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Why is lifelong learning and adult learning and education (ALE) important in addressing major global issues? How do we turn education into policy? In this episode of the Bridge 47 Network Podcast, we speak to Dr Aaron Benavot on the challenges and opportunities for measuring and monitoring non-formal adult education and lifelong learning as it pertains to Target 4.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Dr Aaron Benavot was the Director of the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report between 2014 – 2017, with a leading role in coordinating and publishing the first GEM Report after the launch of Agenda 2030. Benavot is currently a professor of Global Education Policy at the University at Albany-SUNY.

What are their distinctions between Lifelong Learning and Adult Education, and do they need to be more clearly defined?

“The interest in lifelong learning has expanded rapidly in the past few years. The main institutional areas involved in defining lifelong learning and adult education are UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, and their definition is: learning activities for people of all ages and life wide contexts, through a variety of modality's (form and informal) to meet a wide range of learning needs and demands. Through lifelong learning, people move through different modalities throughout their life, with a greater emphasis on the formal side. Over the course of our adult lives, things diversify. Adult Education and Learning are a subset of learning activities within the broader conception of lifelong learning. Adult education is learning opportunities for adults, which can be formal such as going to university, or non-formal, which include workshops or seminars in workplaces and community centres. They are intentional and somewhat institutionalised, however, we don’t have much information on this non-formal area. We are in a situation where adults are certainly interested and do participate in non-formal education, but the extent to which we have systematic information is limited. From my perspective, the lack of detailed knowledge available about this aspect of people's lives mean that policy makers and decision makers have limited basis to be making informed decisions. This is a real issue that will inform a lot of what we talk about today. There is incredible value around ALE, but our knowledge on this area is partial and of low quality.”

In times of trouble, we often turn to education as a solution. We’ve seen it in the global response to the climate crisis, and it in the current response to COVID-19, for example, as the secretary general of the UN stressed the importance of education amid COVID-19 to reduce inequalities, protect our planet, fight hate speech & more. In your experience, why is Lifelong Leaning & Adult Education so important in addressing these issues?

“Increasingly, there are many ways in which adults are being asked to have informed opinions about challenges that face their communities and societies. Education is a means to keep adults informed and give them opportunities voice their views, to make sure they are making decisions and taking actions they know to be beneficial. Education in fundamental to expand one's knowledge, gain skills and competencies for everyday life, and provide motivation for people tact on what they have learned, in ways that take on a more collective and social character. Education is also an important way to communicate with others. In many ways. I see education as having a transformative potential where people can better their own lives, their communities, and broader society, increasingly with respect to the planet.”

As of 2015, Agenda 2030 became our most up-to-date global roadmap for achieving sustainability, and education is strongly featured throughout Agenda 2030 and all the Sustainable Development Goals. But going from the roadmap to policy and actual political action, there is a disconnect, in terms of Adult Education and Lifelong Learning and their importance. Why is that? What prevents us from drafting policy and implementing actions that take forward Adult Education & LLL, when they are featured so predominately in Agenda 2030?

“Before 2015, education was treated as a separate area from international policy making and action. Education has its own history, mainly in reference to the education for all movement. What is unique now in this post 2015 era is that we’ve all come together under one umbrella, as Agenda 2030 tries to integrate all the previously distinctive agendas, such as the environment, development and education, and put them all under one roof. This is the result of member states and national governments taking the lead on how to formulate this agenda. The two years prior to the adoption of Agenda 2030 was an intensive intergovernmental negotiation from governments and citizens around the world. What was clear was education was often the highest priority, and it had to be a stand-alone priority. We are living in an era now in which we have the most extensive educational agenda every conceived. From priorities with respect to early childhood care, targets for teachers and quality issues, and we also have a special goal - Target 4.7 - which brings together a lot of the most pressing social, moral and ethical issues of our time. On the one hand, we have an incredible opportunity because all countries in the world have agreed on this comprehensive agenda. But have they provided the means and resources to achieve it? The fact of the matter is a lot of the countries have not. COVID has pushed everything back in ways that were inconceivable a few years ago. We have this incredibly well developed, holistic, universal agenda, but in terms of moving forward in practice, the resources are still limited, unevenly distributed, so we are in this dilemma of what do we emphasise. It is not a simple matter for policy makers or other interested parties.”

As the Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report, or GEM Report, between 2014 – 2017, you had a leading role in coordinating and publishing the first GEM Report after the launch of Agenda 2030. The 2016 GEM Report, which monitored progress towards the education targets in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, established that education was at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and offered suggestions on how to monitor and measure progress on SDG 4. Speaking from your experience, what are the main frameworks available for countries to monitor and measure Adult Education and Lifelong Learning, and how do you think we are doing in terms of reporting?

“This is one of my biggest frustrations. We know a lot about formal education, but have little information on all the other kinds of opportunities for adults to learn over the course of their lives. The most elaborate measurement framework we have is PIAC, provided by the OECD, which shows clearly that adult participation in formal education is important in early years, but declines dramatically at the age of 22-24. What increases after that point is participation in various forms of non-formal education. Upwards of 60% of adults indicated that they had participation in non-formal education. At the international level, we know very little about participation in adult non-formal education. The question is, we have this new agenda under the global goal for education, target 4.3, which talks about participation of youth and adults, but the number of countries providing information for this indictor is minimal. There are many targets that make reference to education in the broadest sense. All of these are related to informal and non-formal education opportunities. Until we come up with new formats, approaches and strategies to measure and monitor ALE, we are stuck. They need to be inexpensive, and work in ways that are moving us around some of the institutional surveys. Countries are asked to submit a voluntary national review, which vary in length and quality. UN has provided a template to assist countries. In my view, we need to think of more innovative approaches to this issue.”

On a national, regional and global scale, civil society is a key sector in providing Adult Education and Lifelong Learning opportunities in non-formal and informal spaces, facilitating these processes in fast-acting and impactful ways. In your opinion, what are the advantages of involving civil society in the monitoring and measuring processes for Adult Education and Lifelong Learning?

"I think it’s enormously important the CSO are involved in all types of activities. In my view, one of the real values of CSO’s working in these non-formal and informal spaces is that they tend to be less bureaucratic, they are more reactive to various issues, more flexible and willing to innovate, and they often tend to be more attentive to the needs of people and respectful of local knowledge traditions. CSO’s are interested in providing accounts of people participating in programs, but also keen to ensure there are tangible results. Their activities are therefore more likely to bring about substantive, transformative chance. They are involved in cross-sectoral work, and are interested in trying to develop synergies. They have capabilities in implementing various programs, understanding the reality on the ground, and are uniquely placed to provide important innovative monitoring and measurement of the kinds of activities and impact they have on people's lives. Most of the information/data we collect on ALE is fragmented and uneven in quality. We need to build higher quality information from the ground up. Secretary general Ban Ki-moon put forward a synthesis document leading up the SDGs, in which he articulated different indicators such as global, international and thematic indicators with respect to the SDGs being developed. Building from the ground up is trying to get quality information from local programs and communities, then finding ways to scale that information up. These can be national or regional. CSOs not only can be involved in conducting important activities in this area, but can also be involved in piloting innovative measurement approaches."

Reflecting on the work you’ve done so far, and the work that you’re currently doing, what opportunities do you see for Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in the future, both in terms of how they will be seen and valued, and how they will be measured?

“We seem to be at an interesting turning point, as people from a wide range of sectors in society are beginning to understand and value the various ways adults can and should be learning, developing their knowledge and skills, and improving their life. The fact that people are living longer, they have additional time to peruse things. In the workplace, people are being asked to re-skill and retool. The career trajectories of people are much less stable, so there is a need for workplace training and education to enable people to improve on their skills and productivity. Education is also important in the context of emergency situations. As many people become displaced, education is a way to provide some kind of security. The effects of climate change are upon us. Everyone understands that adults need to develop new skills for climate adaptation, to become more resilient. But how do you develop resilience and other skills? I think of training and non-formal education as a pathway to develop these. When I look around me at the global landscape, I see many instances where the value of LLL and ALE has increased. So, the question is whether or not governments will step up and provide leadership on this. Without clear evidence on what exists, we won’t know.“

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