Is lifelong learning coming of age?

At business school many years ago, a professor of mine stated that learning should not cease when we left the MBA campus for the last time. It seemed a fairly logical and obvious point at the time, and at the end of the programme, we all marched off with our newly found commitment to continue our learning journey.

But back in the real world, it was not quite as simple. The pressure of the corporate world, extensive work travel for some and the day-to-day juggle of work-life balance all seemed to conspire to relegate learning to a back seat. Of course, work and life itself are great teachers in their own right, and the learnings from those experiences are priceless. The school of hard knocks as it is often called does sharpen ones senses and the responses to daily challenges in so many ways.

But there seemed to be a missing ingredient. Somehow, the soufflé was rising but not as much as we had expected. Enter the corporate training and skills development programmes. These events provided a good internal forum for the exploration of ideas, the development of technical skills, and the shaping of more productive networking amongst colleagues from many different places. But by their very nature, they tended to be highly structured and corporate centric, and therefore individual needs were not necessarily the focus. Over time, many of these events have focused more on the development of the so-called softer skills, leaving much technical training to be done using online or remote learning tools. These corporate activities especially around the softer skills will continue to play a key role in the development of critical capabilities in organisations such as leadership and collaboration.

Then came the outside development programmes which were run by business schools or leading management institutes. These brought together people from diverse organisations and backgrounds. Learning through the diversity of experience in a safe external environment was a key driver. These programmes provide a re-fresh from the home organisation, and without doubt help develop different ways of thinking and approaching problems and indeed life itself. Putting these learnings into practice back in the workplace or at home can be a challenge.

But the digital world has in recent times added a rich layer of learning on top of all the above activities. The “student of one” is now alive and well, and the digital age now presents an amazing opportunity for individual development at so many levels. In addition to various formal corporate and other structured programmes, people can now gain access online to a vast number of channels for personal development either by way of books and materials or online courses directly.

The internet has changed the game in personal development. I remember being intrigued (and still am now) at the number of personal development books that adorn whole sections of major bookstores. In years gone by, this probably represented a large proportion of what was available, but the difference now is that it is just the tip of the iceberg. The internet provides not only the choice of books, but also the vast array of online courses and other online reference material. This gives the “student of one” a rich selection of choices, but also over time a growing influence on what is supplied to the market.

One of these digital layers that is rapidly growing is around the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Last year, I wrote about the MOOCs just as I was finishing one of the 12 week online history courses via Coursera. The growth of MOOCs has been staggering. As an example, Coursera was formally launched in April 2012, and now boasts some 4 million students, 400 courses and 83 university partners. MOOCs generally are continuing to expand in their current form, but are also exploring different business models both to capture fee income and also to provide a more robust accreditation regime for various courses completed.

My professor from years ago has long retired, but he would sit in awe of the opportunities now available for real lifelong learning. In his day, this concept needed a real effort to do it. Now it is the opposite, and requires a real effort not to be scooped up by learning opportunities in so many areas. These opportunities give us a real chance to affirm the sentiment from writer and futurist Alvin Toffler who said,

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” 

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