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Are museums the classes of the future?

As John Denham launches a consultation on informal education, he is criticised for not appreciating face-to-face tutoring.

Trips to museums or posting on internet message boards can be a substitute for adult education classes in college, John Denham, Secretary of Stae for Innovation, Universities and Skills, has said.

Launching a consultation on informal adult education, in the wake of concerns that the Government's prioritisation of skills has seen the loss of 1.4 million students, Mr Denham said technology has transformed the way people learn.

"Some courses are still taught in a classroom at a fixed time - an approach that would have been clearly recognised 100 years ago," he said. "But adult learning may be as easily stimulated by a TV programme that prompts a trip to a museum, or a web search that leads to a group of like- minded learners.

"Most strikingly, much of the innovation in this sector in the early 21st century has been driven and achieved by learners themselves; people adapting new technologies, not relying on support from local or national government to organise activities, but seeking out fellow enthusiasts through online communities and other channels besides."

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills pointed to the National Adult Learning Survey to play down claims that adult education numbers have fallen drastically, saying it showed that 80 per cent of people took part in some form of education.

However, the survey took place in 2005, before the cuts, and counted an adult learner as anyone who has done anything to deliberately improve their skills or knowledge within the previous three years.

Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges at the University and College Union, said adult education would always need face-to-face interaction between lecturers and students.

"It's futurology stuff, like those predictions that in the future we'd get all our food from pills," he said.

"We welcome the increase in these activities, but we don't think it's a substitute for the places that have been lost in adult education.

"The idea that tutors can be substituted by software or a TV programme shows a misunderstanding of what the learning process is, that it's a two- way thing requiring face-to-face interaction with the lecturer and interaction within a group of students."

Working groups involving organisations such as the BBC, Microsoft, Help the Aged and the University of the Third Age will contribute to the consultation on informal adult education. Mr Denham wants them to consider issues ranging from where learning should take place to how disadvantaged people can get the same opportunities as those who have computer and internet access.

He is also asking whether groups should be given "virtual vouchers" to buy learning and how Government can support people in organising their own educational activities.

Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, the adult education body, said: "Bringing public investment and provision, voluntary sector and self-help initiatives, broadcast and online opportunities into a closer relationship makes sense, to make the best use of scarce resources and ensure no one misses out because they don't know what's on offer or support they need isn't easily available. It presents challenges for us all."

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