Adult education organisations in Europe try to continue activities as much as possible to reach out to learners from vulnerable groups.

Outreach and access to learning during the coronavirus pandemic

One question currently unites all educational sectors: how can learning and teaching be organised during the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, and how can marginalised groups be included? Measures to contain the outbreak forced schools, universities, adult education centres and other educational institutions to suspend all face-to-face learning offers. Barriers to learning that have existed for learners from vulnerable groups before the pandemic are reinforced through the rules for “social distancing”, report EAEA members from all over Europe.

As yet, adult education organisations and providers do not know the exact scope of the impact that COVID-19 has on outreach to learners from vulnerable groups; however, they say that access to adult learning has been limited dramatically in many countries.

This is, partly, due to the specific governance and financing structures of adult education systems that do not allow for a continuation of activities. Adult education is largely financed through project and programme funding, meaning that financing through public and private sources stops when activities cannot be carried out face-to-face. While some governments are developing “force majeure” regulations for education and lifelong learning systems, they cannot be applied to all contexts and often leave out non-formal adult education, particularly where courses cannot be moved online.

This has resulted in the laying off of adult education staff everywhere in Europe, especially of educators and trainers, and a great insecurity among providers if activities can be taken up again – and will be financed – after the crisis.

Mentoring and counselling to reach out to learners

When learning offers stop completely, adults not only lose access to learning opportunities but also to social networks, especially those already at danger of social exclusion and isolation. Non-formal adult education, among its many benefits, has a therapeutic dimension by bringing together people from different walks of life and creating new social environments.

For this reason, many adult education organisations that had to shut down courses but still operate at a core-staff level, focus strongly on the mentoring and counselling of their students during this crisis. They use WhatsApp groups, direct phone calls and other means of communication to reach out to learners and establish a minimum of social contacts.

Adult education professionals also reassure persons in difficult financial situations and, by helping people to make sense of the flood of information on the social media, also prevent adherence of learners to fake news. For individuals at danger of domestic violence, adult education can play a key role in keeping contact with neutral “outsiders”. 

Lack of access to digital learning remains a challenge  

Another barrier to accessing learning offers is a lack of digital skills, and this is not only true for marginalised groups, but to two fifth of the adult population in Europe. Where adult education providers continue courses online instead of face-to-face learning, many learners cannot participate because of low or no digital skills.

Moreover, a situation in which family members are all learning and working from home, often leads to a “competition” for the use of computers, tablets or smartphones existing in the households, meaning that not everyone can learn and work at the same time. The most marginalised families might not have any electronic devices available to them at all, therefore excluding them from learning and virtual social contacts completely.

Support needed to keep adult education going

However, while these obstacles exist to many learners, adult education organisations in Europe go all out to keep lifelong learning going. Where courses and trainings can be moved online, providers try to make learning offers as enticing and low-threshold as possible to give many learners the opportunity to participate.

Even if learning activities have to stop temporarily, adult education centres are lifelines of social inclusion in many communities. Adequate political and financial support can make sure that these offers can continue to be provided during and after the crisis.

This article was published as part of a series on the impact of COVID-19 on adult education, and how adult education could help to mitigate the consequences of this global health, economic and social crisis.

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