Learning and the Life Course

Learning and the Life Course

Photos: Chris Wesselman

Event video available at http://edf.stanford.edu/events/learning-and-life-course

On April 15 in CERAS Learning Hall, four panelists from different arenas of higher education came together to speak about the longevity of learning long past the high school and traditional college years. The event was part of Education’s Digital Future (EDF), whose purpose is "to facilitate as plural and as cosmopolitan and as iconoclastic a conversation as possible about digital learning at this really remarkable and turbulent moment in the history of higher education," according to Mitchell Stevens, one of EDF's co-conveners.

Mitchell StevensStevens explains that Stanford has been undergoing a shift in its thinking about adult learners.  For decades, Stanford thought of undergraduate education as primarily a business of educating students who are early in the period of their adult lives: 18- to 22-year-olds on their way to adulthood. This narrow focus made Stanford relatively unique in the spectrum of colleges and universities in this country, because most--particularly community colleges and comprehensive colleges--had already taken on the responsibility of serving adult learners.  These days, Stanford is engaging in serious conversations about how to make itself more accessible to students at later stages in the life course as well.

According to Stevens, how higher education fits into the life course is being renegotiated for three reasons:

Baby boomers are changing the face of old age.

"The baby boom is entering its golden years, and just like every other institutional domain that the baby boom moved through, old age is being transformed as well," he says. Stevens jokes that it's something to be excited about, because old age is becoming fashionable.  Aging alumni are asking for educational services in new ways. Organizations like Stanford are being asked to think about adult learning and lifelong learning in new ways because some of the largest populations of our own alumni are at the later stages in life.

The life course itself has been transformed.

On the front end, the course of adolescence has slowed, and on the tail end, longevity has extended the retirement years. In the middle, employment has become more discontinuous. Stevens explains, "The industrial period model in which one prepares for the workforce until one is twenty-something and then enters the workforce with some occasional retooling over the course of something called a 'career,' which was presumed to be something rather coherent and bounded by one occupational domain, doesn't really work anymore."

Most students in the United States don't fit the old mold anymore.

"As we have made higher education more available to more and more Americans, most Americans don't look like the unmarried, childless men and women that typically apply for admission to places like Stanford as undergraduates." Stevens continues, "As we have made college more accessible to a wider swath of the population, it's become ever more important to think about how to fit college into adult lives, rather than fit adult lives into college."

While the panelists at the event represent four different organizations, each with its own diverse ideas and mission, their messages have several elements in common. We explore the main themes of their ideas below.

Education designed with the life course in mind

Richard SetterstenOne panelist, Richard Settersten (Endowed Director of the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children & Families at Oregon State University) suggests that instead of thinking about education in or throughout the life course, we should be thinking about education for the life course. As Stevens alluded to in his opening remarks, the tripartite partition of the life course (school, work, retirement) is eroding but not yet dead. "It is still a salient cultural frame," observes Settersten, but the boundaries that separate those three boxes have shifted.

These days, you can build your own life, without a script: “Every period of life today seems to be up for grabs - what it means to be young, middle-aged, or old.” These days, you can create a path that better fits your own needs and interests. While this new model presents new risks, it also offers new opportunities for learning:

  • Having time is a new reality. "Despite all of life's uncertainties today, a long life has become more certain. Longer life coupled with lower fertility means that there is much more time in adulthood without active child-rearing. A hallmark of early adulthood today is also that it's a period of life that is spent without a spouse. That too, is a major shift. We still do not understand fully what the ramifications are of a large and growing population that remains permanently single and permanently childless," says Settersten.
  • Culture is on our side. He observes, "The U.S. has some big master narratives about second chances in life. It's a culture that places a premium on personal development, exploration, and reinvention. All of these things should leave us receptive to the idea of lifelong education."
  • Hard economic times can prompt innovation in the life course. They create a new opening for choices that we might otherwise not make. Higher education has a role to play in the discontinuity that the economy has presented today.

To take advantage of these opportunities, Settersten recommends first changing the way our culture views schooling. For many, going back to school represents taking a step backward into a time when life was organized for you. "If we are serious about lifelong education," he believes, "we have to design institutions for students whose lives are messy, disorderly, untimely, and tangled up in family and other social relationships and obligations."

Fellow panelist Sarah Stein Greenberg (Managing Director, Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, aka Stanford d.school) has been working on a project to address learning in light of the messiness of the life course. The project is called @Stanford, and it seeks to rethink the future of learning and its relationship to residential education. The project team has identified four main directions for the possible future of Stanford education:

  1. Paced education - The speed of learning will be calibrated to fit the needs of students who all come in with different levels of preparedness and focus.  For example, some first-year students come in with a very well-defined idea about what they want to learn and accomplish at Stanford. When they find a class that matches those goals and interests, in that class they tend to be more engaged than fellow students who have not yet defined what their goals and interests might be. By creating different kinds of learning environments based on pace, @Stanford argues that both kinds of students can be better served through learning environments tailored to where they are in the learning and discovery process.
  2. Purpose learning - Students will be encouraged to reflect more deeply about why they are pursuing a set of knowledge and skills rather than learning something completely different.
  3. Axis flip between skills and knowledge - Universities usually hope that knowledge gained in classrooms will have a practical impact for students, but now we are in a moment where there is and will always be easy access to information. This raises questions about the role that skills could and should play in prioritizing learning objectives. @Stanford proposes that we make content knowledge dependent on skill attainment, instead of the traditional way, which is the other way around.
  4. Open loop university - "The dominant paradigm in higher education is to go to college from 18-22, and you are discouraged from making it take longer than that," says Greenberg. You aren't supposed to take time off in the middle, but an open loop university would encourage just that. When you enter college, perhaps you'd be given six years of education to use over the course of your life as you see fit. You could do loops into the university to do specific courses and loops out of the university to do research, complete an internship, or gain on-the-job experience. Classes would then benefit from a vibrant diversity of ages in the classroom.  To make the open loop university a reality, it would require a host of changes, among them better mentoring, age-blind admissions, a shift to portfolios instead of transcripts, and a change in admission standards.

This @Stanford video shows the kind of brainstorming, visioning, and questioning the project is doing about the future of Stanford.


Audience members responded with much interest in the question and answer period after the talks. Brian Murphy (President, De Anza College) firmly believes in looping. After all, he reminds us, the community college has always been an “institution that is defined by looping.” David Brazer (Director, Leadership Degree Programs in the Stanford Graduate School of Education) heard Greenberg's talk and thinks the open loop university would be a great resource for people right in the middle of a career shift. It would provide "just-in-time education" where students could learn a valuable new skill or knowledge set before switching jobs. As a parent of four, Brazer even said he'd be willing to pay the cost of an entire undergraduate education up front, even if it took one of his kids a lifetime to complete, because education really is "a good investment."

Learning for older students

Panelist Susan Hoffman (Director, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkeley, aka OLLI @Berkeley) believes that lifelong learning offers a feeling of challenge and cognitive uncertainty that can keep aging minds sharp. OLLI @Berkeley seeks to be responsive to how older adults learn by improving the very biology of that learning. "What we do is urge people to do something that is out of your habit of mind and out of character," says Hoffman. Courses are designed to be interactive, experiential, and interdisciplinary to facilitate neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

Greenberg and Hoffman"We're also discovering how much hearing is an issue," reports Hoffman. "Almost two thirds of people over 65 and 90% of those over 80 have hearing issues. It is probably the most significant stumbling block to people continuing to learn. When people have hearing impairment, there is a great incidence of early onset of dementia, so we take the hearing very seriously."

Her fellow panelist Philip Pizzo (Founding Director, Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, or DCI) also speaks to the public health aspect of lifelong learning. Pizzo, who has had a distinguished medical career, reports, "Ten thousand people every day cross the age of 65." By focusing on the education of this older population, Pizzo argues, "We can change public health in significant ways." Doing new and challenging things helps "open up new neural networks and think about the future in a different way," says Pizzo. "If people are inspired to continue to look to the future, that may perturb and alter the onset of chronic ailments and changes which in some ways impact us individually and societally." The Distinguished Careers Institute hopes to promote "wellness that enables endurance through the life journey."

Expanding access to lifelong learning

When picturing a lifelong learner, all the panelists want us to remember:

  • It's not just for women.
  • It's not just for the privileged.

Unfortunately, these traits have have been widely propagated as inherent characteristics of lifelong learners, which has limited the appeal of lifelong learning to broader audiences. Hoffman reports, "The traditional lifelong learner is female, age 65 to 75, and white." At OLLI@ Berkeley, they are looking at how to diversify and have a more inclusive program. One of their approaches was to create a new curriculum area on sports designed to bring in male students, and it seems to be working.

Setterson agrees that gender plays a huge role in the direction of the life course and believes that we must recognize gender differences when considering designing learning for the life course.  "The adult life course cannot be seen as unisex," says Setterson. "There is his adulthood and hers, and the two actually look quite different."

Setterson believes we need to focus more on the the problems of men: "Many of the crisis storylines of adulthood today are carried by men or created by men - low achievement, high school dropout, college unpreparedness, unemployment, being disconnected (that means you're not in school, work, or the military), imprisonment. The list goes on - all about men. We have to figure out how to help men succeed in education, and we have to hope that education is also something that might help transform them."

We should also ensure that learning over the life course is available to all people, not just those with resources. Says Setterson, "Lifelong education cannot simply be for those who are already well educated."

Phil PizzoBoth Pizzo and Stevens have been promoting a narrative of higher education that includes community colleges, because the teachers and administrators at community colleges have been at the forefront of lifelong learning long before four-year institutions started to pay attention. Unfortunately, community colleges face their own set of challenges. As president of De Anza College, Murphy has been directed by the State of California to discourage older adults from engaging in single-course enrollment. He reports that in terms of getting funding for the college from the state, the narrative that has worked politically so far has been "to privilege the young."

Setterson has observed the same trend: "So much of the policy discussion on the Hill about education is about investment in early childhood to the exclusion of discussion not only about education beyond childhood, but certainly beyond the transition beyond adulthood. We have to make a strong case that public investments in education throughout adulthood are also worth making." One of the best ways of doing that is banding together to strengthen alliances across different kinds of academic institutions.  

What to call adult learners?

"Often times when I hear instructors and administrators talk about students, they talk about 'kids.' Most of us have tripped up in this way, but it is a revealing statement about who we think education is for," says Settersten. OLLI @Berkeley calls them “members.” DCI calls them “fellows.”  Imagine if we never stopped being learners. What would we be called? In her talk Greenberg imagines that the term "alumni" as we know it today would vanish.

Says Greenberg, "Instead of having 7,000 undergraduates, Stanford would have 215,000… somethings." Count me in.

See Also

Anna Koester Marshall is a doctoral candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures.


Read the story by Stanford News Service on this event and the whole @Stanford initiative: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/may/dschool-undergrad-reimagined-050514.html