May 4th, 2012
This week the university announced plans to shut down its Division of Lifelong Learning at the end of August. The rationale is clear: the unit just can’t sustain itself. It’s hemorrhaging too many dollars. Unsustainability is the catchword. Lifelong learning, or LLL as it is commonly identified, grew out of the earlier designation of “continuing education” – an it-is-never-too-late-to-learn philosophy of education. It is meant to cater to those who have either never been to university or those whose university days are long behind them, but who want to acquire knowledge in a structured and informed environment. It’s all about learning as an evolutionary, not a terminal, exercise. One wouldn’t want to argue with that commonplace or with the whole lifelong learning paradigm. The question for me is this: is the university the best place for lifelong learning programs? Well, yes and no: yes, for the most part, but perhaps with focused content and a new delivery model.
Predictably, social media chatter in response to the announcement has been whiney. The blogosphere is made for lovers and complainers, and so a number of haters have taken the opportunity to dump on the cancellation as evidence of Everything That’s Wrong with Universities Today. But I think Memorial has been both straightforward and honest about the budgetary challenges of running such a division, and I’d predict that the flap will be minimal and short-term. Besides, Memorial is wisely transferring the guts of the program offerings, those with university relevance (good bye “how to draw, paint, sing, build a greenhouse, speak a second language, critique wine, navigate our coastline,” etc) , to faculties and schools (Business Admin, Arts, e.g.) where they can be more appropriately housed. Not all the babies are being thrown out with the bathwater. Not sure Memorial is the place to host a not-for-credit course on cooking caribou.
In a much bigger picture, the picture of the future, Harvard and M.I.T have teamed up this week to form what they are calling edX, a suite of free online courses available to the whole wide world. If lifelong learning is going to evolve then surely this is how it will do so in a meaningful way – to anyone with an electronic device.
When M.I.T. started this trend late last year they generated a lot of buzz. M.I.T.x, as the new platform is called, launched its new site with its first course, “Circuits and Electronics.” Mmmm, wonder what the gender ratio looks like in that course? Hey, it’s not my favourite subject category, but, guess what? M.I.T.x enrolled about 120,000 students – yes, you read those zeroes right. Compare with the average dozen or so participants in any one of Memorial’s Lifelong Learning classes and you can start to appreciate the different economies of scale. The M.I.T.x students who will finish the online course will get a certificate but no grade and no official credit. Having a piece of paper that certifies attendance at M.I.T. is credit – or social capital – enough. And as I write this, several other elite US universities are jumping on the bandwagon, preparing to offer free online courses for the masses in all manner of non-traditional subjects.
The business model for these courses is pretty straightforward, at least in the US. You get a partnership going with a big corporation or commercial investor – a group that sees value in enhancing its own technological development and shoring up its own interest in a vast community of online learners, and you have the financial framework to offer just about anything to the global village. There are probably tons of unintended benefits to such a delivery model.
Canada hasn’t really moved in this direction in that way, yet, with the exception of Athabasca University but we’re bound to do so, radically transforming the notion of lifelong learning to a much more publicly engaged model of education. iPads for everyone!