Changing Traditional Higher Education Toward Lifelong Learning
The most relevant and controversial issue facing the university is one of its raisons d’être: formation, the teaching-learning process. The English word ‘formation’ – among other meanings – indicates ‘the act or process of forming’ or ‘the shaping or developing of something’. The word ‘formative’ means ‘having influence in forming or developing’. Similarly, I use the term ‘formation or formative education’* to describe a kind of education which forms or develops a person’s character, values and morals as well as merely making him/her knowledgeable or giving him/her skills. A distinction between teaching, training or instructing and formation or formative education should be made. To instruct is a process whereby teaching in the sense of training remains on an intellectual or cognitive low level and formation is a process of academic socialization which inserts itself into the personality and the emotional domain, manifesting itself in the subject’s behavior. Therefore, formation and instruction are indivisible and interactive elements in the process of education.
The challenge posed by the diversity of knowledge, the plurality of science, the multiplication of branches of knowledge and the speed of change has underscored a problem of academic and curricular effectiveness. On the one hand, in so far as knowledge has become more complex, varied and impossible to embrace in its entirety, it has become correspondingly more difficult to impart. On the other hand, the segmentation of fields of knowledge has led to the fragmentation of language, producing a generation of professional people incapable of communicating between one branch of knowledge and another and, increasingly, between the cultures of science and the humanities. The controversy between general education and specialized education, between professionalization and the liberal study of the arts and sciences, between once-and-for-all learning and a lifelong learning process are subjects for debate within the university community and society.
However, the interdisciplinary approach, general basic formation and training, flexibility of the curriculum permitting adaptation to change, the extension of the university mission to cover permanent formative education are all trends which have been gaining prevalence in recent years and which run counter to the other view which favors professionalization as direct training in a single discipline. The risk of specialized professionalization is very great. After all, this model has been very much in vogue since the incorporation of industrial production systems and the development oriented political and economic systems of the previous century. The result is not particularly edifying. Never before in contemporary history have there been more unemployed university graduates and professional people than there are today. Unemployment among university graduates is not only the responsibility of the social-economical system, it is the result of the interaction of that system in evolution with a university which produces rigid, passive professionals educated on a once-and-for-all basis.
A more adequate balance between generalization and specialization would reduce the under-exploitation of professionals in the short-term labor market on the one hand, whilst, at the same time, promoting the updating of professional qualifications in keeping with the new demands of society in the medium term. The false dichotomy between formative education in the sciences and the arts requires a radical change in teaching and learning strategies. The university will have to strike the right balance of aesthetics, science and ethics in the education of men and women, so that they will emerge knowing a lot about their own field but also enough about other disciplines: in other words, the university as a center of aesthetics, science and basic human values. But even if the extremes of educational models were drawn towards the center, this would not resolve the whole problem. To do this, the core university culture would have to become oriented towards permanent education and lifelong learning, which, in turn, would require course contents, teaching methods, educational technology, best practices, means and the duration of courses to be kept under constant review, but primarily it is absolutely necessary to modify the present teacher-centered education system.
The realities underpinning the change from the traditional university to an institution oriented towards lifelong education could be summed up as follows:
- Scientific and technological advances cannot be included in the formal university curriculum as fast as they occur. Even social knowledge is far ahead of the anticipatory analysis to which higher education ought to aspire. Some response must therefore be found for new employment requirements, professional retraining at every age and research into new fields of science.
- Knowledge about man and his world has been carved up into ever smaller and more specialized segments, but a deeper knowledge of matter and its characteristics leads to an inter- and transdisciplinary view and a unifying concept of the world, both in the field of science and in the humanities. The new trends have once again broken down the artificial barriers which had been erected between the different individual sciences.
- The application of the scientific method in its widest sense identifies the sciences with the arts, leading us closer to a scientific-technical humanism, where pure reason must be in harmony with the aesthetic and ethical sense and the sense of the transcendence of humanity.
- The concept of lifelong university education is essentially holistic, implying an attitude of constant research and the permanent search for new knowledge. It therefore breaks the trend toward fragmented education and the sole pursuit of diplomas which stress the characteristics of the once-and-for-all university education which exists today.
- The expansion of university objectives to include permanent formative education and training is closely linked with the modernizing concept of education. There is no one period for studying and another for acting. Learning and acting are a part of the existential process of the human being.
- Permanent or lifelong university education is consistent with the dynamics of change and uncertainty of a society which requires not only that people should possess the necessary knowledge and techniques to function in the modern world but, fundamentally, that they should be trained to permanently learn, re-learn and un-learn as one of the main solutions to educate for uncertainty and to adapt to the future.
Lifelong education requires institutions of higher education to organize formative education towards a learner-centered education, to deformalize their structures and services to accommodate new teaching-learning methods, to set up two-way systems of cooperation with business, industry and community, to create educational networks with the non-formal systems in society, to recognize experience and knowledge acquired in ways other than the conventional lecture room and academic laboratory, to incorporate communication and information technology in the teaching-learning process, and even to de-formalize classroom attendance. Universities need to pay more attention to student learning outcomes than to student admissions. The real challenge for higher education is not to demonstrate success with students already prepared for success but to achieve success in preparing unsuccessful students. This also means setting up multiple inter-university and inter-educational networks to break down the false barriers within scholarship and the transmission and generation of knowledge.
*A psychological and educational analysis of such terms are presented in Miguel Angel Escotet (1992), “Information and Formation: The change of paradigm in university distance learning”. In Ortner, G., Graff, K. and Wilmersdoerfer, H. (Eds.) Distance Education as Two-way Communication. Frankfurt: Verlag Peter Lang, 88-101.
©2012 Miguel Angel Escotet. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint with appropriate citing.