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Adult Learning, Inequality and Covid-19

“The prime focus throughout this year has been on providing the necessary devices to work online and while this has been important, what has been overlooked are the holistic values that are core to adult education principles”

Since 2006 I have been working as a part-time tutor teaching literacy and ICT in an Adult Education Centre in Tallaght. Four years ago, I decided to enhance my personal learning journey by beginning the BA in Community Studies in Maynooth University. My journey so far has been transformational as I have grown in my understanding of the assumptions that underlie my practice and the philosophies of education, which have fostered in me a new appreciation for adult education principles.  In 2020 for my thesis, I decided to use my experiences within adult education to investigate ways in which the pandemic has affected the learning opportunities of adults.

Even before the pandemic, there has been a shift over the years in promoting economic growth by raising market-driven needs above the needs of individuals. This has had a significant impact on many sectors of society such as adult education. The implications of this have been that when we try to fit the students’ needs into the system rather than the other way around, it is the needs of the students that get lost within this process. I do appreciate that there is a need to reduce unemployment and to equip learners to compete in the job market, but what is equally necessary is an understanding of the conditions that make some groups more at risk to unemployment than others and it is in times like the current pandemic that these groups will be hit the hardest.  

My research was carried out using a qualitative case study analysis, interviewing students, tutors and coordinators to hear their experiences of adult learning during the pandemic. Throughout these discussions key themes emerged such as; the isolating experience of online learning, lack of motivation, access to IT devices and an increase in the digital divide. Most students agreed that they found the online learning experience an isolating one. The prime focus throughout this year has been on providing the necessary devices to work online and while this has been important, what has been overlooked are the holistic values that are core to adult education principles. As stated by AONTAS (2020b) at the heart of learning is not technology, it is pedagogy. The term pedagogy means the art of teaching and covers so much more of the learning experience. Emotions and feelings are difficult to quantify, but they play a vital role within the learning experience that cannot afford to be discounted. The dynamic of the group is significant in providing support to enable learning from each other’s experiences. Within this research, the students who participated all recognised the knowledge within the group and placed value on one another in order to learn. Many adult learners felt that these aspects of group learning and engagements were missing now and were difficult to replicate through online platforms. In short, remote learning has provided a narrow-standardised medium for learning using ‘human capital’ to serve the needs of the workforce. Based on my research, the findings showed that this approach was only favoured by some while further marginalising many others. 

Prior to the pandemic, a shift towards digitisation was already underway (DAE, 2015). Covid-19 has accelerated this paradigm, and it looks like this is set to continue. How much the pandemic has reshaped the way we live, learn and work; only time will tell. When it comes to adult learning some of the changes experienced may be lasting fixtures and part of the ‘new normal’ in a post-pandemic world. The impact of this will deepen the existing divide of inequality (AONTAS, 2020a). If we consider that this will be our future, then a critical awareness and deep understanding of inequality is more necessary now than ever.  

Maria-Ana Kelly will complete her BA (Hons) in Community Studies from Maynooth University in January 2022. This degree consisted of modules from departments in Applied Social Studies, Anthropology, Sociology and Adult and Community Education. Maria-Ana’s main objective has been to develop a deeper understanding on issues of social justice and recognizes that it is possible to bridge the gap of inequality, through the approaches and methodologies used in the classroom. For her research thesis, she chose to examine in what way the pandemic has exacerbated inequality and has excluded certain students from the learning experience. Following on from the degree, Maria-Ana would like to begin the Master’s in Adult and Community Education next year.

Bibliography 

AONTAS (2020a). Growing evidence base on widening inequalities during Covid-19 for learners across Ireland. Retrieved from: https://www.aontas.com/knowledge/blog/growing-evidence-base-of-widening-inequalities-during-covid-19-for-learners-across-ireland [Accessed on 17th August 2021]. 

AONTAS (2020b). Mitigating educational disadvantage (including Community Education issues) working group: Digital learning and disadvantage across tertiary education – a discussion paper. Retrieved from:  https://www.aontas.com/assets/resources/AONTASResearch/Digital%20Learning%20and%20Disadvantage%20across%20Tertiary%20Education.pdf [Accessed on 17th August 2021]. 

DAE European Commission (2015). Digital agenda for Europe: Digital economy and society index 2015: Country profile: Ireland. Brussels. Retrieved from: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/en/scoreboard/ireland [Accessed on 17th August 2021].

By DACE Maynooth

This is the new blog for students, colleagues and friends of the Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University. We aim to promote diversity and inclusion in education using our online platform. Guest bloggers and friends of the Department will post about their research and experiences in Education. The views expressed by the authors of individual posts do not reflect the views of the Department of Adult and Community Education Maynooth University.

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