March 22, 2016

Lifelong Learning and Technology

1. The joy – and urgency – of learning

Two large forces are driving fresh interest in the way people learn and why they learn. The first force is the rise of the internet and its disruptive potential for education, both for the formal purpose of gaining extra training and credentials and for the informal purpose of learning new things in hope of personal life enrichment. The second force is the steady advancement of the “knowledge economy,” in which economic value is increasingly derived from working with sources of knowledge and in which more and more jobs are built around knowledge workers who use information to “create original knowledge products.”

There is a strong sense that many people feel compelled to keep learning to stay relevant in this changing environment. The Great Recession that began in 2008 was an especially brutal reckoning for many American workers about their place in a changing economy, the reliability of their jobs, the value of their skills and education, their place in the class structure of America, the state of the benefits safety net, and their prospects for retirement. The recession has prompted much commentary about the “skill recession” and the role of learning centers both in traditional settings and in cutting-edge digital platforms in helping workers adjust to new economic realities.

Pew Research Center set out to explore these big trends by looking at how Americans learn things for both personal and work-related reasons, why they want to learn things and how they think about the role of learning in their lives.

This new research emerges in a special historic context. When it comes to education and technology, there has never been a shortage of optimism – even hype – about the way new communications methods could transform learning and, eventually, translate into happier and more productive citizens. At the dawn of the era of widespread telephone adoption in 1912, visionaries imagined that the telephone would enable video courses to be delivered over phone lines.1 In 1922, Thomas Edison prophesied: “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”2 A decade later, radio supporter Benjamin Darrow, wrote a book called “Radio: The Assistant Teacher,” in which he predicted: “The central and dominant aim of education by radio is to bring the world to the classroom, to make universally available the services of the finest teachers, the inspiration of the greatest leaders … and unfolding world events which through the radio may come as a vibrant and challenging textbook of the air.”3

Then in the 1935, television enthusiasts proclaimed that “we will undoubtedly have lectures of every conceivable kind presented to us right in our homes, when practical television arrives, possibly a year or two off.”4 And when the commercial internet was in its infancy, the computer was heralded as the accelerant of “learning by doing” that would greatly improve education,5 if not “blow up the school.”6

More recently, the proliferation of connected devices and high-speed networks has added new energy to the debate about how technology may change how people learn. In higher education, a number of initiatives have unfolded to open up university courses to a wider audience – sometimes for a fee, sometimes for free. These massive open online courses – or MOOCs – aim to improve the “democratic reach” of education, though MOOCs themselves are not without critics.7 Today, a host of free learning resources that extend well beyond MOOCs allow people to explore subjects that once were topics just for the classroom or required access to specialists.

A common theme in contemporary “ed tech” discourse is the equalizing potential of new technology on educational outcomes. Technology can and, in the minds of many, inevitably will open the ivory tower’s doors and unlock the gates to knowledge heretofore reserved only for specialists.

Not so fast – or so says our new national survey which places information and communications technology in the context of how Americans pursue learning in their adult years. The fall 2015 survey of 2,752 adults shows that learning, whether for personal or professional pursuits, is an activity that touches a wide range of Americans in a wide range of contexts. The survey shows that a number of factors shape people’s predilections toward learning in their adult years, that technology is just one of them and, crucially, that technology’s role in learning plays out very differently depending on a person’s socio-economic standing.

The findings sound a cautionary note for enthusiasts who see technology as a catalyst for democratizing education. To the extent that this is true, it applies mainly to those with the educational backgrounds, incomes and technology resources to take full advantage of these emerging opportunities. For those without those resources, the picture is less sunny. They are generally less likely than those in higher socio-economic categories to engage in personal or professional learning – as well as use technology for those pursuits. At the same time, it is still the case that majorities of those in lower-income households and those with less formal education are personal and professional learners.

Many identify as lifelong learners and information seekers

People who self-identify as lifelong learners are more likely to be younger, more educated and better off financiallyThe rise of the knowledge economy, the growing imperative to learn and the proliferation of educational platforms have combined to make America a nation of learners. This survey finds that 73% of adults say the phrase “I think of myself as a lifelong learner” applies “very well” to them and another 20% say it applies “somewhat well.”

This yen to say people are perpetually learning is tied to several demographic factors. Those who see themselves as lifelong learners are younger, better educated and better off financially than others.

In addition, many see themselves as information hunters and inquisitive searchers. Some 58% of adults say the following description fits them “very well”: “I often find myself looking for new opportunities to grow as a person,” and another 31% say that notion describes them “somewhat well.” Asked to react to this description, “I like to gather as much information as I can when I come across something that I am not familiar with,” 61% of adults say that statement fits them “very well.” Another 31% say that phrase captures them “somewhat well.”

By the same token, most Americans reject identifying with phrases that suggest they are not inquisitive. Only 13% say this phrase describes them “very well”: “I am not the type of person who feels the need to probe deeply into new situations or things.” Another 30% say that describes them “somewhat well.” Minorities and those with lower levels of educational attainment and income are more likely to say this statement describes them “very well” compared to others. Some 21% of African Americans and 23% of Hispanics say this statement describes them “very well,” while 17% of those with high school degrees or less and 18% of those with annual household incomes below $30,000 say this.

That does not mean that every adult is eager to return to school. Half of all adults (51%) say the statement “I am really glad I am no longer in school and no longer have to go to classes anymore” describes them “very well” or “somewhat well,” with about one-third (31%) saying this describes them “very well.” Those with lower levels of educational attainment (high school degrees or less) are more likely to say this statement describes them “very well” – 36% did. And older adults are more likely to express strong views that going to class is something they do not miss. Some 39% of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 and 41% of those ages 65 and over say the statement described them very well.

Americans think it is a good thing when everyone is learning

Large majorities of Americans believe that it is important for their fellow citizens to continue learning. Strong majorities – 87% of all adults – say that it is very important that people make an effort to learn new things about their jobs. Some 70% say that it is very important that people learn new things about their local communities and a similar number (69%) say the same about things happening in society such as developments in science, technology, entertainment or culture.

A solid majority (58%) say it is very important that people learn new things about their hobbies or interests. In general, these positive sentiments about learning new things are somewhat stronger among better educated adults. For learning about their local community, African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to say this is very important, with 82% of African Americans and 75% of Hispanics saying so.

  1. Ithiel de Sola Pool, Forecasting the Telephone: A Retrospective Technology Assessment of the Telephone. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1983, p. 146.
  2. See “Giddy Prophesies and Commercial Ventures: The History of Educational Media.” Available at:
  3. Ohio History Connection. Available at:
  4. Matt Novak, “Predictions for Educational TV in the 1930s,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2012. Available online at:
  5. Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, p. 197.
  6. Computers and Classrooms. Policy Information Center. Available at:
  7. Nathan Heller, “Laptop U: Has the future of college moved online?” New Yorker Magazine, May 20, 2013. Available online at: