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Lifelong Learning and Online Learners


"Lifelong learning is becoming a competitive necessity." This is one of the Thirty-two Trends Affecting Distance Education, published in 2003 by researchers from Brigham Young University and the University of Michigan. Eight years later, lifelong learning, along with most of the other trends listed in this report, is going strong. Once associated with continuing and adult education and the leisure of retirement, lifelong learning is now a must to keep up with the changing nature of careers, swings in the economy, and the pace of technological innovations in the workplace.

In their book Lifelong Learning in Higher Education, authors Knapper and Cropley describe lifelong learning as "deliberate learning [that] can and should occur through each person's lifetime." This concept is not new, and Knapper and Cropley trace back to the post-WWII era, but it is taking on a new importance in higher education and career development, and having an impact on online learning. In the context of higher education, lifelong learning is:

  • Intentional – learners are purposefully engaged in learning activities
  • Focused on goals – students have set their own specific goals for learning (e.g. career advancement), and these goals are the reason for engaging in learning activities, and
  • Applicable – retention of what is learned is high and students are able to apply what they’ve learned in a practical setting.

What is a lifelong learner?

Multiple groups and authors have developed lists of characteristics and skills to describe the lifelong learner. While there is no one standardized list of qualities and abilities, I think you'll see that there are several common elements that are frequently referenced in the variety of sources reviewed here.

UNESCO's Institute for Education provides this list of characteristics of a lifelong learner. A lifelong learner is someone who is a/an: [PDF]

  • Explorer – actively and creatively interacts with the learning environment
  • Reflexive agent – reflects and engages in self-questioning and critical analysis to understand the learning process
  • Self-actualizing agent – motivated to fulfill his or her potential, and
  • Integrator – makes sense of information and knowledge gained in different settings and contexts.

Specific skills as well as an overall outlook are stressed by Organizational Learning Consultant Kevin Eikenberry. In his overview of lifelong learning, he argues that "continuous learning is an attitude and a set of behaviors that allow us to succeed." Among these behaviors are: 

  • having a beginner's mindset
  • making connections
  • being flexible and adaptable to change
  • continuous learning and curiosity
  • learning in multiple ways, and
  • teaching others.

Keep in mind that these characteristics are not exclusive to college students and adult learners. Lifelong learning indicates learning that takes place over a lifetime, and this includes all ages. The Plano (TX) Independent School District has identified Lifelong Learner Traits as goals for K-12 students. These are organized into the following roles: 

  • self-directed learners
  • effective communicators
  • complex thinkers
  • quality producers
  • responsible citizens, and
  • collaborative contributors.

Impact on Online Learning

Online colleges and universities are increasingly providing the products and services required to support a lifelong learning approach, one geared toward continued employment and career advancement. American Intercontinental University, for example, relates the Importance of Lifelong Learning to "career survival." This guidance encourages having specific goals in place that motivate your learning choices and have some direct application in your work. They also remind us of the conveniences associated with the online delivery of learning experiences – flexibility of time and location, affordability options, and the wide availability of information. 

Online learning opportunities may be well suited to those who need to continuously renew and refresh their skills for application in the workforce. Industry experts point out that the recovery of our knowledge-based economy will require workers with skills that come from successful education and training programs. We are seeing shorter (accelerated and compressed) academic terms and degree programs as just one reaction of the higher education industry to the need to train and educate people to keep pace with changing needs of the workplace. It is also not unheard of for employers to offer tuition payment programs to assist employees with learning opportunities related to their work and the company's needs.

Partnerships between online education providers and businesses are also opening up online learning opportunities that are tied to workplace learning. The 2010 announcement that American Public University was partnering with Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is just one example. Wal-Mart conducted a survey of its employees before entering the partnership that found 72% preferred an online option. 

Are you a lifelong learner?

While lifelong learning activities can be informal ones (e.g. reading an article, talking with a mentor), pursuits through higher education institutions are generally considered formal learning opportunities (i.e. structured events and courses). And the characteristics of lifelong learners are strikingly similar to those of online learners. Self-direction, adaptability, curiosity, an interest in learning, and focus on goals are all traits that have been used to describe online learners.

Would you describe yourself as a "lifelong learner?" Let us know how online learning factors into your education and career goals, and what characteristics and skills are bringing you success.

August 19th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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