In spring 2020, we talked to adult education organisations across Europe about how the then new coronavirus had impacted their work.
Despite the many differences in adult education systems and challenges between countries, the general message was very much the same: the pandemic will affect those already in a vulnerable or marginalised position the most.
Little did we know that, two years later, the world would still be grappling with COVID-19.
So, this spring, we went back to talk to the European adult education organisations to ask some more questions. What do we know now about the experiences of the most vulnerable adult learners during the pandemic? Who are the people who have not been engaging in adult education for the past years? And how to reach out to those who might have dropped out?
Why bother learning languages when you need to focus on finding a new job?
“When this started, there was no data available on participation rates. We already saw that learners from marginalised communities were not participating, but the focus was on maintaining the connection, so that the learners could come back when they were able to do so,” says Niamh O’Reilly, Chief Executive Officer of the Irish National Adult Learning Organisation (AONTAS).
Now, the national data in Ireland clearly shows a sharp drop: participation in lifelong learning by people with less than lower secondary education halved in amount.
For people from the Traveller community, the drop was 25 percent and for people with disabilities and older people it was 15 percent.
A national plan for re-engaging the most marginalised learners is needed, O’Reilly says, so that they do not miss out on any more learning and time.
“Making it appealing to get back into learning will be a challenge. So yes, I would be very concerned.”
Focus shifts away from learning
George A. Koulaouzides is Assistant Professor of Adult Education at Hellenic Open University.
One of the biggest losses in Greece, Koulaouzides says, has been that many education facilities catering for more vulnerable learners have in effect been closed for two years now, as there has been no government support available for running them. These include municipal lifelong learning centres, second-chance schools and prison education.
Online education is still not very common in Greece, and 20 percent of the population are not using the internet at all. According to Koulaouzides, most people living in remote villages do not have the infrastructure to attend online classes.
Similarly to O’Reilly, Koulaouzides worries that many people might have lost their appetite for learning by now.
“Many working-class people have lost their jobs, for example people working in tourism. Why bother learning languages when you need to focus on finding a new job?
People living alone are struggling
In Slovenia, the data shows that elderly students and young adults in particular have missed out on education during the pandemic.
“Third-age universities where many elderly people go not just for skills or knowledge but for social inclusion and contacts have suffered a great deal. We have also seen many young people dropping out of preparatory education between primary and higher education,” says Tanja Mozina from the Slovenian Institute for Adult Education (SIAE).
There is as yet little data on the experiences of those who have dropped out of learning during the pandemic.
The survey SIAE conducted in the autumn of 2021, however, provides an important start. 25 percent of the people responding to the survey had quit education in the past two years.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many reported ICT problems, such as lacking equipment or poor internet connection, contributing to dropping out.
“Interestingly we saw more problems with people living on their own – when they had problems with their computer or Zoom, they had no one to ask help from in their own home,” Mozina says.
According to the survey, people dropping out also felt that didactics had not been properly adopted to online learning. They reported that teaching was too difficult to follow in online environment, or the learning environment was not used well.
Blended learning not going anywhere
What should the engagement of learners in the post-pandemic world look like?
Tanja Mozina believes that, particularly for older people, people with low ICT skills and those struggling with self-regulated learning, returning to physical education facilities is important.
When shaping the future of adult education, we also need to hear more from those not engaging currently.
“These people are often also the most vulnerable learners, so I think we should do everything we can to make that return possible for them.”
At the same time, Mozina continues, it is obvious that many adults would happily continue online or hybrid learning. This would require developing more support and better learning processes for online learning.
“Finding the time for this development work is challenging because, at least in Slovenia, many adult educators work part-time and in various unconnected organisations.”
Niamh O’Reilly adds that blended learning might be particularly appealing for parents who worry about childcare and commuting. Coming up with diverse solutions for different learner needs will put pressure on education providers, she believes.
“Of course, when shaping the future of adult education, we also need to hear more from those not engaging currently – their input needs to be part of this,” O’Reilly stresses.
Going forward, she says that it is also important to draw from the things that did work during the pandemic. For example, the data shows that, in community education in Ireland, 75 percent of the courses were not credited in the past two years. According to O’Reilly, the figure proves that education providers were able to quickly pivot towards more flexible, short-term workshops that were needed.
The value of learning needs to be more visible
To show the value of this flexibility, O’Reilly adds, adult education needs more advocacy work.
“Good, evidence-based advocacy work and collective action across sectors have been powerful in Ireland. As a result, our government established a recovery fund of €8 million for community education. This has given organisations autonomy to do what they had to do to maintain that connection to learners.”
For George A. Koulaouzides, the biggest priority for the coming years is clear: to invest in improving digital skills in Greece and making digital education more accessible.
Koulaouzides would also like to see more people participate in lifelong learning in general – the percentage of people doing so in Greece was low even before the pandemic and education centre closures.
“To make that happen, we obviously need more active outreach work. Most importantly, we need to make the value of learning more visible.”