A New Direction in Distance Education

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Adult Education in Canada: A Post-Modern Perspective

Michele Russell - Master of Distance Education

Athabasca University December 8, 2006


As we move into the 21st century, numerous aspects of life are changing at a dizzying pace and countless more transformations appear to be on the horizon. Many Futurists agree that society is moving into a new era or “paradigm” that will generate profound effects on our lives. There are varieties of factors that will influence this emerging era: shifting demographics and political situations; technological and scientific advancements; as well as changing social, cultural and religious orientations. A significant factor to consider in this emerging societal paradigm is the aging population our country. This current cohort, comprised of the baby-boomer generation, is seeking out learning opportunities in record numbers. In order to meet the learning needs of this powerful force of adult learners, the field of Adult Education must ready itself to take on new roles and challenges.

The growing demand for Adult Education, the push to professionalize the discipline, and issues such as globalization have created a crisis in the field - a serious rift between prevailing perspectives. This conflict is seen by some to be deleterious to the future of Adult Education as a bona fide discipline. On the other hand, this conflict could be also viewed as a sign that the field is adjusting to the societal paradigm that is currently unfolding. Adult education has always been a key agent for social change. In order to maintain this crucial role, the field must examine and evaluate its current direction and objectives. Adult Education is poised at a crossroad in its history and it is now imperative that those that have taken up the calling exact meaningful influence on the development and advancement of their profession.

Historical Paradigms and Adult Education

An important aspect of social/scientific change embodied in the notion of paradigm shift is explained by Thomas Kuhn, philosopher and historian of science, who introduced the technical use of the term: “Kuhn’s account challenges widespread assumptions about scientific progress as the piecemeal accumulation of knowledge, and about scientific rationality as a formal process of matching theory to evidence. is alternative vision is of a discontinuous history, in which periods of consensual normal science were interspersed with crises and intellectual revolutions, some of which called into question the most fundamental epistemological assumptions of science itself. Far from advancing in a cumulative, gradual way, revolutionary changes in science thereforeinvolve abandonment of much previously accepted knowledge, and proceed by abrupt qualitative transitions of perspective” (Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 1998, pp. 476-477).

A cultural “paradigm” is defined as the shared values, or systems of thought in a society that are most standard and widely held at a given time. Morin (Scott, 1998 p. 61) claims that in order to understand the conditions of adult education we need to understand the paradigm in which it operates. Throughout history, various paradigms have influenced the approaches and philosophies of education. The ancient Greek philosophers believed that humans were born with embedded knowledge; that by a process of reflection and under the strict guidance of a “Sage”, anything could be understood. They considered higher learning to be a scholarly pursuit of the privileged classes. Devoid of utilitarian purpose, it stressed the development of intellectual powers and emphasized content mastery. These principles have never been abandoned and liberal education is “probably the most enduring of the major educational philosophies” (Brockett and White, 1987).

In the Dark Ages, schooling remained the domain of the religious elite and the wealthy. Investigation of the physical world and consultation of secular sources was forbidden. During the ages of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution new theories and philosophies of education emerged, many of which are still in practice today. "Functionalism" was the main sociological perspective of this increasingly mechanized and scientific era. It emphasized the maintenance of social order and integration of individuals into the dominant social system. The philosophical doctrine during this time was positivism that stated knowledge could only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method. Schooling within this progressively capitalist society reflected the industrial model in which learning was highly prescribed and controlled or reductionist in nature. The general teaching / learning orientation that dominated was based on the behaviourist theory of psychology in which the learner is “conditioned” by means of extrinsic rewards or motivation. In the behaviourist approach, knowledge is measured and evaluated in terms of tests, numerical scores, grades and credentials. The learner’s needs are rarely considered.

Current Context of Adult Education

From the days of enlightenment and the industrial revolution, the number of approaches to learning has multiplied and educational philosophies have evolved with each shift in societal paradigm. In earlier periods, wealth was derived from labour and raw materials. According to Drucker (1994), the key resource in today’s world is the wealth of human capital in “knowledge workers”. In response to this modern economic paradigm, that consists of rapid technological and social changes, there is an increased need for skills upgrading, retraining and education of adults. Since the 1980’s adults have been returning to school in unprecedented numbers and in Canada the participation rate in adult education and training has steadily increased over the years (ABC Canada, 2005). Today, adults are compelled to seek upgrading or retraining by various means including: traditional college or university campus courses, in-house training at work and private college certification.

Many educators of adults in these environments are “content specialists” who may lack the type of instructional effectiveness that a facilitator with formal instruction in adult education could provide (Selman, 1998, p.311). The domain of higher education is not the only area experiencing a swell in adult participation rates in recent years. Adults are seeking out courses in personal development and general interest through a myriad of continuing education courses. An increasing number of grassroots and non-profit organizations have taken up the responsibility of educating citizens in health, literacy and environmental issues. Educators in these areas have traditionally taken on the task of shaping communities and their role as agents for social change is long established.

It is widely accepted that older learners have different needs and educational requirements than the youth who has entered college or university directly from high school. Many scholars suggest that adult learners are also more self-directed, learn differently and are “less interested in theory and more interested in application” (Foot, 1998, p. 214) than their younger counterparts. Donaldson and Graham (1999) found that “adults may be using different skills, techniques, settings, or interactions with faculty, fellow students, and other to achieve their desired results” (p.26). Many scholars agree that adults require a different approach to education, yet by in large most postsecondary institutions may have failed to serve them. The Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) report to UNESCO (1997) states that Canada’s education systems are still too focused on early learning and the institutional system is slow to respond adequately to the challenges of lifelong learning. While some colleges and universities have attempted to accommodate the increasing number of adult students, adding particular programmes and by providing specialized services, the core activity of teaching to full-time students often goes on much as before (Daniel, 1997, p.7).

Workers today often find themselves scrambling to keep up with new economies and the demands of the workplace by retraining or upgrading. In recent years, most adult training has been undertaken for work related purposes (CMEC, 1997) and much of this retraining takes place “in-house” or on the job. Yet herein a paradox arises, as Jarvis (1992, p.194) explains. According to him, the workplace is highly bureaucratized and rational. This means that the worker learns to cope and to fit in. The repressive environment of the workplace actually inhibits reflective learning and critical thinking - two fundamental values of adult education.

Political, social and economic changes are happening everywhere. Indeed, we seem to be living in a time of turmoil and contradictions. On one hand, we see a great push for more knowledge and technology yet on the other a concern over the worldwide consequences and negative effects that rampant capitalism and globalization have produced. Cornerstones of society such as church, family and community are also changing and taking on new roles. Infrastructures, such as health care, appear to be breaking down and governments seem reluctant to supply dollars to fix them. More women and minorities have an increasingly important role in the public sector. These economic and societal upheavals are creating a demand for the retraining and education of adults and correspondingly so an increased demand for skilled professionals in the field.

Emerging Social Paradigm and Adult Education

With an aging population and more societal changes on the horizon, it is safe to assume that adults will continue to seek out educational opportunities well into the future. Indeed, lifelong learning is expected to become a part of almost every adult’s life. Dychtwald (as cited in Harris, 1991, ¶2) predicts if you plan to reach 50 and / or retire in the next 20 years, you can anticipate being a lifelong learner. The presence of this growing body of learners in higher education will no doubt place certain new demands on educational institutions. Learning institutions will undoubtedly need to re-evaluate and revise curriculums and modes of delivery in order to cater to this powerful and dynamic group of aging learners. Agencies and institutions that provide learning opportunities for adults will need to make their systems more flexible and accessible in the future to meet the diverse and changing needs of these learners. Moreover, the demand for educational opportunities in these areas will bring about urgency for more specialists in Adult Education. The field of Adult Education as a profession must be poised to take on a central role in shaping the programmes, policies and direction of adult learning now and well into the future.

Professionalization or Polarization

In response to growing demand for the education, training and upgrading of older learners, the field of adult education faces many challenges and is undergoing major changes in its roles, approaches and philosophies. In recent years, there has been a growing trend to professionalize the field, which is considered by some as necessary in order to maintain and promote standards of practice and increase the status of the profession. Adult Education, which has traditionally been an instrument for social betterment, appears to be developing into a generic and exclusive discipline. In this regard, two distinct philosophical approaches have arisen that are often perceived as being in direct conflict with each other. One view is tied to volatile economic shifts that results in the demand for training in skills acquisition and upgrading in order to increase competitiveness in the marketplace. In this “free market” view, adults learn to earn; education is the commodity and the learner is the consumer.

In sharp contrast to the market-driven perspective is another view. It developed out of the need for education related to ever changing social and cultural conditions – the “social transformation” view. This alternate perspective perceives the trend to professionalize as a dangerous and unfavourable move away from the founding principles of social justice and equality. This dichotomy is considered by many to be detrimental to the future of adult education. However, Selman (1995, p.34) suggests that the creative tension which exists between the professionalization and social movement trends is like “the yin and yang, commitment to both these forces are necessary for the vitality and effectiveness of the field of social practice”. Still others view this time of uncertainty as simply a sign that we are entering a new era in the development of the field or as a transition period from one age to another. Apps (1994) claims “we are moving past either - or to both - and” (p.21) and that adult education, in this “emerging age” or paradigm, requires a radically new perspective. Similarly, Hall (as cited in Briton, 1996, p.117) calls for adult education to embrace these tensions while staking out a professional territory of its own. The challenge for future adult educators will be to link up ideas and trends that were previously considered separate in order to create a new approach to educational leadership. In this coming era, the Adult Education must transcend the current perspectives, which have produced ambiguity and division in the field, and embrace a new multi-faceted approach.

Chaos to Creativity

In the past, Adult Education has been approached from a very narrow psychological view that was mechanistic, marked by objectivity, predictability, and a single view of knowledge. Today, a thorough inquiry now requires an approach from a variety of perspectives (Jarvis, 1992, p.5). A new perspective must be holistic - incorporating some of the old “linear” system with that of a more “organic” one. This view is one that is complex, unpredictable and interconnected with other organisms. The organic view values shared power and varied principles as opposed to the old view of control, competition and efficiency.

In this new paradigm, educators will have to utilize more unconventional or novel teaching strategies. This may include using art and drama, humour and oral traditions in the teaching context. Imel (1994) believes that humour should be incorporated into every classroom as an effective tool in the classroom that frees creative capacities and helps learners see the “human” side of the instructor. Indigenous cultures have used story telling since time immemorial to pass important knowledge down through the generations. Social change educators have been employing theatre and art in their teaching strategies for many years as well. Arnold, Burke, James, Martin and Thomas (1996, p.1) state that the techniques that these educators use help people survive and grow runs against the grain of current individualistic and conservative practices.

Perhaps in the future there will be more emphasis placed on valuing intuition and exploring spirituality – dimensions that have been overlooked in the past in mainstream education. Shor and Feire (1987, p. 185) discuss the power of imagination and dreams in moulding our future communities. Visualization is one means by which individuals and groups can reflect on their practice and help make positive changes in our world. Finally, learning organizations of the future will devise new and innovative ways of delivering programs to meet their clients’ needs best. Adult learning settings could be expanded in the future by bringing the classroom to the learner through off-campus programs and virtual classrooms or in ways yet to be fully explored. In this time of uncertainty, adult educators have the chance to act as creative guides to an improved future for all communities by continuing to strive for social justice and inclusiveness by employing whatever innovative means necessary to reach those goals.

The Changing Workplace

Changes and incongruities in adult education are nowhere more evident than in the world of work. Technology is increasing the levels and range of skills required for many jobs. According to Van Patten (as cited in Coberly, 1996, p.97), we are experiencing a technological revolution in which our knowledge base is doubling every 20 months. Unlike the previous Industrial Revolution in which hard work would equal a good living, today we are forced to “work smarter, not harder”. Workers are challenged to stay flexible, adaptable and innovative in order to keep up with changing times. Futurist Paul Larson (as cited in Tomlin, 1997) predicts that the successful worker of the future will be one who can learn a new skill or technology very quickly, or who will be able to find novel and innovative ways of meeting an immediate or new need. In order to be successful, this type of learner will have to “stop concentrating on the memorization of bits of information and start stressing how to find and use information” (Coberly, 1996, p.99).

The knowledge worker of the future faces new challenges in the technological race. As Drucker (1994) warns, inequality based on knowledge is a major challenge in today’s emerging society. He fears that a new class conflict may develop “between the large minority of knowledge workers and the majority of people who will make their living through traditional ways” (¶13). The challenge for adult educators of the future will be to meet the needs of business and industry without compromising the basic principles of their profession. In this dual role, the adult educator will be both “facilitator of learning” and “resource broker”. The facilitator will be “capable of designing and managing procedures for enabling learners to acquire content” (Coberly, p. 101). The resource broker will not only be able to make their resources explicit, accessible and equitable but they will also be able to link learners to a variety of other resources. The educator of the future will not provide all the knowledge and content to passive learners but rather empower, guide and challenge learners in new ways.

Technology and Adult Education

Our technologically based society is dramatically changing the way in which teaching is carried out. Distance courses and teleconferencing are becoming increasingly popular, drawing learners from ever more diverse settings and backgrounds. There is little doubt that professional adult educators will be called upon to provide more support in designing, implementing and evaluating distance education programs to meet the learners’ needs better. Some scholars such as Holt (1998) view the use of technology in education as a new means to include people who have traditionally been marginalized and oppressed. Others, such as Boshier (2000) and Spencer (1998), warn of the possibility that technology in education will only serve to perpetuate cultural and social hegemony upon the already dispossessed. The future educator will be alert and attentive to the use and misuse of technology while ensuring that all learners have fair and equitable access to educational opportunities and technologies.


Rampant globalization and global sustainability are key concerns for many adult educators today. Theorists, such as Beveridge (1996), claim that higher education has been slow to address these issues; whereas, the critical and transformative perspectives in adult education “challenges the root causes of the meagproblems” (73). According to Kowalski (1988, p. 204) Adult Education has largely taken a reactionary approach to rapidly changing societal and economic factors by filling voids left in the educational systems due to such changes. Such reactive modes reinforce the status quo while largely ignoring society and the learner. He and others, such as Selman (1995) are calling for a more pro-active outlook for adult education, one that will promote and facilitate social transformation. Many educators from the critical perspective maintain, “we are not talking about fixing the current system or of putting a human face on capitalism but of overturning it entirely”(L. Ellis, email communication, October 29, 2006). Other social change theorists take a more conservative stance and believe in working within the complicated constraints of the current system. “Adult educators must enable people to inherit the best from globalization and reject the worst” (Bhola, 1998, p. 203). The challenge here will be for adult educators to release themselves from current educational and social tenets and to unite in a common front, one that promotes economic stability, equity and global sustainability for all.


Given the demands of the economy, the expansion of new technologies, globalization, the need for educational upgrading and the desire for personal development, it is clear that adult participation in education can be expected to rise in the future. In order to meet the coming challenges and to be responsive to the requirements of older learners, professionals in the field should give top priority to the study of how the future will affect adult education. In the near future educators will need to make learning more responsive, accessible, equitable and relevant to adult learners. They will need to build bridges between diverse learners and communities. The purveyors of knowledge must strive to foster critical thinking and challenge their learners. They will use humour and honour traditional cultures as well as spirituality. Educators will share vision making with their learners in order to guide them in the design of their own learning programs. Adult Educators will need to examine the status of their practice and perhaps consider further professionalization of the field, a contentious issue in recent years. The field of adult education must transcend the dogmas that have long divided it and embrace a new perspective. In order to begin to forge a new direction for adult education we must consider strategies that have worked in the past, examine what current technological, social and economic influences have on our daily lives while linking them together in a proactive process. As responsible adult educators, we need to capitalize on and anticipate trends in order to shape the future direction of our profession. Those committed to the vocation need to be decisive and goal oriented in planning their profession instead of providing knee jerk solutions to societal issues. Adult Educators of the future should not be compelled “to couple our cabooses to the corporate training agenda”, as Welton professes (Scott, 1998, p.366), but to drive the engine of adult teaching and learning into new frontiers.


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