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Lifelong learning is the "lifelong, voluntary, and self-motivated" pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. As such, it not only enhances social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development, but also competitiveness and employability.
The term recognises that learning is not confined to childhood or the classroom, but takes place throughout life and in a range of situations. During the last fifty years, constant scientific and technological innovation and change has had a profound effect on learning needs and styles. Learning can no longer be divided into a place and time to acquire knowledge (school) and a place and time to apply the knowledge acquired (the workplace). Instead, learning can be seen as something that takes place on an on-going basis from our daily interactions with others and with the world around us.
Lifelong learning is being recognized by traditional higher education institutions as valid in addition to degree attainment. Some learning is accomplished in segments or interest categories and can still be valuable to the individual and community. The economic impact of educational institutions at all levels will continue to be significant into the future as formal courses of study continue and interest-based subjects are pursued. The institutions produce educated citizens who buy goods and services in the community and the education facilities and personnel generate economic activity during the operations and institutional activities. Similar to health facilities, educational institutions are among the top employers in many cities and towns of the world. Whether brick-and-mortar institutions or on-line schools, there is a great economic impact worldwide from learning, including lifelong learning, for all age groups. The lifelong learners, including persons with academic or professional credentials, tend to find higher-paying occupations, leaving monetary, cultural, and entrepreneural impressions on communities, according to educator Cassandra B. Whyte.
It is thought that John Field also references ecominic impacts of lifelong learning.
Although the term is widely used in a variety of contexts its meaning is often unclear.
There are several established contexts for lifelong learning beyond traditional "brick and mortar" schooling:
E-learning is available at most colleges and universities or to individuals learning independently.
Literally ‘thinking about the process of knowing,’ metacognition refers to “higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning.”
While the study of metacognition originally gave educational psychologists insights into what differentiated successful students from their less successful peers, it is increasingly being used to inform teaching that aims to make students more aware of their learning processes, and show them how to regulate those processes for more effective learning throughout their lives.
As lifelong learning is "lifelong, lifewide, voluntary, and self-motivated" learning to learn, that is, learning how to recognize learning strategies, and monitor and evaluate learning, is a pre-condition for lifelong learning. Metacognition is an essential first step in developing lifelong learning.
In India and elsewhere, the "University of the Third Age" (U3A) provides an example of the almost spontaneous emergence of autonomous learning groups accessing the expertise of their own members in the pursuit of knowledge and shared experience. No prior qualifications and no subsequent certificates feature in this approach to learning for its own sake and, as participants testify, engagement in this type of learning in later life can indeed 'prolong active life'.
In Sweden the successful concept of study circles, an idea launched almost a century ago, still represents a large portion of the adult education provision. The concept has since spread, and for instance, is a common practice in Finland as well. A study circle is one of the most democratic forms of a learning environment that has been created. There are no teachers and the group decides on what content will be covered, scope will be used, as well as a delivery method.
Sometimes lifelong learning aims to provide educational opportunities outside standard educational systems — which can be cost-prohibitive, if it is available at all. On the other hand, formal administrative units devoted to this discipline exist in a number of universities. For example, the 'Academy of Lifelong Learning' is an administrative unit within the University-wide 'Professional and Continuing Studies' unit at the University of Delaware. Another example is the Jagiellonian University Extension (Wszechnica Uniwersytetu Jagiellonskiego), which is one of the most comprehensive Polish centers for lifelong learning (open learning, organizational learning, community learning).
In recent years 'lifelong learning' has been adopted in the UK as an umbrella term for post-compulsory education that falls outside of the UK Higher Education system - Further Education, Community Education, Work-based Learning and similar voluntary, public sector and commercial settings.
Most colleges and universities in the United States encourage lifelong learning to non-traditional students. Professional licensure and certification courses are also offered at many universities, for instance for teachers, social services providers, and other professionals.
As the Jagiellonian University Extension defines it, there are seven main professional profiles in the lifelong learning domain:
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