EAEA Annual Conference 2020: How do we keep learning during and after the pandemic?

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges, it has also provided new opportunities for adult education: it has highlighted the importance of life skills like health literacy, raised attention to the digital divide and given a push to a greener economy, said the speakers at the EAEA Annual Conference on Outreach and Access.

This year’s EAEA Annual Conference was held virtually and attracted over 130 participants. The recurring topics at two conference days were learner engagement and outreach during the pandemic, holistic approach to learning, blended and digital learning, and the need for collaboration inside and outside the adult learning sector.

The importance of hope

The first day of the Annual Conference focused on the immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how adult education providers have managed to facilitate outreach and access to learning.

barriers of access ppt

Barriers preventing access to adult learning

Who is going to pick up the bill of the pandemic? asked the keynote speaker, Professor Ellen Boeren from University of Glasgow. Less funding can lead to more a restrictive learning climate, meaning that employers only fund education which has immediate benefit for the job. In an expansive learning climate, the employer funds learning which provides broadly transferrable skills. Boeren also spoke of the barriers to learning, of which lack of interest is perhaps the biggest. If there aren’t any jobs to apply for, some people may think learning new skills isn’t worthwhile.

“Hope is really important. Are people having enough feelings of hope that the future will be better?” asked Boeren. “Adult education can also make a positive contribution to that.”

Digital learning as a challenge and opportunity

In parallel workshops, we heard how adult education providers have facilitated learner engagement and the transition to digital learning. In many countries there are infrastructural barriers, which adult education providers cannot solve alone. Political support, partnerships and funding is needed to create a better infrastructure , which is a precondition to digital learning.

Isolation of learners is a big issue across many countries. The vulnerable groups of adults, like the elderly and migrants have suffered the most in the move to digital learning across all countries. Some providers have gone to extraordinary lengths to enable learning, for instance, they have applied funding, found new way to reaching out to vulnerable learners, provided laptops and better mobile connections.

“There are still real challenges in engaging all groups of learners in digital learning”, said Alex Stevenson from Learning & Work Institute in the UK. Just one in five adults who left school early took part in learning during the COVID-19 in the UK.

Belarus project example

Against the isolation of elderly learners in Belarus

“It is very important to mix age groups and facilitate intergenerational learning,” said Galina Veramejchyk while sharing the experiences from Belarus regarding the isolation of elderly learners during the pandemic.

On the other hand, the move to digital learning has also resulted in new opportunities. For instance, the participants of an English conversation club held online had participants from all over the world whereas previously they were all local. The pandemics has been good for recognising the social benefits of learning.

It’s time to aim for something bigger

The first day of the EAEA Annual Conference ended with a panel discussion on policy responses needed to improve outreach and access. The main message from the panellists was to have a more holistic approach, synergy and cooperation inside and outside the adult education sector. For instance, in basic skills learning provision the non-formal adult education sector and vocational education and training providers should work much more closely together.

“We need to stop focusing on either vocational or non-formal learning etc. We need to recognize that learning is learning. All the learning has to be integrated”, said Graciela Sbertoli from European Basic Skills Network.

The crisis has shown that adult education has a part to play in resolving global challenges. “This is the time to invest in people skills, and in building a new green economy”, said Martina Ní Cheallaigh from the European Commission. “Maybe now it’s time for something bigger, to move outside of your own area, for instance cooperate with the area of health or environment”, was Ní Cheallaigh’s message to European adult educators.

The post COVID-19 era is going to be different – online learning and blended learning are here to stay. Adult educators need to be prepared for that. Even if educators possess good digital skills, they are not familiar with the didactics of online learning.
Also in digital learning adult educators should keep in mind that education should start with the needs of the learners.

“We need to have the kind of relationship between the learner and the organisation that they feel comfortable in trying new learning methods”, concluded Una Buckley, learner representing AONTAS.

New objectives for upskilling and reskilling

On the second day of the conference, the focus was on the Upskilling Pathways initiative as an opportunity to improve outreach and access. Martina Ní Cheallaigh from the European Commission took us through the recent adult education policy developments with a view to the future.Skills agenda structure

Last summer European Commission launched an updated Skills Agenda. “The Skills Agenda will have a huge impact on empowering adults to learn and updating their skills throughout all their lives. Individual learning accounts will give people entitlement to learning, and that will enable more people to take up learning”, said Ní Cheallaigh.

According to the objectives of the Skills Agenda, 50% of adults aged 15-64 should participate in learning by 2025. A specific objective for the low-qualified adults is to have 30% to participate in learning. There is also a special section in the new Skills Agenda, Skills for Life.

“The action Skills for Life calls for the Commission and Member States to work together for new priorities for the European Agenda for Adult Learning, said Ní Cheallaigh. “More needs to be done to reinforce Upskilling Pathways”.

As a practical example of upskilling and validation of prior learning, we heard of the Qualifica Programme in Portugal. According to the 2011 census, there are about 500 000 illiterate people in the country, so the challenge of upskilling is great.

“Over half a million adults took part in Qualifica Centres in 2017-2020 and over 96% of them acquired a complete or partial certification”, Alexandra Teixeira from ANQEP told about the success of the programme.

Involving learners and stakeholders in policy development

The second day was organised in the framework of the UP-AEPRO project, an Erasmus+ project which aims at increasing the European adult educators’ knowledge of the Upskilling Pathways initiative. In the gallery walk, we had the opportunity to hear from the project partners and participants.

Using learners stories in the UK

Alex Stevenson from Learning & Work Institute showcased the Festivals of Learning in the UK and explained the power of learners stories. “Learner stories can help bring research to life, and help policy makers see what their decisions mean on the ground”, said Stevenson.

Antra Carlsen from Nordic Network for Adult Learning told us that the role of social partners is important in adult education policy development in the Nordics. “The policy recommendations links adult learning aspect to other policy areas, like sustainable development goals, work and health. In Nordic countries, there is also a strong focus on general competences in addition to basic skills,” stated Carlsen.

Camilla Post, who works in Finnish Public Employment Services and participated the UP-AEPRO online course told that in Finland validation of prior learning is only possible in formal educational institutions. Better pathways between employment services and formal education should be developed to facilitate validation. Post also emphasised the need for learner centred approach in employment services: “Tailoring the guidance according to the needs of the person is important”.

How to make Upskilling Pathways a reality?

In the group discussions we discussed the three steps of the Upskilling Pathways initiative, skills assessment, tailor-made learning offer and validation and recoqnition of prior learning, as well as the key principles for the implementation: outreach, guidance and cooperation.

The pandemic has disrupted the work of local outreach centres which normally play a big role in outreach. This has caused a void in outreach we need to bridge. Fragmented information about adult learning opportunities is another recognised challenge. Also, appropriate skills assessment methods are missing. We need to have inclusive practices and respect individual learning styles to help individuals identify the skills they have demonstrated thus far and any upskilling needs.

In creation of learning offers, both national and regional frameworks and bottom up-initiatives are important. Tailoring learning offers also requires adequate funding. Concepts such as time management, self confidence, motivation could be introduced in the learning offer. For validation and recoqnition, we need more training of adult educators, attention to quality of the validation process and strategies to work together with employers. A close collaboration with the existing national qualifications frameworks would be helpful to understand how to work together.

Cooperation needs to be at the heart of Upskilling Pathways

A general conclusion of the conference was that more cooperation is needed to analyse and overcome the systemic barriers. We need to engage partners from our sector but also stakeholders from outside adult education, for instance VET providers and social partners.
Eyrún Björk Valsdóttir from the Icelandic Confederation of Labour gave an example of cooperation between different stakeholders on building education pathways in Iceland. The trade union movement takes an active part in shaping education.

“Change of attitude is needed”, said Valsdóttir. “We need to stop thinking that education is only based on the formal school system. Competence, skills and knowledge need to be recognised regardless where they are acquired.”

Responsibilities of strengthening basic skills need to be clearly spelled out and basic skills education has to be linked to other strategies. Adult education providers and civil society organisations are key for implementing the basic skills effectively.

“Communities and are essential when we want to increase participation of learners who have had the least opportunities in the past. We need a bottom up approach,” concluded Gina Ebner presenting the EAEA policy recommendations on Upskilling Pathways.


Find the presentations and recordings of the conference on our website.

Text: Sari Pohjola Photos: EAEA, the speakers at the conference

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