Lifelong Learning

A number of things I’ve come across lately have made me think that there may be a revolution afoot in adult pursuit of learning in this country—adults truly acting as lifelong learners. And the internet makes this possible in ways that have never been available before.

I come from a family that values education, and never stops learning. My grandma was the earliest adopter of computers I know, using a word processing program on her Commodore 64 when I was in elementary school, creating the next generation of the San Diego Floral Association’s newsletters. Even as she became quite elderly, she never stopped learning, teaching, growing, creating, and contributing. In her last years, she wrote a book, which my mom and I published after her passing. You’d be surprised how interesting the history of gardening is in San Diego! It’s a tour through events like the growth of a city around the Panama-California Exposition of 1915–1917, the creation of Balboa Park, and the increase in women becoming respected as professionals. But as I refresh my memory about those events as I link to them on wikipedia, I recall that she never connected to the internet herself; she researched the old-fashioned way.

My mom earned her Master’s degree when I was in elementary and middle school, as a single mom working during the day and attending classes at night (while my grandparents took care of me). She aspired to become an archaeologist rather than a typist, and she succeeded. And a couple of decades later, she took an early retirement and completed her PhD in archaeology, because her hunger for learning has never ceased.

And now I’m following in the footsteps of the women in my family, taking classes on nights and weekends, exploring a new-found passion in science. I’m getting towards 40, and am in the midst of a career that continues to satisfy me, but I also have a thirst for learning that I must quench.

My mom and I pursued learning in the traditional way—through formal schooling. It has served our purposes well. But I find now that there are many other ways to access learning, if what you truly want to do is learn just for the sake of it, or personal advancement and gratification, and a degree or credits are not necessary.

I’m taking an online course in genetics right now, and unfortunately it includes little in the way of resources. The expectation and advice is that you purchase the text, read it, and submit homework problems. There are no recorded lectures, nor “lecture” notes. But there are a host of places I can look for those things. I can search iTunes U. I can Google online lectures and look through websites listing hundreds of online courses delivered via a variety of avenues, like iTunes, YouTube, and personal or institution websites.

I can go to YouTube collections such as Stanford’s mini med school and absorb information to my heart’s content. Podcasts are abundant on a variety of subjects. Stanford also offers a free series of 10 full computer science courses. And recently TED launched TED-Ed, a collection of “lessons worth sharing.” It seems to be positioned as a resource to be used in school education, but if you’re not ready to delve into a whole online course, these short videos may teach you something new in a much shorter time period. I just watched a TED-Ed video that discusses big questions that remain unanswered; if it doesn’t inspire you to go ponder and explore something new, I don’t know what will!

As teachers and education professionals, we are probably more in tune with the magic of learning than most. And to stay in touch with successive crops of young people, we need to remain lifelong learners, learning about new technologies and new ways to connect with and inspire our students. But I think there may be a revolution of adult learning going on more widely too. Or at least a tidal wave of new resources; I’m not sure who’s using them!

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About Josephine Noah

I taught mathematics for 5 years in Berkeley and Oakland, California, before coming to Key Curriculum Press. Teaching with powerful curricula like the Interactive Mathematics Program and Paul Foerster's Calculus book had a profound impact on me and my students' experiences in the classroom, and led me to want to be a part of delivering powerful learning materials. I've been doing just that with Key Curriculum Press since 2002, first working as a development editor, and now as Product Management Director.
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