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What the Future of Adult Learning Will Look Like

Lifelong learning will become an even longer, more purpose-driven pursuit

By Shayla Thiel Stern

In honor of Next Avenue's fifth anniversary this month, we are looking  to the next five years (and beyond) to better understand what our audience of people over 50 will be doing. Earlier posts looked at forecasts for health, personal finances and the way we'll live; an upcoming one will discuss the future of caregiving. In this interview, Steve Thaxton, executive director of the National Resource Center for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (one of the longest-running education programs for learners over 50 in the country), discusses adult learning trends:

In 5 Years: From MOOCs to Smaller Group Discussions

Next Avenue: Five years ago, we were all talking about MOOCs — massive open online courses where thousands of people could sign up to take free or inexpensive lecture-style courses. No one seems to be talking about that today.

Steve Thaxton: Right. MOOCs really didn’t pass anywhere near the level of participation and sustainability we expected them to. Online courses and online coursework are still part of our lives, though, as are podcasts, webinars and so many other digital ways of learning.

What do you think this says about learning for older adults now and in the coming decades?

For our Institutes, we share the same age group as Next Avenue, saying it’s a cohort of 50+ people. But in reality, that represents three full generations. There’s a demand and interest in experiential and participatory learning now that’s much higher than what we had in the past.

There’s also a respect for a variety of learning styles now among generations (and not just driven by age, but by all kinds of factors). This change has been mostly driven by the baby boomers and younger Gen X students, but they have really influenced the older generations who were more used to the 'Sage on the Stage' model — the idea that there is one professor lecturing at the front of the room with no discussion.

What role does technology play in the classroom now and in the next five years then?

Elements of distance and online learning will enter in, but the adult learning institutes that want to be really successful will foster a real learning community with experiential learning and discussion as part of the intellectual pursuit.

Additionally, our surveys show that nationally, most of our students’ device of choice is an iPad or a tablet. Developers working on distance learning should be mindful of that. And our learners are very sophisticated. They’re on Facebook. They shop on Amazon. That ease will just increase over time.

In 10 Years: Topical Adult Learning Communities Will Flourish

How will the content of coursework change in the next five to 10 years?

Increasingly, curriculum is being centered around current events and topics. For example, a course might be developed around the anniversary of the Reformation. Or recently, there’s been a big demand for Constitutional law and the Supreme Court. Or maybe it would be the solar eclipse. There could be local connections, too, to big events or exhibits related to the community where the class is offered.

Another change is that in the older days, learning was often tied to a full 12-week term or semester. We’re now looking and seeing that certain content can be accomplished in maybe just two weeks, or a weekend or a day-long field trip.

What are some predictions about adult learning in the next 10 or even 20 years?


As more people enter into the age group that we serve, more adult learning institutes and organizations will inevitably have to pop up.  Now there are 400+ existing programs for adult learning in the country, but if the population grows as it is expected to,  there could be 700 programs in 10 years.

This tsunami of aging is showing that people want these things. If a university program is maxed out or a [community program] is too small, more will pop up.

These might look different than what they do now. It could be a clustering. People love to sit and talk and learn from each other.

And finally, intergenerational learning could be a big idea in the future. Already in our programs, the newly retired love learning from the people who are 20 years older than them, and the older ones love the energy of younger retirees.

A 'Jetsons' Forecast: Accommodating a Longer Life

And what about the distant future? Do you have a Jetsons prediction?

I’m not sure I have a Jetsons-style of prediction, but I will say this: My grandparents were expected to live 30 years less than I. Between better health care, preventative care and lifestyle, will I be 100 and acting like my at dad at age 87? Just a couple of decades ago, you would retire and play golf or bridge, or drive around in your RV for your remaining years. But people now are living longer. More importantly, people are seeking purpose and intellectual stimulation.

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Shayla Thiel Sternis the former Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS. Read More
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