The new needs of a learning society

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
A global economy means that Scotland has to update the vision of its infostructure, says Tom Schuller

en years ago, the Scottish Community Education Council published an analysis of how Scotland might be a "learning society". The key features of this aspiration were that "virtually everyone" would engage in some form of learning at different stages of their lives; that education would not be thought of as confined to young people in schools or colleges; and that the structure of working life would be adapted to encourage access to learning.

To make progress, Scotland would need to raise adult participation, especially among under-represented groups, increase part-time provision, increase investment by government and employers in learning, and promote self-help groups. Although SCEC is no longer, much of its analysis and prescription remains valid. But we need to bring into play some new features.

First, the global context has changed, towards greater mobility of labour and capital, and towards greater competitiveness. Some of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have made extraordinarily rapid strides in pushing up the educational levels of their populations.

Korea is a prime case in point, with almost 90 per cent of the population now completing secondary school. Added to the entry of such giants as China and India, with their massive resources of cheap (and increasingly highly qualified) labour, this makes for a world where Scotland can only achieve the social dimension of a learning society if it also raises its economic game.

Second, the demographic dimension has become more significant. The ageing of OECD populations means that, if we stick to current retirement patterns, there will be too few people in the workforce and the stress on pension budgets will be massive. It all points strongly towards an extension of the normal working life.

It also means that learning opportunities for older people should rise up the agenda, for employment, personal and social reasons. Initiatives that help older people remain alert and independent will become increasingly valuable. Encouraging them to read aloud for 15-20 minutes a day is not a high-tech device, but it may be highly effective as a way of maintaining mental competence.

Migration is another aspect. Countries that can attract and retain highly qualified people and, at the same time, successfully integrate immigrants with lower educational levels, are in a much stronger position than those that rely only on home-grown talent.

Contrast Ireland, where more than 50 per cent of incomers have tertiary qualifications compared to 24 per cent of the domestic population, with France. The same proportion of the domestic population are highly qualified but only 15 per cent of the foreigners. There you have some explanation of the differences in dynamism between the two economies. Scotland needs to attract high achievers, and to retain them by providing a stimulating learning environment for them and their families.

Against this background, there are two key axes along which we can make progress towards a learning society. These are the infrastructure (buildings and communications) and what I call the infostructure - the impact of ICT on learning opportunities. Infrastructure refers to the physical make-up of cities and villages. Do their architecture and design reflect an aspiration to encourage learning or not? Here are three illustrations of how that might happen. None of them is an ideal form of learning society design, but they all contain the seeds of future infrastructural initiative.

* Near Poitiers, in the west of France, Futuroscope is a huge new development which might be said to embody infotainment. Its futuristic buildings rise from flat fields formerly used to grow beet, and now employ large numbers of newly skilled workers. Futuroscope is not designed to be educational, but it shows how new entertainment technologies can be used to spread information - and draw on new skills at the same time.

* Bluewater Shopping Centre, Kent, is a massive shrine to consumption. It draws shoppers from many miles away (and probably therefore leaves a large environmental footprint). Most of the activity is just that, shopping (or window-shopping), but Bluewater provides alternatives for family members who want to do other things (such as boating), and included in this is a drop-in learning shop, where 14,000 people have signed in. Learning can temper consumerism.

* Vienna has always prided itself on a civic culture of learning. Recently, the city has built a spanking new public library to continue the tradition of access to scholarship. The library does that well; but an unintended consequence has been the extensive use of IT suites by young Turkish men and women, for whom places to meet the opposite sex are not easily available. Learning and social needs interact.

Buildings are powerful statements of a city's character, and of the aspirations of those who govern and live in them. If a country, city or region wants to see itself as committed to learning, appropriate architecture can be a form of physical proof. Infostructure, meanwhile, requires a learning society's needs to be well plugged in. I say this as a non-techie. From a Finnish expert, Ilkka Tuomi, here are three examples of how IT is changing the way in which society learns:

* The home as the classroom. More and more items are available for home installation that enable people to learn in their living room. This should not downgrade the need for places where people can learn together but, for those who can afford it, the opportunities to learn at home are prolific.

* Products become pedagogic. More and more technical products include guidance on how to work them. No more manuals in eight languages, but built-in guidance which (in principle at least) gives you the skills to operate the systems.

* Blogs challenge certificates. A new generation is posting its own competences on personal websites.

The aspiration to learn is deep-rooted in most of us, but often well covered up. It's time to update the SCEC vision.

Tom Schuller is head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD in Paris.

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