What is lifelong learning and what does it look like in action?

Tess Bissell

“Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.”
- United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #4

The UN's recently adopted SDGs send a clear message: learning begins at birth and continues beyond any single grade-level or graduation. With international attention now more focused on promoting lifelong learning, passionate practitioners from the classroom to the boardroom and even social media are asking: what is lifelong learning, and what does it look like in practice?

Five teams of innovators, all profiled on CEI’s Program Database, are focusing on adolescents at the intersection of secondary and higher education. These programs are developing exceptional models to help prepare youth to continue their education in the short-term while also developing the skills needed for a lifetime of prosperity and growth.

Unidad Academica Campesina - Carmen Pampa (UAC-CP) offers accredited undergraduate degrees to the rural poor of Carmen Pampa, Bolivia. The university trains students in agronomy, nursing, education, veterinary science, and ecotourism, and all graduates must research, write, and defend both a thesis and an original business plan. Unidad Academica Campesina also emphasizes leadership programs, with the goal of graduating students who will impact their home communities economically and socially. In 2012, 95% of UAC-CP’s graduates were employed, and in 2013 graduates reported a 300% increase in income from their parents’ generation. UAC-CP is a university like no other, and its pragmatic, holistic approach to lifelong learning is achieving striking results.

Digital Divide Data (DDD), which began in Cambodia but has since expanded to Laos, Kenya, and the USA, takes an equally innovative approach to higher education. DDD incorporates a comprehensive program of employment and higher education to support low-income high school graduates to obtain college degrees and lucrative professional careers. This model, pioneered by DDD in 2001, is now called “Impact Sourcing” and has been implemented by dozens of firms around the world. The program’s approach to lifelong learning creates a virtuous cycle of employment and education, which helps students break the downward spiral of poverty.

The Young Leaders Program in Kenya, implemented by the Global Education Fund (GEF), bridges both the skills gap and the financial gap between secondary and higher education. Students attend a camp prior to starting university to develop leadership, critical thinking, and problem solving skills. GEF also selects and awards post-secondary grants to recent Young Leaders Program graduates to assist with training certification and diploma costs. Alumni have gone on to study accounting, business management, entrepreneurship, finance, nursing, and journalism. This dual approach to higher education access emphasizes that either financial support or mentorship on its own is not enough -- students need both to truly become lifelong learners.

Lifelong learning involves skill development both inside and outside of the classroom. The Ak' Tenamit Internship Program in Guatemala unites these two types of learning. High school students split their time between traditional and practical classrooms to pursue degrees in Rural Community Development or Sustainable Tourism. Although there are 800 tourism schools in Guatemala, they are often too expensive for low-income individuals. The program has also identified other critical barriers to education for indigenous people, including early marriage for girls and linguistic barriers, with the aim of encouraging buy-in from parents and communities. The Ak’ Tenamit Internship Program has reinvented what lifelong learning can look like by combining traditional and vocational education, and making it accessible to the marginalized Mayan community.

Although many perceive higher education as the final stage in a student’s education, The Amani Institute Post Graduate Certificate in Social Innovation Management in Kenya suggests otherwise. The Amani Institute recognizes a gap between the knowledge a student gains at university and the skills needed to be a successful change agent in the 21st century. The program introduces a new model of higher education in which participants learn through practical apprenticeship experiences, as well as workshops and leadership coaching. By supplementing formal higher education in this way, The Amani Institute demonstrates that lifelong learning extends well beyond the university gates.

Unidad Academica Campesina, Digital Divide Data, Young Leaders Program, Ak’ Tenamit Internship Program, and the Amani Institute all push the boundaries of what lifelong learning is, who it involves, and how it can be implemented. As the SDGs catapult the global education community into a future where “lifelong learning” is the new standard of excellence, these five innovative programs - and the models they represent - offer both instruction and inspiration.

Tess Bissell is the R4D Center for Education Innovations intern. She is originally from Pittsfield, MA, and is currently pursing a BA in Comparative Literature at Princeton University. She has previously interned at an education non-profit in Uganda, and worked as a college counselor and tutor with underserved youth in New Jersey and New York.

Photo Credits (Top to Bottom): Project Fuel ; Unidad Academica Campesina ; Digital Divide Data ; Young Leaders Program ; Asociacíon Ak' Tenamit ; Amani Institute

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