Countries worldwide, whether developed or developing, are formulating strategies to promote lifelong learning.
Undoubtedly, the emergence of such a trend is because lifelong learning will become the focus of the future, becoming an important factor affecting education, as well as the development of the national economy and society. The Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) (hereinafter referred to as the Outline) has been considered by many scholars and institutions an important document and action plan for promoting a lifelong learning strategy in China. Analysis and comparison of related policy documents revealed that China’s Outline still has much room to grow in terms of its framework reaching the same level as the lifelong learning strategies of countries mentioned above.
(I) Guided thinking: transitioning from education planning to a lifelong learning strategy
As early as 1995, the Education Law of the People's Republic of China aimed to "establish and improve a lifelong education system." In 2010, the Outline aimed that, “by 2020, the modernisation of education will have been realised, forming a foundation for a learning society and becoming one of the powers of human resources.” In focusing on that goal, China's lifelong learning strategy has made measured progress on both theoretical and practical levels. However, if you consider the Outline to be a document entailing lifelong learning strategy, it is lacking in terms of strategic thinking compared with the above countries. A breakthrough in thinking directly correlates to a breakthrough in action. The essence of the Outline is imprinted with traditional "education and training," leaving a certain gap toward establishing a "lifelong education system." Lifelong learning is not just teaching or training, and it is not education in the narrow sense of teaching. It has a broader meaning, including its social, economic, political, individual, cultural, and educational significance.
The main difference between "education training" and "life-long learning" is that lifelong learning is oriented towards everyone. The strategy transition from education planning to lifelong learning is not only a change in terminology. Behind it, the transition bears a broader definition and action commitment. Even more, it enhances strategic thinking. The transformation of many countries’ strategic thinking confirms this. The transition allows for a fluid learning process from cradle to grave, offering a learning channel that consists of learning processes for primary, middle, and senior learning, as well as for workers and retirees. Various education elements are no longer independent of each other, but require effective cooperation and integration. The transition will not take the "education training system" oriented toward learners for granted. Rather, the "lifelong learning system" will include everyone as its education target, starting from individuals’ learning demands and extending throughout their life. After the transition, education, work, and life will not conflict with each other. Education institutions, businesses, and communities will cooperate in striving to eliminate ignorance and indifference, making contributions to the development of lifelong learning. The transition will ensure lawmaking regarding lifelong learning will not stagnate, while fees for lifelong learning will be clearly defined, forming the basis for a "learning society" with a clear goal.
(II) Operating system: realise effective horizontal and vertical integration
One major problem with promoting lifelong learning across the globe is realising effective interaction between different stakeholders in the lifelong learning system. Frank Rothaermel once pointed out, one responsibility for the strategy makers and managers is to improve the degree of concern of the influential stakeholders, enabling them to better play their roles in the strategic framework. The realisation of the strategic goal of lifelong learning needs vertical integration of the education system and horizontal integration of other stakeholders, which was determined by the cross-ministries feature of the lifelong learning strategy. In other words, not any single stakeholder can realise the strategic goal of lifelong learning on its own. Although the cross-ministry nature is reflected in the Outline, it is not satisfactory in practice. Set aside the integration of educational resources inside and outside the school, and the first problem you encounter is the obstacle between "formal" and "informal," "system inside" and "system outside." Even if it is informal education outside the system, it is difficult to demonstrate effective integration due to different origins and administrative agencies.
In general, lifelong learning involves greater investment in personal abilities and intellect, through the acquisition of basic skills, such as digital literacy, broadening opportunities to innovate, and a more flexible form of learning. It is designed to provide equal, open, and high-quality learning opportunities for people of all ages, as well as various learning experiences. Practicing lifelong learning strategies in various countries leads to establishing a national qualification framework. In other countries, there are a lot of successful and influential cases, such as America's credit accreditation and transfer policy; Europe's qualification framework, and credit accumulation and transfer system; the U.K.'s qualification and credit framework; Australia's qualification framework; South Korea's ‘credit bank’ system; and Canada's credit transfer system. Slovakia wants to establish a website for the accreditation of learning outcomes to make accreditation for the learning outcomes of schools and learners, so as to help individuals obtain the corresponding qualifications framework accreditation. The national qualification framework will be committed to establishing a qualification certificate framework system with a wider coverage and sounder structure, enabling different education and training departments to have vertical cooperation. In this way, it is hoped that learners will gain the skills required in a linear education system, so that various forms of learning can be transferred in an effective and flexible way.
Though we stress the importance of various departments within the lifelong learning education system, we cannot deny the fact that various segments of society have the responsibility to resolve the problems arising from the lack of learning opportunities. Therefore, to strengthen horizontal cooperation between education agencies, other departments, and stakeholders, it is necessary to establish a unified information communication system, encouraging them to participate in forecasting and formulating learning demands, as well as various activities that promote the lifelong learning strategy, for example, establishing related management departments at the national level. The members of such departments should come from various organisations. It is designed to strengthen the relationship between industrial and commercial sectors, higher education agencies, and government governance structures based on the national qualification framework system.
(III) Financial investment: establish a cohesive support system
Most countries promoting lifelong learning have an ideally coherent financial system, one that determines the realisation of the strategic goal of lifelong learning. As the social return is higher than the private return (i.e. basic education), increasing private investment expenditures will result in fruitful private returns (mostly in higher education and continuing education). Financial support for lifelong learning systems requires public expenditures by various education departments, and also investments from private departments. In the Outline, the term "investment guarantee" is elaborated in a chapter exclusively on the subject, with detailed regulations specified for the investment mechanism related to pre-school education, ordinary senior high school, secondary vocational education, and higher education. However, it is a pity there is no clear regulation for the investment mechanism related to adult learning outside of schools. The Outline has a long way to go in setting up a coherent financial support system.
To build a financial support system that supports the entire learning process is an issue that must be addressed urgently to promote the lifelong learning strategy. With traditional financial investment in education, we need to build a standardised, consistent, equal, and effective financial support system for adult learning. First, clarify funding resources for adult learning. Countries worldwide unanimously agree that funding resources are from the "public sector, private sector, and individuals." Therefore, in their strategy documents, the rights and responsibilities of the public sector, private sector, and individuals are elaborated in the documents. Second, set up a lifelong learning account. Individuals can purchase various specified courses with the account, which will motivate them to pursue their learning needs. Third, clarify the targets of adult learning financial support. The system should cover everyone, including farmers living in poor economic conditions, drop-out students, and groups with physical and spiritual burdens. Fourth, evaluate the investment effects of adult learning capital. The reason why funding is insufficient has an important relationship with the uncertainty of gains. As there are many stakeholders in adult learning, we need to unite public and private sectors, pay attention to data collected on funding for adult learning, and evaluate the gains.
(IV) Results evaluation: focus on the collection of data
It is difficult to predict the results of promoting a lifelong learning strategy. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the effects of the strategy during and after its promotion process. Assessment is used to provide analysis on the action causes and results, which is conducive to describe the correlation between strategic implementation and results. It is also the primary channel to get access to information on the lifelong learning strategy. Therefore, to evaluate the effects of promoting a lifelong learning strategy, we need access to relevant, reliable, and effective information.
Monitoring data plays an important role in evaluating the results of promoting a lifelong learning strategy. With a conclusion developed from monitoring implementation behavior, we can find existing problems in the strategy system, so that we can ensure proper execution of the strategy. For example, Bulgaria identified eight first-level indicators for the implementation of its lifelong learning strategy. (1) Ensure a lifelong learning operating system; (2) expand the scope of pre-school education training and improve quality; (3) apply methods comprehensively to improve education and reduce student drop-out rates; (4) improve the quality of school education and training, help learn key skills, and improve achievements and individual development among learners; (5) improve the quality and allure of vocational education and training; (6) improve the modernisation of higher education; (7) develop informal and formal learning opportunities; (8) and realise the coordination and integration of stakeholders in lifelong learning. At the same time, according to the related index system, the minister council released an annual report on lifelong learning strategy implementation, which summarised the present implementation of the lifelong learning strategy, discovered problems with the implementation process, explored new learning demands, and more.
In China’s Outline, evaluation effects were not well indicated. Although the Ministry of Education will issue release education statistics annually, its contents are mostly limited to formal education; its scope needs to be further developed. In combination with assessment experiences related to the lifelong learning strategy carried out by different countries, it is helpful for us to further improve our information data monitoring system, so as to dynamically render lifelong learning effects across our country. First, we must establish the authority of the information sharing website. If we want to effectively present the truth to society, we need to establish authoritative information release agencies for promoting the lifelong learning strategy, providing policy publicity, an evaluation of released information, a query of available information, an exchange of information, and a data download service for different stakeholders; offering room for online dialogue and exchanges with all kinds of related personnel; making agencies become an information library with the effect of promoting the lifelong learning strategy. Second, realise the standardisation of information data. In the diversified field of lifelong learning, regularly collecting information in a timely manner is one of the main challenges. Key points in measuring and monitoring should be firstly determined in order to collect the types of data needed. Therefore, we must design unified data, encoding, and technical standards based on lifelong learning strategy assessment indicators, so as to resolve technical problems in information resource sharing. Third, establish an information and resource sharing platform for lifelong learning. By collecting information about policy regulations, evaluation standards, reviews, and establishment, and supporter-related data, we establish an information resource platform for lifelong learning that builds a huge information resource sharing system to support lifelong learning. The lifelong learning promotion department, supporters, learning quality evaluation experts, and learners will be able to obtain accurate information using corresponding data codes.
Source: Journal of Distance Education in China