In the Age of Technology, Social Connection May Still Drive Lifelong Learning

In the Age of Technology, Social Connection May Still Drive Lifelong Learning

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a detailed report on Lifelong Learning and Technology, exploring the extent to which American adults seek extra knowledge for personal and work-related reasons. The report was heartening, if only because the number of American adults who consider themselves lifelong learners, in both personal and professional capacities, is far greater than I feared. But the report was most fascinating for its confirmation of something many of us suspect, but find unpopular to espouse: humans may still prefer to learn from each other than from technology.

First, the best news: the Pew research shows that 74% of American adults have participated in at least one form of “personal learning” over the past 12 months. And, in the same time, 63% of employed American adults (36% of all adults) have participated in some form of “professional learning.” For the purposes of the study, “personal learning” means an activity specifically chosen to advance the learner’s knowledge about a personal interest, and includes reading, taking courses, attending a learning meeting or event or online learning. “Professional learning” represents additional job training to enhance skills or expertise for a current or future job.

And the reasons (and rewards) for this learning are broad and varied: learning something new, making new friends, building a network, improving prospects for a new job or career or simply helping children or grandchildren with homework. In the face of a great deal of media hand wringing about the declining learning appetites of the American public, this research provides overwhelming evidence that the American adult public is ready, willing and eager to learn new things.

A deeper dive shows an even more interesting outcome: regardless of the context – personal and professional – this learning is more likely than not to take place in a physical locale (a school, place or worship, library or a work-related venue) than on the Internet. In fact, Internet-based lifelong learning participation is significantly higher among more affluent, better educated adults with greater access to technology assets. But only 52% of all personal learners used the Internet for their learning, with wide gaps when segmented by income and education level. And the gap is even more marked when comparing adults who have a smartphone and broadband at home with those who have only one or none.

But even among the most advantaged adults, Internet learning is far from the only choice. And an overwhelming majority of adult learners at all socioeconomic levels consider themselves “not too” or “not at all” aware of digital education offerings like distance learning, Khan Academy, massive open online courses (MOOC’s) and digital badges (from 61% to 83% lack of awareness, respectively).  As the study reports, “These findings offer a cautionary note to digital technology enthusiasts who believe that the Internet and other tools will automatically democratize education and access to knowledge.”  

This begs the question: why?

Auguste Renoir, The Conversation, 1879, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Auguste Renoir, The Conversation, 1879, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Although the Pew research inquired as to learning attitudes generally, these questions focused more on the desire to access information and opportunities to grow than on preference for learning context. But these are important questions, fueled less by a schadenfreude regarding the steady drumbeat of digital offerings in lieu of traditional learning venues than by a genuine interest in the human need to engage with other humans.  

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle suggests that in this day and age of declining conversation, we are lonely for human contact: “in conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view . . . And we use conversation with others to learn to converse with ourselves.”  And Professor Todd Rose of the Harvard Center for Individual Opportunity, author of The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness, might blame society’s passion for equal access: ”equal access aims to maximize individual opportunity on average by ensuring that everyone has access to the same standardized system, whether or not that system actually fits.” Finally, our own Books@Work participants often share clues as to why face to face learning – just sitting around a table sharing thoughts and ideas with coworkers – is the most rewarding learning of all.  

In fact these questions continue to fascinate me – not because I’m convinced that there’s a right and a wrong answer, but because I’m convinced that the human being is not yet fully willing to give up the social interaction inextricably connected to effective adult learning.

In the interest of timeliness, I chose to share the fascinating Pew research today; in the interest of brevity (and a little more reflection), I will continue to ponder the “why” next week. I hope you’ll stay tuned and share your own thoughts.

Michelangelo, Detail of Creation of Adam, 1509, Sistine Chapel, Rome, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

Friendships at Work: Building Connected Organizations

Sharing Good Books: How Conversation Bridges Differences and Fosters Empathy

Creativity and Social Skills: What Machines Can’t Do

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.