The learning world for adults in the new technological era will mean vast upheaval for colleges and staff, according to a discussion paper prepared by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.
The paper, launched at the NIACE annual conference, spells out the opportunities, dangers and challenges presented by the rapidly expanding "information society".
The speed of change means that older people are bound to be affected as well as younger people. Opportunities to learn will require the use of the new technologies. "Those who do not have some confidence in dealing with them will be excluded from mainstream learning and a wider society," says the document, written by the association's telematics policy group.
Technologies break down the traditional expectation that learning depends on the learner being close to a teacher and an educational institution. These elements can be separated in time and space, the paper points out.
Study can be done at home or work and, with the help of e-mail, tutors can be based on another continent. Via the Internet, students have access to information on a scale undreamed of by professional researchers; learners can become members of global groups.
But without care, technologies could damage the quality and range of adult learning. There are several dangers: people being excluded by price and lack of basic education; technological development being led by enthusiasm for innovation rather than the needs of students or the quality of material; commercial pressure for a return on investment could exclude some people and institutions; and political pressures might focus on young people at the expense of adults.
The central benchmarks of institutional management - measurable numbers of students and teachers in rooms for a fixed time - will be replaced by tutors, materials, designers, programmers, assessors and learning centres.
"We lack the management skills for a new kind of learning industry," the paper comments. "What will learners pay for and to whom in the future?" The paper will be widely distributed for comment. Copies can be obtained from Stephen McNair, NIACE, 21 De Montfort Street, Leicester LE1 7GE.