Interview

By: Nicky Trevett

Photos: Alana Paterson

When classes finish, learning goes on

A lazy image

Lifelong learning can transform people, and give them the power to transform the world. 5 spoke to Asha Kanwar, CEO of Commonwealth of Learning, about building skills and knowledge outside of the short time we spend in formal education.

With her doctorate behind her, and a successful academic career underway, Asha Kanwar would have been forgiven for thinking her days as a learner were done. She knew, of course, that learning never actually stops, but to truly realise it for herself, she had to step out of her comfort zone. That happened when she left a senior academic role at a university in New Delhi, India to work for UNESCO in Dakar, Senegal.

“It was a steep learning curve,” Kanwar told 5. “I had to start as a nobody and build my reputation from scratch. During tea breaks, I remember standing in front of the large map of Africa trying to internalise the geography of the continent.

“Formal education only accounts for a small fraction of the time we spend in learning”

“Without realising it, I’ve been a lifelong learner for a long time. Formal education only accounts for a small fraction of the time we spend in learning. The rest of our waking lives is spent in informal learning environments.”

Today, Kanwar is CEO of Commonwealth of Learning, an organisation backed by more than 50 countries, which promotes distance education and open learning as a way of boosting growth, improving social inclusion and protecting the environment.

Lifelong learning is only going to become more important, she says. As AI and automation disrupt the jobs market, “learning how to learn and unlearn will become a key skill” and “skilling and reskilling will become the norm throughout life”.

Kanwar says lifelong learning needs to go beyond just the kind of education where a student relies on a teacher. It also needs to encompass more loosely guided learning, and completely independent learning which can take place anytime, anywhere. To achieve this, “we need transformed systems of education,” she says, “more open, more flexible, more accessible – so that no one is left behind”.

Lifelong learning can transform people’s outlook and prospects, says Asha Kanwar.

Awareness of lifelong learning is growing, as governments around the world respond to the UN’s Sustainable Development goal of achieving equitable access to quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030. Each country has its own priorities, for instance South Africa’s lifelong learning strategy aims to redress post-apartheid social inequalities.

There is much that governments and educational institutions can do to better promote lifelong learning, Kanwar believes, such as integrating it with existing formal education, and providing incentives.

The Covid-19 pandemic “has accelerated the pace of change and altered existing mindsets and attitudes,”,says Kanwar. “Students have already been forced to become self-directed learners when they were studying remotely. Schools need to build on this to make learners more autonomous and therefore well prepared to learn throughout life.”

The pandemic has also created demand and opportunities for those not already taking part in education. Australia has been providing funding for short online courses to encourage citizens to ‘binge’ on learning rather than films, while Trinidad and Tobago has set up community-based telecentres to offer free courses.

Transformative power

In places where educational opportunities are limited or non-existent, lifelong learning has the power to transform lives. Commonwealth of Learning has helped women farmers in rural India to club together in producer companies so they can get better value for their produce, benefit from economies of scale, and invest in education on topics such as corporate finance. For instance, Kanwar says,  “Mary Arogya is a school dropout and grandmother who knew nothing about computers. As part of the Lifelong Learning for Farmers project, she is now working as a content and web manager for a farmers’ organisation, has uploaded hundreds of resources on YouTube and Facebook, and trained over a thousand other farmers.”

Workers on a rice farm in India. By clubbing together, farm workers can invest in learning. Photo: Getty Images

Commonwealth of Learning says the programme has helped lift more than 200,000 women in 11 countries out of poverty, and has generated $16 of value for every $1 invested.

“Learning in their local languages from peers and experts helped the women move from poverty to prosperity,” Kanwar says. “Learning became collateral for them to receive loans from banks.”

Such projects are made possible partly by mobile phones, which are crucial in reaching remote and neglected populations (although only half the global population has access to the internet, almost everyone has a mobile phone). Massive open online courses (MOOCs) also provide excellent opportunities for hard-to-reach populations. In places where data connections are patchy – such as remote islands in the Bahamas – MOOCs can be delivered using only audio.

“Learning develops autonomous thinkers – especially relevant in an age of fake news”

This year’s pandemic, Kanwar says, has sharpened the focus on “transformative learning”, which enables people to interpret the world independently, rather than to simply absorb the interpretations of others. “This becomes especially relevant in an age of fake news.”

Transforming our approach to learning is ultimately about transforming people – who then have the opportunity to transform the world. Learning shouldn’t just be about “learning to adapt to changing circumstances,” Kanwar says, but about “acquiring the ability to change circumstances”.

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