Non-formal adult education has the tools and methodology to respond to change, engage people and build their capacity. Image: Shutterstock

Pandemic perpetuates inequalities in learning

Feature. Across Europe, educationally vulnerable adults are now at a particularly high risk of being left behind. But the inherent flexibility of the ALE sector can also be a key in tackling the crisis.


Due to the impact of COVID-19, access to adult learning has been limited dramatically in many countries. This affects everyone, but disproportionately those already in a disadvantaged position.

The full scope of the impact on outreach to learners from vulnerable groups will reveal itself over time, but many education providers from all over Europe share the same concern: the pandemic is causing a knock-on effect on existing inequalities in learning and education.

Niamh O’Reilly, the Chief Executive Officer of the Irish National Adult Learning Organisation (AONTAS) stresses that it is important to acknowledge that social issues have been compounded by the outbreak.

“Existing inequalities are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and many people are experiencing anxiety or mental health issues. Statistics show that domestic violence has already increased this spring. When people`s basic needs are not being met, understandably learning is simply not a priority.”

When people`s basic needs are not being met, understandably learning is simply not a priority.

O’Reilly has been chairing a sub-group as part of the COVID-19 response for tertiary education led by the Irish Department of Education and Skills, looking at ways to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 emergency on the most educationally vulnerable. She is particularly worried about the knock-back for learners who are homeless, currently in drug recovery or part of the travelling community.

“They might not be able to finish their course now, and it is going to be so detrimental. Unless there is a massive push for re-engaging these people, we might have lost them.”

Ena Drenkhan from the Estonian Non-Formal Adult Education Association (ENAEA) shares the concern. ENAEA has been managing a 2½-year European project focused on key competences, targeting disadvantaged people. In March, the state of emergency interrupted the project’s 12 ongoing courses and resulted in the cancellation of 16 courses just about to start.

Although steps are now being taken to reopen contact teaching in small groups, Drenkhan worries about the potential long-term damage done.“I am not sure if these courses will continue since the target group is very fragile, not involved in a lifelong learning cycle and can easily decide to drop out.”

Various barriers to online learning

All around Europe, adult learning providers have been trying to reinvent their services through digitalisation, distance learning and other forms of flexible offerings, and they have succeeded to variable degrees.

The crisis will likely further accelerate the digitalisation of the labour market and requirements for digital skills in all professions.

The most obvious barrier to distance learning is a lack of digital skills. This still applies to a significant portion of adults in Europe, as two fifths of the continent’s adult population do not have even basic digital skills.

Moreover, George A. Koulaouzides, Assistant Professor of Adult Education at Hellenic Open University and member of the Executive Board of European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), believes the post-pandemic world will leave adults with low digital skills in an increasingly vulnerable position. For example, the crisis will likely further accelerate the digitalisation of the labour market and requirements for digital skills in all professions.

“It is particularly concerning in Greece, considering that, according to the latest PIACC, 20.2 percent of the Greek adult population reported no prior experience with computers.”

Many households only have one computer

Overall, e-learning is significantly less accessible to those in vulnerable social and economic positions. As Alex Stevenson from the Learning and Work Institute in the UK points out, the shift to online learning has highlighted the very tangible barriers some adult learners face.

In the UK, for example, the majority of adult education providers benefit from relatively secure funding and, during lockdown, many educators have been able to continue working from home.

“But there are many learners who might not be able to afford a decent enough broadband to participate in online learning.”

In Estonia, Ena Drenkhan has witnessed how particularly adult learners with children have been struggling with access to online learning. Many households might only have one computer, and it has become the priority for the children to use it.

“Mothers in particular have to support and teach their children at home, so they cannot pay attention to their own learning at the moment,” she says.

Across Europe, education providers have also named elderly people as one of the most at-risk learner groups during the pandemic, in particular due to their low digital skills and poor access to online tools. But as Zvonka Pahernik from the Slovenian Institute for Adult Education (SIAE) reminds us, the elderly are a very heterogenous group.

In Slovenia, for example, many highly educated senior citizens attend classes at institutes such as University of the Third Age or remain active in study circles. They are typically already familiar with some forms of distance learning and strongly committed to learning.

“On the other hand, the elderly with low levels of education and poor digital skills face several barriers to attending courses that could have been a crucial factor of their social life,” Pahernik says.

Inherent flexibility is the key

Pahernik says that, despite many challenges, she has been surprised by the adaptability of the ALE sector in Slovenia during the crisis. This, she believes, is at least partly because SIAE has a strong role as the “middleman” between the government and all adult education providers.

“We have been able to be flexible and quickly disseminate recommendations to ALE networks on using e-models, Skype, WhatsApp or whatever has been available for reaching people and engaging them in learning.”

According to Pahernik, educators are very aware of the fact that they are not just the teacher but an important support person, particularly for lonely adults and young people who have dropped out of formal education. Migrant and refugee learners might also heavily rely on their language classes as a contact and guiding point to the new society.

It is in the DNA of non-formal adult education to respond to change.

In some cases, even the simplest solutions might help tackle the barriers that the most vulnerable learners now struggle with. In the UK, Alex Stevenson reports, some providers are looking into covering the cost of a broadband for online learning or lending out unused IT equipment from learning centres.

Many local education providers are also directly linked to local authorities and working closely with them as part of the response to the crisis. This could mean offering short-term online courses on mental health in co-operation with other organisations.

“By necessity, we have seen the value of less-formal learning – many traditional accreditation or attendance rules no longer apply. The most important thing is for the people to come together and do something,” Stevenson says.

Niamh O’Reilly also sees the inherent flexibility of the ALE sector as the key strength during a crisis.

“It is in the DNA of non-formal adult education to respond to change. We have the tools and methodology to engage people and build their capacity, and this is going to be needed now more than ever.”

What is the “new normal” for adult education?

It is already clear that, due to the pandemic and restrictions on learning, the adult education sector will face significant financial challenges. All the people interviewed agree that securing adequate and stable funding for the sector will be essential in bouncing back from the crisis and better engaging the most vulnerable learners.

Niamh O’Reilly also hopes for more cross-governmental work on adult education and increased solidarity between education systems.

“I would like to see more shared resources and greater cohesion. Moreover, outreach and provision should be viewed as an integral of the learning process, not something additional.”

Adult education should be recognised as one of the solutions to the new socio-economic challenges.

In Slovenia, Zvonka Pahernik worries that the government will not see the importance of adult education in responding to the crisis and its aftermath. Ministers are busy getting children back to school and daycare, she says.

“Many people will become unemployed and will need up- and re-skilling. Vulnerable people have a high risk of being left behind. Adult education should be recognised as one of the solutions to the new socio-economic challenges.”

The “new normal” will most likely mean a mixture of distance and face-to-face learning. Adapting to this, however, might not be as straightforward as some people seem to believe.

Although digital training opportunities have now been fast-tracked, Niamh O`Reilly says it is important also to look at different methods: online learning does not necessarily suit everyone, such as adults with special needs.

There is also still little evidence on what works well in distance and online learning, George Koulaouzides argues.

“I do believe that after the pandemic our understanding of adult education will have to be redefined. How do we support transformation and critical thinking in digitalised learning situations? How do we re-establish the educator-learner relation in a distanced situation? I am afraid I do not have sound answers for these new questions yet.”