Lifelong learning is the development of human potential through a continuously supportive process which stimulates and empowers individuals to acquire all the knowledge, values, skills and understanding they will require throughout their lifetimes and to apply them with confidence, creativity and enjoyment in all roles, circumstances and environments, according to the publication Encyclopedia for Education.
The term, however, is difficult to define as some see it as learning from childhood and early schooling, while others assume it is an adult learning process. Some educators prefer the term lifelong education because it implies a more explicitly intentional learning than the term lifelong learning. They see lifelong learning itself as a concept with different meanings and values.
According to a publication by the European Commission, the European Commission's Lifelong Learning Programme allows people at all stages of their lives to take part in stimulating learning experiences, as well as helping to develop the education and training sector across Europe. The Commission is paying seven billion euro over 2007-2013 for a range of actions including exchanges, study visits and networking activities. Projects are intended not only for individual students and learners, but also for teachers, trainers and all others involved in education and training. The sub-programs that the European Union funds are: Comenius for schools; Erasmus for higher education; Leonardo da Vinci for vocational education and training; and Grundtvig for adult education.
Three international organizations supported the creation of the lifelong learning idea in Europe in the 1970s. The Council of Europe, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization played a key role. The Council of Europe worked for a permanent education plan aiming to reshape European education for the whole life span. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development advocated recurrent education, while the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization published a report on the issue Learning to Be in 1972.
In the United States people preferred the term lifelong learning, rather than lifelong education and applied it mostly to adult education. The Mondale Lifelong Learning Act of 1976 proposed a large list of nearly twenty areas which ranged from adult basic education to education for older and retired persons. In the 1990s, both in Europe and the United States global competition and knowledge-based industries started to require high-qualified professionals for whom lifelong learning became essential. Companies began to invest in human capital and expect employees to continue learning in order to maintain high levels of competitiveness. New economic trends, closely related to high technologies, shifted the focus on learning to human resource development from personal growth. Both in times of economic growth or crisis, education and training approaches became a solution for keeping people away from unemployment and welfare dependency.
In Europe, the four sub-programs of the European Union have set ambitious goals. Comenius should involve at least three million pupils in joint educational activities from 2007 to 2013. Erasmus is expected to reach a total of three million individual participants in student mobility actions. Leonardo da Vinci has to raise placements in enterprises to 80,000 a year, while Grundtvig will support the mobility of 7,000 individuals, according to the site of the European Commission.
Lifelong learning has become an essential challenge and a necessity as it offers self-directed learning, learning on demand, collaborative learning and organizational learning. It has to face, however, three main challenges: an increasing prevalence of high-technology jobs; the need of change in the course of a professional lifetime; and the growing gap between the opportunities offered to the educated and to the uneducated people.
Knowledge societies require smarter employees, who inevitably need to know how to use and develop their creativity and innovation. An important challenge to the lifelong learning is to show people how those capabilities can be learned and practiced. The creativity and innovation potential of individuals should be developed during the whole life which makes lifelong learning an indispensible approach. But lifelong learning is more than just to going to school all the time. The successful lifelong learning process would offer to people the chance to explore conceptual understanding and practical application of the learned skills.
Usually, people change careers three or four times in their lives and in many cases school programs they attended five or ten years before the change cannot prepare them for the new demands. The pace of change is so fast that inevitably it imposes the need for continuous learning. Moreover, university education does not always reflect the demand on the labor markets. All those factors encourage people to keep looking for lifelong learning.