);
  • know the strengths and weaknesses of staff and how to manage and develop them to best effect using democratic engagement (Black, Groombridge, and Jones 2011);
  • celebrate success and ensure something is learned from failures;
  • apply theoretical learning;
  • understand work details, while being aware of external influencing factors, including those outside the institution’s direct control (Zaccaro and Klimoski 2002; Mintzberg 2009);
  • restore degraded policies, procedures, and systems where knowledge can be incomplete, so that learning facilitators understand student histories and the wider context in order to prioritize learning interventions (Maris and Béchet 2010); and
  • reflect on learning and teaching and foster development of critical thinking skills.


An Integrative Framework for the Future

A willingness to encourage learning, improvement, and receptiveness to discovering alternative solutions is critical for LLL as the needs of a generation of learners and the external demands change. A dialogue of constructive criticism and informed challenge within a participative community of learning will encourage understanding and improvement (Tourish 2007). To explore the case further, three concepts: social equality, sustainability, and ethical leadership will provide an integrative analytical framework for LLL.


Social Equality

According to the Platonic idea, educators oversee learning and develop responsibilities and rights through participating in ethical learning communities with their students. There are implications for LLL leaders, given a frequent imbalance between program and curriculum versus the tools of learning. If learners cannot access the tools of learning, they are disempowered, especially for self-reflection and assimilation of learning. Stakeholders such as employers, professional associations, and governments also see learning as standardized, compartmentalized, and vertical, bringing with it an inherent hierarchical form that also undermines the power resources of learners and denies them access to the tools of learning beyond the ones they are already using. One way to consider this conundrum is through the concept of curriculum itself, which comes from the Latin word currere, meaning “to run,” suggesting action and innovation by those who participate in it rather than a given package that learners passively accept; a demotivating and frequently foreign experience for the upcoming generations of learners today (Grumet and Pinar 1976; Pinar et al. 1995).


Sustainability and Voice

Lifelong learning requires integrity in every aspect, including its delivery of learning in the widest sense and is more pronounced and challenging the larger the catchment of learners. The sustainability test ensures the interests of individual learners and groups are protected and conserved. The sustainability test is threefold:

  • being with and for students is essential. Acting for rather than with students, the less the leaders can safeguard their own interests and outcomes;
  • requiring symmetric participation, properly monitored or, to use Plato’s term, guarded; and
  • ethically attuned and responsive to the broader humanistic and moral dimensions of LLL practice which could be codified by principles and values.

Sustainability adds to the complexity of leading LLL, balancing fairly the needs and interests of students with special needs groups and others who seek to represent them. The quest for safeguarding is at the heart of LLL today.


Ethical LLL Leadership

Safeguarding the future of LLL requires a standard-bearer, that is:

  • a conspicuous frontrunner within the institution and others who stand among learners, not as curriculum experts but rather as coaches or mentors, accessing the tools of learning with them;
  • a champion, an originator, an exemplar, and at other times an advocate; and/or
  • a curator who demonstrates forbearance, not only caring for but also caring with, and relishing a relationship involving mutual exchange, including preserving something for the next generation.

Ethical bearer-ship goes hand in hand with leading and learning so as to maximize learners’ potential (Maslow 1954). Learning is instrumental in raising moral consciousness and translating creative ideas into innovation through demonstrating that a humane community is possible only where learners have equal access to and bear together the responsibilities and rights that establish it. If some enjoy privileged access over others, this cannot be sustained as some will be safeguarded and others not. This is also accomplished by acknowledging that all members of a LLL community are responsible for this not just the appointed leaders.


The Future

LLL Status

Lifelong learning is a privileged learning domain (not just physical space) from which evolves a set of principles about learning, standards, and values on which its future can continue to flourish and help address a nation’s needs. LLL has many roles, responsibilities, and functions, most of which arose with the origin of Western adult education over a century ago; others are more recent.

LLL institutions and processes stand as both learning banks of and for society and are at the interface between our cultural past, the present as well as the future, with most acting as an unconscious agent across all these domains. For continuous innovation to occur, LLL institutes will need to become the agents of learning by way of experimentation and invention, harnessing and applying creativity as well as learning space through social interaction emulating the flexibility and diversity of social media.

Action is central to LLL, for example, skill exchanges through mentoring—conventional (expert to novice), reciprocal (peer to peer), and reverse (young to wise)—as well as coaching. Matching learner to process and partnering with appropriate facilitators is key as is a communications network among the learners themselves. Illich summed this up with his notion of conviviality, stating that it involves “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment” (1973, 24).


LLL Learning Spaces

Information and social media have affected the cultural uniqueness of LLL as well as learners’ access to it in terms of affordability and capability to use it. This has led to a skewed perception and impeded learning for some as well as altering the power balance over knowledge and information. As previously stated people now not only receive information from a wide variety of sources but also instigate and participate in the creation of the information flow and its analysis. They are no longer reliant on fixed places or methods of learning. Increasingly, people are becoming more engaged in developing information and communicating through YouTube, text, databases, webinars, live streaming, and Skype. Information conveys people centripetally toward different parts of the world and different cultures. The effect of these interactive communication devices converts people into ready users and creators of information and knowledge, creating new learning spaces with their own personal access to the tools, depleting the need for institutional learning if it adds little more than accreditation.


Safeguarding LLL

Safeguarding creates and maintains the conditions under which LLL will survive and fulfil social, economic, and other requirements expected of each successive generation. For this to occur, creativity in every sense of this concept has to transpire. Creativity is an ephemeral, challenging state because to reap the value it has to be about translating and implementing the by-products of creativity. LLL institutions are in a good position to achieve this, to integrate learning creativity, behavior, and application (based on Bourdieu 1990).


Safeguarding LLL has to lead to:

  1. Establishing innovation as a skill by
  • creating a well-defined set of innovation competencies and embedding them into a competency model that includes ethics and leadership;
  • establishing contexts for creative learning;
  • employing peer mentors and coaches who work with learners to guide their innovation efforts and facilitate their success; and
  • requiring innovation as a learning outcome and attribute success at source.
  1. Incubating innovation by
  • conducting idea generation workshops in partnership with external enterprises;
  • deploying innovation methods within planning and strategy initiatives; and
  • querying established learning outcomes.
  1. Leading innovation by
  • developing an idea management and tracking capability;
  • conducting “clearinghouse” workshops to exploit innovation;
  • employing proven innovators; and
  • linking innovation to other key processes including financial, commercial, and technical.
  1. Creating opportunities for innovation learning by
  • hiring internal innovation “subversives” who work around the system to champion new ideas and drive them through to execution;
  • sending learners to new cultural contexts to explore and experience different situations: business, education, research, government;
  • being open to ideas from outside sources to make nonobvious connections to internal projects;
  • experimenting with new concepts; and
  • collaborating with like-minded enterprises in diverse industries to source new ideas and trends.
  1. Devising innovation as portfolio learning by learners developing a portfolio to demonstrate what they’ve learned based on evidence such as:
  • achievement of performance milestones,
  • learning gaps and plans,
  • objectives and resources used to meet them, and
  • other data related to the field of practice (based on Rees 2011)

There are many uses for learning portfolios, including self-reflection, self-assessment, and critique. Here the learner, novice, professional, or those transitioning to new careers can assess their progress over time, look at and monitor the achievement of objectives, and track other data and learning outcomes. They may be used in an educational manner, providing material for conversations with peers and mentors, allowing for discussion about learning, educational plans, or for monitoring purposes such as formative assessment, quality assurance, or recertification.

Never has there been a time of greater opportunity and challenge than now for LLL. Whatever the reason, the motivated engagement of learners is at the heart of LLL’s advancement and a nation’s competitiveness globally. North America, the United Kingdom, and Australasia have experienced enormous advantage and diversity of continuing education in the offerings of programs, services, and delivery. LLL is no longer the simple process of finding a course, enrolling, and completing it. Information and communication technological change has altered the landscape forever. Information is now derived from different and unfathomable sources, less filtered and becoming more disembodied from its source. Learners are no longer passive; they participate in the creation of the information flow and its analysis, no longer reliant on places of learning to gain new knowledge and skills. Innovation emerges when hierarchal learning barriers are ignored or relinquished. Only then can risks be taken and important decisions gain acceptance. This requires strong leadership, enabling an innovation culture, which means changing the DNA of LLL.

The structure of LLL, the cultural heritage of which was fundamentally premised on volunteerism, has had to become unashamedly commercialized. Amid this, the challenge is to address LLL’s aspirations while not abandoning its historical and cultural roots. The founding generation of LLL had a sense of social justice, democratic participation, and open access, all as relevant for the current and future generations to keep faith with this heritage. What the founding generation built and what the current and future generations are developing together not only meet important social needs but also create economic value for individuals as well as for institutions in which people work or volunteer and the community at large. Everyone benefits. Thus there is great scope for further research in all elements to realize a significant return on investing further into the next generation of lifelong learners.



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This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).