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Adult education in times of the COVID-19 pandemic: Inequalities, changes, and resilience

For almost half a year now, we have been facing rapid and drastic changes that touch all domains of life: family, work, leisure, education, etc. COVID-19 has shaken all aspects of societies around the world in unforeseeable ways. As noted by many scholars writing and researching in the field of adult education (see, for example, Boeren et al. 2020, Waller et al. 2020), COVID-19 has rendered social inequalities – related, but not limited, to disability, employment status, immigration status, income, language, race, and social-class – more visible and piercing. These inequalities have also deeply affected access and participation to lifelong learning education, which in turn has had consequences for wellbeing and mental health (Watts 2020). Furthermore, as schools, colleges and universities closed their campuses, the ‘vulnerable’ remained left without a physical safe haven, while disadvantaged families had no or limited access to equipment or connectivity to take full advantage of online and digital learning. Adults have suddenly faced unemployment, having to find ways to support themselves and their families, putting earning before learning and (re)training by working longer hours and taking extra jobs to protect household incomes (Pember and Corney 2020).

This portrait of adult education in these uncertain times does appear rather gloomy. The lack of technological resources in formal and non-formal adult education settings (Patrinos and Shmis 2020) and at home (Beaunoyer et al. 2020) means that many adult learners encountered additional barriers in the completion of their educational projects. For adult education practitioners too, the pandemic has meant a reduced or different kind of offer of support for learners, additional stress and anxiety as they quickly find they have to digitally upskill themselves, and for some, the loss of their employment (Lasby 2020).

As noted by Tett (2020, 2), in these difficult times, we need, more than ever, to look for ‘“resources of hope” (Williams 1989) that enable us to engage in struggle and action together’. In this editorial, we want to celebrate the strength and resilience of the field of adult education in the face of COVID-19. During this time of crisis, adult education is even more invaluable to the socioeconomic wellbeing and social mobility of communities worldwide. It can contribute to equipping citizens with life skills that are critical for improving and maintaining adults’ health and well-being during such challenging times. Adult education, which includes the promotion of literacy and numeracy, provides critical foundational components for addressing challenges that persist amongst the hardest to reach, wherever they are, which ever country they are from (Lopes and McKay 2020). Drawing on Tett and Hamilton (2019, 5), we believe that it is important to attune to ‘the emergent culture that arise from finding new spaces in which to do things differently’ considering the current crisis, but also the prevalence of neoliberalism in education.

Several examples of this emergent culture in the UK, where Nalita is based, can be found in the supplementary issue published by the Concept Journal in response to the current COVID-19 crisis (Shaw 2020). One of the articles that particularly caught our attention is the account offered by Luke Campbell (2020), a development worker at Tollcross Community Action Network in Edinburgh, Scotland. Campbell explains how social media (Facebook and Twitter) were used right at the beginning of the crisis to organise the work of community organisers and volunteers so that people who face difficulties – sudden unemployment, homelessness, health issues, etc. – are not left alone and can access help and support. Campbell (2020) notes:

What’s become clear to me during this period of crisis is that many folk are ready and willing to support community initiatives despite their own anxieties. It’s something I’ve both witnessed and been a part of on many occasions during this past decade of Conservative-led austerity in the UK, ranging from demonstrations and protests at a moment’s notice through to mutual aid and practical support at individual, community, and organisational level.

Campbell (2020) draws an interesting parallel between the solidarity he observed during the COVID-19 crisis and the crisis created by austerity measures in the UK. Blundell et al. (2020) have found that COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities – related to age, gender, ethnicity, and income – in the UK that existed prior to the crisis. The state’s ability to respond to the crisis adequately has also been impeded by years of austerity. This suggested that the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on community education and adults attending their activities have been amplified by these anterior austerity measures. And yet, the COVID-19 crisis has also seen adult and community learning at its most responsive. Those working in adult education have launched themselves into supporting their students and their communities. This support includes creating imaginative online teaching resources and providing one-to-one support to setting up foodbanks and making PPE for their local hospitals. Local authority adult education services have produced online responses to lockdown reducing isolation, improving mental health and wellbeing, whilst increasing support for people affected by job insecurity.

In Québec (Canada), where Virginie is based, Louise Brossard (2020) from the Institut de coopération pour l'éducation des adultes (ICÉA) reports that

Literacy groups, for their part, need to make the information and instructions provided [by the Quebec Government at its] daily press conferences more accessible. They re-explain [to the adult learners] concepts such as pandemic, social distancing, flattening of the curve, etc. They then organise online conferences and make individualised phone calls. The work of these organisations also aims to break social isolation, calm fears and even anxieties. (our translation)

Literacy practitioners displayed flexibility and creativity by creating and sending educational activities by mail to adult learners who do not have access or do not feel comfortable with new technologies (Brossard 2020).

In light of these examples, we find that some of the resources of hope identified by Tett and Hamilton (2019, 253–257) to disrupt neoliberalism in education are also relevant with regard to the health crisis that we are currently experiencing, especially: ‘create dialogic and emancipatory spaces’, ‘prioritizing learner perspective’, ‘harnessing community technologies’, ‘fostering creativity’, ‘collaborating with new groups’, and ‘using educational research itself as a resource for hope’. We hope that Studies in the Education of Adults can be a vector to support this last type of resources of hope.

In this period of social turmoil, Studies in the Education of Adults is also changing. Since 2019 we, Nalita and Virginie, are the new co-editors of the journal, following in the steady footsteps of Christine Jarvis and Kevin Orr (University of Huddersfield) in that role. We also have a new books reviews editor: Jonathan Tummons (Durham University). Building on previous work, we see the journal evolving naturally towards its new incarnation: becoming more international, inclusive, and innovative. The editorial board and the international board have been renewed. On the editorial board, we have welcomed several new and dedicated scholars of adult education: Sharon Clancy (University of Nottingham), Camilla Fitzsimons (Maynooth University), Sarah Galloway (University of Stirling), Anke Grotlüschen (Universität Hamburg), Kerry Harman (Birkbeck, University of London), Katy Jones (Manchester Metropolitan University), and Iain Jones (Newman University). Over the last couple of years, we have also said goodbye to long-time members of the editorial board: Jim Crowther, Christine Jarvis, Lyn Tett, and Miriam Zukas, who have all greatly contributed to the development and success of Studies in the Education of Adults. Despite all these important changes, the journal’s essence remains the same: it still celebrates international adult education research in all its forms and holds dear its commitment to social justice. This commitment to social justice is apparent in the collection of articles included in the present issue.

The article by Rashid explores the effects and sustainability of the Second Chance Education Project (SCEP), a literacy, numeracy and academic skills programme for adult learners in Timor-Leste. Rashid found that the programme’s sustainability was uncertain given various factors such as a lack of educational resources, inadequate literacy models, deficient government funding, etc. In Negotiating Indigenous Identities within Mainstream Community Livelihoods: Stories of Aeta Women in the Philippines, Lontoc offers a vivid portrait of a group of indigenous women’s practices and learning in relation to farming and selling at public markets, highlighting race and gender issues. Lontoc states that the Aeta women were the ‘gatekeepers of indigenous knowledge systems’ (p. 16). Tyler, De George-Walker, and Simic researched older adults’ engagement with information communication technologies in the region of Queensland, Australia. Their paper concludes, among other findings, that it is important to adopt a motivation and learner-centred approach that foster social connection in technology training and development for older adults. The contribution by Walker and Smythe offers a critical analysis of the Government of British Columbia’s decision to revoke tuition-free Adult Basic Education to all adults. Their analysis sheds light on the underlying motivations for the cuts, showing that certain learners (e.g. Indigenous people, women, people living in poverty and/or with an immigration status) were deemed ‘undeserving’, and that basic education was the individuals’ responsibility, in line with a neoliberal ideology. Ollis’s article looks at adult learning in circumstantial activism as part of a campaign against fracking for coal seam gas in the State of Victoria in Australia. Her contribution offers insight into how to build a social movement, work with newcomer activists, and foster activists’ knowledge and skill development through informal learning and non-formal workshops. Finally, Hult’s article explores the educational material used by the Swedish Social Democratic Party and the Swedish Left Party for the induction of new members. Findings indicate that the material helped to create a sense of community and also allowed the political parties to present themselves – their respective organisation, history, ideology, and identity – in specific and strategic manners.

The OECD calls for all education responses to COVID-19 to be designed to avoid deepening educational and social inequalities (Reimers and Schleicher 2020). What seems very clear from the papers in this edition is that in spite of global challenge of Covid-19, the adult learning sector, while facing particularly difficult financial conditions, continues to demonstrate its resilience by going above and beyond to provide flexible, learner-centred solutions to keep adults in education and reach the most vulnerable groups. Social justice is central to COVID-19 recovery. Research in adult education, as the collection of papers included in this issue, can serve as a platform for groups of people who are not generally heard or listened to – often falling into the cracks of neoliberalism. As Raymond Williams (1983) has argued, during times of challenge, people turn to learning in order to understand what is going on, to adapt to it, and more importantly, to shape change. This issue of the journal highlights the value of supportive networks, and of solidarity and community. It also shows how sustaining individual lives and communities is as important a function of adult education as transforming them (Schuller et al. 2004). When the informal, non-formal, and formal structures of adult education engage with external social forces they can play a constructive and dynamic role. That is even more important at this challenging time in our lives.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

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References

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Nalita James, Virginie Thériault
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Studije i izvješća
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