Releasing the potential of older adults – a win-win perspective

Thomas Kuan
U 3rd Age


 – The Global Education 2030 Agenda now includes early childhood, youth and adult literacy but lacks clear indicators for older adults. That group represents a large and growing segment of the population. Older adults learn differently because of their work and life experience, and they prefer peer-learning environments with networking as a part of their learning development. Nowadays, older adults are generally healthier, have more free time, and are often organised into communities for informal later-life learning. Older adults should be included in education in order to prevent a digital divide and to ensure sustain­ability. Communities will benefit from a literate older population that understands regional cultural diversity.

In this Internet age, education is important for learning, unlearning and re-learning. The UNESCO Education 2030 Agenda recommends that every person must be given opportunities for education – to sustain lifestyles and appre-ciation of cultural and social values.

The volunteer facilitator Ms Amita (second from right) and her class participants are presenting creative batik paintings, © Thomas Kuan

UNESCO Education 2030: SDG Target 4.7:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appre-ciation of cultural diversity and culture’s contribution to sustainable development. 

This goal is reassuring because older adults are often left out of education due to globalisation and government policies. To ensure fairness, it is hoped that the implementation of Education 2030 will recognise that adults are actually comprised -of three large groups – young adults (18-35), middle-aged adults (36-55) and older adults (55 and above). Older adults form a huge segment of the population, with about 901 million people aged 60 or over in 2015. Furthermore, this is a growing group, expected to reach 1.4 billion by 2030 (World Ageing Report, UN 2015). In matured economies, more older adults are literate and retired (either formally or forced), and in increasing numbers have found themselves with more time to catch up on their learning. Urbanisation and the rise of the middle class allow education to be personal, and older adults, with their cultural understanding and “humanistic learning” (Elias & Merriam 2005) want to be included in order to have a meaningful life. 

The family of older adults

I will now focus on older adults in the “third age” (from 55-75). This group is like one big family, linked and e-linked by common desires for active ageing through lifelong learning. They form learning platforms by being members of universities of the third age (U3As or UTAs,,, and by being “students” at community learning centres (CLCs). 

Universities of the 3rd Age (U3As) 

The University of the Third Age is an international movement whose aims are the education and stimulation of mainly retired members of the community – those in their third “age” of life. It is commonly referred to as U3A. (Wikipedia).

U3As are unique groups of community learners who are older adults. They are part of an international movement that encourages senior citizens to participate in holistic active ageing activities. U3As offer informal learning that is interdependent and at the same time independent in operation. When U3A learners are given the capabilities and opportunities to learn, it is not “you should learn”, it is “learn what you like to learn”. They are autonomous learners seeking meanings in their holistic lifestyles (Kuan 2013)

Where there are no U3As or CLCs, learning spaces must be created to offer older adults education for their sustainable development. Setting up more learning venues will allow decentralisation of learning, and funding can be justified because it benefits individuals and communities. Informal learning is currently being done on social media such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, location-based Apps (Myer 2012), and many local learning apps in China, India and other countries. Development of social media dedicated to the education of older adults could be endorsed by UNESCO working with country partners. This may be a way to include older adults in education, and their numbers can then be measured by the number of users.

Community Learning Centres (CLCs)

Community learning spaces, centres and networks (hereafter community learning centres or CLCs) are active in different cultures and societies and play a key role in expanding access to lifelong learning for adults, young people and children. People of all ages, from diverse cultural, economic, social and ethnic backgrounds, benefit from taking part in learning activities organised by or at CLCs. While there are differences from culture to culture, common features of CLCs are: (1) strong community ownership, (2) diverse learning provision and (3) low costs of participation in learning activities (UIL 2014).

Older adults online 

Being computer savvy helps to obtain the required information quickly and efficiently. With the Internet, future education will be on smartphones, tablets, laptops, wearable tech and similar devices. This means digital literacy becomes an important life skill. To some older adults, this is “new” education, and they are learning fast to be part of “smart” communities. Statistics from 2000-2016 show that older adults already form the age group of Internet users that is growing the fastest in the United States (see figure 1).

In Australia, seventy-nine percent of older Australians have accessed the Internet at some point in their lives, with seven in 10 (71 percent) going online in the three months to June 2015 (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2016). In Singapore, people spend most of their waking hours (an average of 12 hours 42 minutes) using electronic devices – of which smart phones were used for 3 hours 12 minutes daily. Almost 89 % of Singapore citizens use electronic devices for banking and finance (Straits Times 3 April 2017). Many countries are also adopting digital payment schemes.

Singapore has one of the largest older adult populations in the Asia-Pacific region. Policies on continuous learning for computer literacy will help them to access updated information on education, health and related issues to cope with daily life, and identify reliable news sources. In the IoT (Internet-of-Things) lifestyle, youths and older adults can engage in intergenerational learning, meaning that older adults must accept micro-learning and gamification the same way Millennials do.

Older adults as learners

When developing policies for older adults, it is necessary to understand that they have their own learning characteristics. Older adults

a. are autonomous and self-directed learners, exhibiting dysfunctional learner states from dependence to independence (Confessore 2009);

b. have a preference for peer-sharing platforms in an equitable environment where older adults can participate 
in learning regardless of social standing and educational levels; 

c. enjoy community learning because it contributes to their developmental learning (Thornton, Collins, Birren & Svens-son 2011); 

d. allow critical reflections to bridge gaps in information sharing;

e. create understanding of each other’s languages and cultural values through conversations. The benefits of using one’s mother tongue in sharing knowledge and cultural skills may help to create valuable products (and services) as the learning of older adults is not necessarily done in writing and reading;

f. are inspired to create new knowledge from indigenous knowledge;

g. consider respect and listening as parts of ageing gracefully; 

h. encourage lonely older adults to integrate into a friendly learning environment with local communities and friends;

i. preserve cultural values: languages, music and traditional dances;

j. use the informal platforms where intergenerational, multicultural and social values are shared.

From policy to practice

To understand how older adults access learning, let’s look at a learning venue in Singapore. A course on “Batik painting for beginners” was organised, with course information advertised on the Internet by the Council for Third Age1. After a sufficient number of participants had enrolled online, the class started. Ms Amita, a volunteer facilitator, aged 54 (see picture on page 27), shared her batik painting techniques. When her participants learned that batik techniques could be used to write Chinese calligraphy or Indian Kolam and Rangoli (which are coloured rice flour patterns) she was pleased and her participants were motivated. This is knowledge creation – fusing two cultural painting techniques to create new patterns to showcase racial harmony and cultural appreciation. 

On another occasion, a “Guided Autobiography or GAB” (Birren & Cochran 2001) course participant got so interested in GAB that he enrolled for the online GAB Instructor course. Together with this author, course materials were translated into a Malay Language Version (there is already a Chinese GAB Version), making it the first in the East Asia Region. Is this knowledge creation? Yes, it is!

Other course participants use social media to form interest groups for networking and social bonding.

The five factors

The above activities show that education for older adults can be organised based on five factors (adapted from the ancient Asian concept of BaZi2); namely: Learner, Resources, Outputs, Knowledge and Authority, all linked in a holistic interactive loop as shown in figure 2.

The Learner is the older adult with her/his own capabilities and skills. As an autonomous self-directed learner, he/she is aware of the benefits and limitations of personal learning efforts. The Learner controls Knowledge as her/his own wealth and is guided by Authority to produce Outputs. The mindset is to maximise limited resources to produce desired outputs that will eventually become her/his own knowledge. 

Outputs are desired goals, outcomes, targets achieved, learning objectives, expectations. Accumulated outputs such as skills and competencies will give rise to Knowledge.

Knowledge is wealth if information and learning are organised and used. Knowledge can be tangible assets and intangible intellectual skills and experiences.

When Knowledge is shared with others, it transforms into Authority.

Authority is the rules and regulations needed to achieve real learning. It also acts through mentors, coaches, teachers, trainers, the ground rules of peer-sharing, including accepted social behaviour. It ensures non-violence in pursuit of goals and sets the ground rules of fellowship. Authority is also a “seed” for the intention to learn, thus motivating a need to seek Resources.

Resources are funding, venues, learning facilities, support of families and friends. Without resources, it is often -difficult to achieve desired learning Outputs (or Goals). Resources provided by policymakers will nudge older adults into learning.

Using the “Holistic Learning Factors” model, education courses can be organised by balancing the availability of -resources with desired outputs. Transformation from one factor to another is the continuous learning cycle, allowing collaborations to achieve measurable results. As in the above programme, when the intention to learn batik painting was decided upon (the Authority factor), resources were sought. A facilitator, a venue, and an administrator were identified 
to start the programme. Learning efforts by older adults produced beautiful batik paintings. With competency, some older adults can use the batik technique to produce more creative paintings.

Where do we go from here?

Older adults are a huge segment of the population which must be given access to education to promote their human rights and sustainable living. The inclusion of education for older adults as a discussion item in future meetings related to Education 2030 will endorse their learning efforts. Macro global goals and targets for adults can include separate micro indicators for the education of older adults. 

By 2030 (only 13 years away), computers will be more intelligent and smart phones will be cheaper and used by 70 % of citizens to obtain access to quality education (Gollub 2016). With the costs of e-learning and digital devices going down, e-learning can reach a large number of older adults for their learning development. Investment in education for third age older adults will give a better return because “the higher the level of general knowledge of a person and of groups, the easier it is for them to acquire skills and competencies which are needed to cope with the challenging changes in societies” (Hinzen & Robak 2016). Education plus experience produces creativity, an essential 21st century life skill.

Policy-makers face the challenge of motivating older adults to go for second chance education. Allowing learners to respond and design their own learning curriculum using “The Holistic Learning Factors” model may address their behavioural intentions to learn. Older adults are often seen as “learner dependent”, relying on others to shape their learning process. In reality, it is more about collaborative learning efforts, and creating opportunities for networking and bonding. 

As regards health and medical conditions, continuous learning through social engagement will slow down the process of dementia by maintaining psychological, spiritual and mental health. Neuroscience postulates that muscles have biological clocks (Current Biology 2017) which are useful in understanding why older adults keep learning to unconsciously slow down the onset of dementia. Public support and priority for the education of older adults will improve their mental and physical health, and the use of video healthcare (or telemedicine) is also a possibility. 

Building learning cities requires strong political leadership and steadfast commitment (UNESCO 2015). This author hopes the same commitment will result in more investment in learning spaces for older adults, for their fulfilment through education. The benefits for older adults are: a second chance for education, active ageing, learning development, and contribution to e-lifestyles.

Communities will benefit as adults become more creative as they grow older because they feel good and feel accepted: “to be a genius, think like a 94-year-old” (Pagan, ST April 2017). Engaged older adults are generally more healthy and display positive thinking, and their life-stories can contribute to indigenous knowledge. With the costs of e-learning becoming affordable, it is feasible to support education for older adults to achieve sustainable longevity.


1 / Council for Third Age (C3A) – a government agency promotes active ageing in Singapore through public education, outreach and partnerships.

2 / BaZi is an ancient Chinese theory (dating back about 2000 years) that can reveal the inborn talents and characteristics of individuals in their learning efforts. Google search on “BaZi” for more information, or contact this author


Australian Communications and Media Authority (2016): Older Australians and digital engagement.

Birren, J., & Cochran, K. (2001): Telling the Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography Groups. Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Confessore, J.G. (2009): The Role of Learner Autonomy in the Reconciliation of Cognitive Dissonance. Paper presented at a Certified Learner Autonomy Profile (CLAP) Workshop, Singapore. 

Current Biology (2017): Astrocytes Regulate Daily Rhythms in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus and Behavior. Article by Chak Foon Tso, Tatiana -Simon, Allison C. Greenlaw, Tanvi Puri, Michihiro Mieda & Erik D. Herzog in Current Biology. Published online March 2017. 

Elias, J.L. & Merriam, S.B. (2005): Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education, 128–130. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.

Gollub, U. (May 2016): Online feature about Udo Gollub’s views on the changes in time, technology and society. 

Hinzen, H. & Robak, S. (2016): Knowledge, Competencies and Skills for Life and Work. In: Adult Education and Development 83/2016. Bonn: DVV International. 

Kuan, T. (2013): Universities of the third age (U3As) – communities of non-formal learners. PowerPoint presentation held at Chulalongkorn
University, Thailand.

Myer, T. (2012): Social Networking for the Over 50s. Pearson Education Ltd.

Pagan, K. (ST April 2017): To be a genius, think like a 94-year-old. Pagan Kennedy’s article published in The Straits Times, April 10, 2017.

Straits Times Newspaper (3 April 2017): Digital habits in Singapore, A8.

Thornton, J.E.; Collins, J.B.; Birren, J.; Svensson, C. (2011): Guided Autobiographyʼs Developmental Exchange: Whatʼs in it for Me? In: The International Journal of Ageing and Human Development. Sage Publications.

UIL (2014): UIL Policy Brief 8. Community-based learning for sustainable development.

UNESCO (2015): Guidelines for Building Learning Cities. UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities. 

UN (2015): World Ageing Report, p. 2.

Further reading

Crumpton, B. & Montoya, S. (March 2017): Why we need a flagship indicator for education: all children in school and learning. Blog entry published in March 2017 at 

Kuan, T. (2014): Understanding Seniors’ Motivation in E-Learning Through the Classical Bazi Theory. E-Learning Korea 2014 Conference.

Swindell, R. & Thompson, J. (1995): An International Perspective of
the University of the Third Age.

About the author

Thomas Kuan is the founder of the U 3rd Age, a non-profit organisation in Singapore. He is Secretary-General (and incoming President) of East Asia Federation for Adult Education (EAFAE) and a member of the virtual Universities of Third Age-Asia Pacific Alliance (U3A-APA).


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