Every year more and more digitalisation is becoming a natural part of our daily lives. We have long been accustomed to the presence of digital technologies in the space that surrounds us. However, for many high-poverty countries, digitalisation may still not be seen as a part of the very near future. But to what extent is this true? Maybe it makes sense to think the other way around, to consider digitalisation as a way to reduce the gap between rich and poor people as well as rich and poor countries, also as a possible way to streamline efforts and costs, including an increase of coverage and quality for adult learning and education (ALE).
From May to December 2021 – still under the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic – DVV International supported the online study Analysis of Digitalisation in ALE in Asia: Risks and Challenges for Reaching out to Marginalised Groups carried out by the expert team from IMACON – ERUDIO consultancies. The study targeted 47 stakeholders in three pilot countries from different regions in Asia – Palestine, Tajikistan and Cambodia. The aim of the study was to investigate the specific digital landscape, the needs and demands in the countries and to identify common trends and potential development areas for ALE digitalisation in the region as a whole. ALE digitalisation in this study was initially considered as the introduction of modern digital approaches, methods and formats into adult education, both at the level of the educational process and at the level of managing this process.
The countries studied show significant similarities with regard to the target groups that are mainly characterised by vulnerability or marginalisation. This category primarily includes people from remote rural areas, people in poverty or with low income, ethnic minorities/ indigenous people, women, people with disabilities, migrant workers, and elderly people.
In all three countries of the study, digital infrastructure has not yet reached a level that allows a wide range of the population, and especially marginalised groups, to regularly use digital tools for educational purposes. This problem is especially acute in remote, mountain and rural areas, where the Internet and mobile communications are often unavailable. Without a systematic solution to the problem of the digital infrastructure, it is difficult to consider the possibilities and prospects of digitalised ALE. This challenge is even more complicated in countries where policy actors see the problem of digitalisation as an issue of infrastructure or security instead of as a factor for socio-economic development and global competitiveness.
In all three countries the main focus of the authorities is given to the development of formal education, its institutions and mechanisms. Accordingly, the role of local actors and the capabilities of non-state actors in these countries, as well as regarding ALE as an independent and important sector, is underestimated. This is reflected, among other things, in issues of state budget funding, where education organised by non-state providers is practically ignored and does not receive even minimal resources, although initially pledged. At the same time, the international community sees non-state ALE providers not only as partners, but also as the drivers of development.
Despite the increased demand for online education services, most specialists and ALE institutions do not have sufficient knowledge, competencies and best practice access in organising a high-quality educational process by means of digitalised communication. In most cases, there is a simple transfer of traditional forms of education (lectures, seminars, exams, etc.) to the online format. The use of other educational technologies is required, which implies a more interactive, technologically diverse and individualised educational process. The development of digital transformation competencies in ALE could be seen as a universal response to various challenges.
It is important to view digitalisation opportunities for ALE in an “outside the box” mode. In particular, it means there is a need to combine efforts to improve digital tools and approaches in adult learning activities and management with seeing ALE as a tool for the wider digitalisation of society, economy and public communication. Thinking outside the box is also based on the assumption that the digitalisation of ALE depends to a large extent on further development of the ICT infrastructure. Influencing ICT stakeholders should not be seen as less relevant or less important on the way to improvements in digitalised ALE.
Information and statistics in the countries studied are mostly fragmented or not sufficiently reliable. This can be perceived as evidence of a fragmentation in governance and a lack of vision as regards digitalisation of education among local policy-makers. The spectrum of additional opportunities to improve digital formats and tools of education for adults lays in shifting the budgetary funding mechanisms toward favouring ALE and its actors (especially non-governmental providers), looking for counterparts interested in the results of higher quality ALE and people trained with modern skills and competences, as well as the inclusion of digital skills in the wider picture of the modern-day qualifications demanded by the economy and the labour market.
For the further development of digitalised ALE, mechanisms for the transfer of digital knowledge and skills from the younger generation to elderly people can play a significant role, especially in countries with a relatively traditional culture. Younger generations acquire the related skills faster and can be a source of knowledge for older family members. This kind of transfer should be provided within the framework of the general methodology and didactics of ALE.
It makes sense for DVV International to develop strategies and plans in the field of ALE digitalisation for Asian countries as a joint strategy with shared approaches and solutions. When considering digitalisation opportunities for ALE, one must ensure ALE is perceived as a tool for wider digitalisation in the targeted societies, regions and economies. It is also worth using the side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic – increased interest, trust and skills in online communication and participation tools and apps – to promote digitalised education as an important and complementary element of ALE among beneficiaries, providers and policy-makers to reach a systemic shift in educational policy and practice.