Better impact through programme planning?

From left to right:

Sonja Belete
DVV International

Steffi Robak
Leibniz University Hanover


Abstract – This article explains how and why programme planning has developed in adult ­education. It describes some core features and possible benefits of using programme planning to improve the impact of adult education. Finally, it outlines how programme planning can be ­accomplished, using Uganda and Ethiopia as practical examples.

Lifelong learning opportunities and adult education programmes depend in part on the interpretations, ideas, models, resources and funding that are contributed by states, governments, communities and stakeholders. This is often referred to as the macro level. In addition, lifelong learning activities also depend and are based on the competences of adult educators. It is they who must transform these ideas, interpretations and possibilities into training programmes, projects, offers and finally seminars or actual training courses, according to the demands and needs of the population. This is usually referred to as the meso level.

The role and policies of adult education within a lifelong learning system in a country are built in part on international policies (i.e. UN, EU, OECD), but the actual work is carried out on a national level. A major challenge for adult education nationally is to respond to the specific education and learning demands of the population and to create learning cultures that harmonise with people’s socio-biographical, economic and educational backgrounds as well as learning habits. Adult education can only have an impact if it meets these preconditions. It is simply the best way to make adult education ­accessible, to prepare for employment, to improve work or even to provide access to education for the first time in people’s lives. Adult and continuing education is also embedded in broader policies and system building processes that are rooted in a country’s social, political and economic situation. Moreover, this has an impact on the delivery of adult and continuing education.

“Arranging these single courses or classes into a comprehensive and ongoing programme is a major achievement in the history of adult and continuing education.”

From humble beginnings

Once upon a time adult education consisted of single courses, discussion groups or classes in reading, writing or arithmetic. Arranging these single courses or classes into a comprehensive and ongoing programme is a major achievement in the history of adult and continuing education. Today the amount of learning activities is evidence of a society’s performance. This is measured through comparative educational monitoring systems such as the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE). The approach and the capacities for shaping an adult education system vary from one country to another. However, the ability to design programmes, projects, seminars as well as other forms of distance learning and digital learning forms the basis for all education. The planning and provision of programmes for adults is one of the core activities of the professional staff working in adult education (DVV International/DIE 2015).

A programme and/or systematic concept of projects is the result of historical, social, economic and educational developments at a given time, and of specific professional pedagogical aspirations within diverse institutional contexts (Gieseke & Opelt 2003). A programme works as a reflection of social processes (Gieseke 2017) because it shows the needs, demands and interests of learning at a particular time according to the social and economic developments that are going on in a country. In a systematic perspective, when we teach students in adult education or train professionals, we define programmes as macro-/meso-didactically-designed artefacts that provide a mixture of learning arrangements, projects, courses, discussion groups and target group concepts. Every institution of adult and continuing education demonstrates its way of offering education and qualification for adults via its training/learning programme (ibid).

Learning to plan

Adult education or lifelong learning programmes are a part of the operational framework of a country’s adult education system. Experience in Ethiopia, Uganda and other African countries has shown that the competence of adult educators to plan programmes that meet the needs of target groups is not enough. The ability of adult educators to consider other influencing factors and actors outside the realm of their technical expertise so as to ensure that these programmes can actually be delivered to the target group is also crucial. This implies that adult educators have to conduct joint planning with so-called “system managers”. These may be experts from planning and finance departments within governmental or private institutions, as well as within NGOs. When the adult education programmes have a multi-sectoral design, cooperation with technical experts from different fields is also required. Figure 1 (page 39) gives an overview of the main components of an adult education system across the tiers of governance that exist within a country. This forms the operational framework/background for any adult educator to plan training programmes and offers.

According to this model, an adult educator should be aware of the policies, guidelines and strategic orientation at national level, and how they are rolled out at local level. In Ethiopia, the Ministry of Education has designed and approved a “Transfer Directive” which allows learners to follow different adult education paths and give recognition to prior learning. Awareness of different institutional structures and organisations that deliver or coordinate learning programmes for adults ensures that planning does not take place in a vacuum and can be aligned with or complement other existing courses.

Many adult educators are comfortable in the technical processes to plan and deliver their training/learning programmes. When faced with a challenge, they will most frequently redesign the curriculum or learning materials. However, no training programme can be delivered if the adult educator does not engage with the planning and finance ­departments within the institution in which they are working. This is especially true for governmental programmes, where national and local government budgets will determine what is feasible – and the planning department will coordinate related initiatives. Monitoring and evaluating training programmes, as well as feeding their results into a comprehensive Management Information System, is also crucial for the success of a particular training programme. Processes such as planning, budgets, coordination and monitoring as well as evaluation are referred to as “Management Processes”. These have to be considered as enabling and/or hindering factors for programme planning and implementation. In cases in which the budget is insufficient, or the institutions do not have adequate human resources of a streamlined structure, it will be difficult to deliver the training programme, no matter how well it was planned from a technical perspective and related to the needs of the target group.

The key to programme planning

What does programme planning as a key competence mean? The professional action of programme planning comprises all activities required for developing programmes, individual educational courses, or projects. It is about finding topics, formulating offers and bundling different contents into programmes or even profiles of adult and further education organisations. Programme planning secures the curricular/supply structures of adult and further education organisations; – it even and above all legitimises the organisation as such (Käpplinger & Robak 2017). Our research into programme planning shows how comprehensive programmes are generated, how policies influence programmes and programme planning processes, how the professionals in programme planning processes balance different aspects (i.e. learning demands, learning needs, learning interests), and finally how they measure the competences and abilities of the different target groups. Programme planning research also shows that educational as well as extra-educational missions of the provider intervene in programme planning processes, i.e. the idea of education in adult education centres differs from those in institutions that are run by churches and trade unions. Also, visions and convictions (content, pedagogy, ethics) of the professional programme planners’ institutions of adult education are visible in the programme planning process.

How to imagine programme planning as a professional competence?

There are different models of programme planning, which can be summarised as linear or cyclical models on one side and interactive, relational or adjusting models on the other (von Hippel & Käpplinger 2017). Linear and cyclical models define steps in a planning process, i.e. 1. engage, 2. assess, 3. plan, 4. implement and 5. evaluate. Observations in the practical fields show that programme planning is more complex and does not follow linear steps. The interactive models show that planning processes are complex interactive adjusting processes (Caffarella & Daffron 2013). Research shows that the capacity to bundle programme decisions by using specific knowledge islands forms part of these adjusting processes.

© Shira Bentley

These models are non-linear, and do not have a hierarchy of tasks. Wiltrud Gieseke’s research shows that programme planning constitutes an alignment of the positions through negotiation. It implies coordination, and thus also an optimisation of the needs and requirements assessment for programme development. Programme development does not follow a linear course of development; it goes through different stages before the goal is reached. The stages depend on situational contexts.1 Every offer/project within a programme follows a different path. Possible paths include: 1. needs analysis – networking (negotiating with partners and politicians) – designing offers – evaluation; 2. evaluation – discussions with colleagues – changing concepts – designing an adjusted offer; 3. a new idea as a result of a networking discussion – needs analysis – negotiation with partners, stakeholders, politicians – finding funding – designing an offer together with teachers.

Programme planning is a back-and-forth process that needs knowledge, communication and decision-making processes on the basis of an idea and interpretation of education, qualification and competence development. It needs autonomy, which is especially difficult in a transnational perspective. It also needs to consider the country’s adult education system as a framework of reference in order to ensure that training programmes can be delivered in a sustainable manner.

Programme planning in Uganda

The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development is the government department responsible for adult literacy and community development in Uganda. In 2014, they decided to redesign their adult education programme and place the emphasis on the actual needs of the learners and in line with Uganda’s Vision 2040, which addresses higher-level strategic objectives in the country. The main emerging needs of learners were not functional literacy only, but were linked to livelihood skills training, business skills training, financial literacy and a more conducive environment through community development activities which could be included in Village Action Plans at the local government level. The Ministry’s counterparts at district and sub-county levels are responsible for implementation. However, these structures have insufficient budget and human resources to take on a programme of this nature.

As a response, the Ministry, supported by DVV Inter­national, embarked on redesigning their adult education and community development programme into one comprehensive programme with five core elements. These are functional adult literacy, livelihood skills training, business skills training, savings and loan scheme (to generate start-up capital for small businesses) and community development through the planning and implementation of local action points identified during the participatory learning process. This programme required a new curriculum (generated in a bottom-up manner), a new methodology (based on the Reflect approach), and new implementation structures (integrated technical committees of experts from different government sector offices). Together they enable the design and delivery of this kind of integrated training programme. The programme is currently being piloted in three districts in Uganda. Much has been done at macro level to assess the possibility of up-scaling the programme to the national level with government funding.

Programme planning in Ethiopia

The rural context in Ethiopia likewise demanded the design of an adult education programme that could address the needs of diverse target groups ranging from farmers (both male and female) to young people. The programme needed to address the holistic livelihood situation of the population as well as the core strategic objectives being targeted in Ethiopia’s 5-year Education Sector Development Plan, which aligns with the country’s National Adult Education Strategy. To deliver a diverse range of adult education training programmes, DVV International cooperated with the Ministry of Education and its counterparts at regional and district levels, as well as with government sector offices such as Agriculture, Women’s Affairs, Trade and Industry, among others. The aim was to design Community Learning Centres (CLCs) as places of learning where a variety of training programmes can be offered for different target groups. These CLCs are coordinated by a Coordinator (who is a government employee), and the members of the community have a committee through which they can voice their needs and interests. Management and technical committees with representatives from the abovementioned government offices meet regularly to plan training programmes and schedules. The centres provide learning opportunities for community members, but they also serve as a space in which service-providers/institutions can reach a larger target group at once.

Planning these training programmes in both countries has required a different skill set from adult educators. They have engaged with sector experts in different fields, worked with financial and planning experts, and engaged in aspects such as designing not only training programmes, but also institutional structures and management processes that can lend life to the training programmes.


1 / For an African perspective see Gboku and Nthogo Lekoko (2007).


Caffarella, R. and Daffron, S. (2013): Planning programs for adult learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

DVV International and DIE (eds.) (2015): Curriculum GlobALE. Global Curriculum for Adult Learning and Education (2nd edition). Bonn: DVV International & DIE.
Gboku, M. and Nthogo Lekoko, R. (2007): African Perspectives on Adult Learning. Developing Programmes for Adult Learners in Africa. Hamburg: UNESCO.

Gieseke, W. and Opelt, K. (2003): Erwachsenenbildung in politischen Umbrüchen. Programmforschung Volkshochschule Dresden 1945-1997. Opladen: Leske und Budrich.

Gieseke, W. (2006): Programmforschung als Grundlage der Programm­planung unter flexiblen institutionellen Kontexten. In: Meisel, K. and Schiersmann, C. (ed.): Zukunftsfeld Weiterbildung. Standortbestimmungen für Forschung, Praxis und Politik, 69-88. Bielefeld: wbv.

Gieseke, W. (2015): Why do we need program research? Lecture held at the conference “Cultures of Program Planning in Adult Education: Policies, Autonomy and Innovation” in Hanover on 28 September 2015.

Gieseke, W. (2017): Programs, Program Research, Program-planning Activities – Rhizome-like Developments. In: Käpplinger, B.; Robak, S. et al. (eds.) (2017): Cultures of Program Planning in Adult Education: Concepts, Research Results and Archives. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Käpplinger, B. and Robak, S. (2017): Introduction. In: Käpplinger, B.; Robak, Steffi et al. (eds.) (2017): Cultures of Program Planning in Adult Education: Concepts, Research Results and Archives. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

von Hippel, A. and Käpplinger, B. (2017): Models of Program Planning in Germany and in North America – A Comparison. In: Käpplinger, B.; Robak, Steffi et al. (eds.) (2017): Cultures of Program Planning in Adult Education: Concepts, Research Results and Archives. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

About the authors

Sonja Belete is the Regional Director for the East/Horn of Africa region of DVV International and supports and advises the Ethiopian and Ugandan Governments on developing comprehensive adult education systems. She holds a Masters degree in Adult Education and has over 30 years experience in designing and implementing adult education and livelihoods programmes in different African countries.


Steffi Robak, Prof. Dr., is a professor of Adult Education and Diversity Education at the Leibniz University in Hanover. At the Institute for Vocational Education and Adult Education, she focuses on intercultural education and international education research in areas such as education management and professionalisation in adult education.


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