March 22, 2016

Lifelong Learning and Technology

A large majority of Americans seek extra knowledge for personal and work-related reasons. Digital technology plays a notable role in these knowledge pursuits, but place-based learning remains vital to many and differences in education and income are a hallmark of people’s learning activities

Most Americans feel they are lifelong learners, whether that means gathering knowledge for “do it yourself” projects, reading up on a personal interest or improving their job skills. For the most part, these learning activities occur in traditional places – at home, work, conferences or community institutions such as government agencies or libraries. The internet is also an important tool for many adults in the process of lifelong learning.

Majorities of Americans seek out learning activities in their personal and work livesA new Pew Research Center survey shows the extent to which America is a nation of ongoing learners:

  • 73% of adults consider themselves lifelong learners.
  • 74% of adults are what we call personal learners – that is, they have participated in at least one of a number of possible activities in the past 12 months to advance their knowledge about something that personally interests them. These activities include reading, taking courses or attending meetings or events tied to learning more about their personal interests.
  • 63% of those who are working (or 36% of all adults) are what we call professional learners – that is, they have taken a course or gotten additional training in the past 12 months to improve their job skills or expertise connected to career advancement.

These learning activities take place in a variety of locations. The internet is often linked to a variety of learning pursuits. However, it is still the case that more learners pursue knowledge in physical settings than choose to seek it online.

  • By an 81% to 52% margin, personal learners are more likely to cite a locale such as a high school, place of worship or library as the site at which personal learning takes place than they are to cite the internet.
  • By a similar margin (75% to 55%), professional learners are more likely to say their professional training took place at a work-related venue than on the internet.

People cite several reasons for their interest in additional learning

Those who pursued learning for personal or professional reasons in the past 12 months say there are a number of reasons they took the plunge. Personal learners say they sought to strengthen their knowledge and skills for a mixture of individual and altruistic reasons:

  • 80% of personal learners say they pursued knowledge in an area of personal interest because they wanted to learn something that would help them make their life more interesting and full.
  • 64% say they wanted to learn something that would allow them to help others more effectively.
  • 60% say they had some extra time on their hands to pursue their interests.
  • 36% say they wanted to turn a hobby into something that generates income.
  • 33% say they wanted to learn things that would help them keep up with the schoolwork of their children, grandchildren or other kids in their lives.

For workers who took a course or got extra training in the past 12 months, their reasons for wanting doing so ranged from career growth to job insecurity:

  • 55% of full- or part-time workers say they participated in work or career learning to maintain or improve their job skills. That amounts to 87% of professional learners who cited this as the reason they wanted to improve their skills.
  • 36% of all workers say they did such learning in order to get a license or certification they needed for their job. That comes out to 57% of professional learners who cited this reason.
  • 24% of all workers say they wanted to upgrade their skills to help get a raise or promotion at work. That amounts to 39% of professional learners who cited this rationale.
  • 13% of the full- and part-time workers say they were hoping to get a new job with a different employer. That amounts to 21% of professional learners who gave this reason.
  • 7% of all workers say they were worried about possible downsizing where they currently work. That comes to 12% of professional learners who gave this reason.

People say they get a variety of benefits from personal and professional learning

Recent educational experiences have paid off in key ways for some learnersAsked about the impact of these learning activities, many personal and professional learners cite a variety of benefits. For the 74% of the population who pursued personal learning in the past 12 months, the rewards often tie to psychological and social benefits:

  • 87% of personal learners say their activities helped them feel more capable and well rounded.
  • 69% say their learning opened up new perspectives about their lives.
  • 64% say their learning helped them make new friends.
  • 58% say it made them feel more connected to their local community.
  • 43% say it prompted them to get more involved in volunteer opportunities.

When it comes to the 63% of workers who are professional learners:

  • 65% say their learning in the past 12 months expanded their professional network.
  • 47% say their extra training helped them advance within their current company.
  • 29% say it enabled them to find a new job with their current employer or a new one.
  • 27% say it helped them consider a different career path.

Those with more education and higher incomes are more likely to engage in lifelong learning

Americans’ learning activities are tied to a variety of factorsThere are broad patterns associated with personal and professional learning related to socio-economic class, people’s access to technology, the kinds of jobs they have, their learning outlooks, and their racial and ethnic backgrounds. As a rule, those adults with more education, household incomes and internet-connecting technologies are more likely to be participants in today’s educational ecosystem and to use information technology to navigate the world.

These findings offer a cautionary note to digital technology enthusiasts who believe that the internet and other tools will automatically democratize education and access to knowledge. The survey clearly shows that information technology plays a role for many as they learn things that are personally or professionally helpful. Still, those who already have high levels of education and easy access to technology are the most likely to take advantage of the internet. For significant minorities of Americans with less education and lower incomes, the internet is more on the periphery of their learning activities. Fewer of the people in those groups are professional or personal learners, and fewer of them use the internet for these purposes. Overall, the internet does not seem to exert as strong a pull toward adult learning among those who are poorer or less educated as it does for those in other groups.

Educational levels: The survey reveals significant differences in the incidence of learning based on adults’ levels of education. For personal learning, 87% of those with college degrees or more (throughout this report adults with college degrees or more refers to anyone who has at least a bachelor’s degree) have done such an activity in the past year, compared with 60% for among those with high school degrees or less. For professional learning, about three quarters (72%) of employed adults with at least college degrees have engaged in some sort of job-related training in the past year, while half (49%) of employed adults with high school degrees or less have done this.

The same patterns hold true when looking at use of the internet for learning: Less than half (43%) of those who did not proceed past high school have used the internet for a personal learning activity vs. 58% among those with college degrees or more. Just 40% of employed adults in the high school group who pursue professional learning use the internet for these activities, compared with nearly two-thirds (64%) of those in the college group.

Household income levels: Americans who live in lower-income households are less likely to be personal or professional learners – and they are less likely to use the internet for personal learning. Some 83% of those living in households earning more than $75,000 are personal learners, compared with 65% of those living in households earning under $30,000. Similarly, 69% of workers living in households earning more than $75,000 are professional learners, compared with 49% of workers living in households earning under $30,000.

Additionally, 44% of those with household incomes under $30,000 have used the internet for personal learning in the past 12 months, compared with 60% for those in households with incomes above $75,000 annually. Similar patterns hold for professional learning. Among employed adults who are professional learners, 40% of those living in households with incomes under $30,000 per year use the internet for professional learning, while 65% of those in households above $75,000 do.

And relatively well-off workers are twice as likely as those with lower incomes to go to a conference or a convention for job training: 53% of workers with incomes above $75,000 per year report doing this, while 28% of workers with incomes below $30,000 annually say the same.

Technology assets: Among those with a smartphone and a home broadband connection (just over half the population), 82% have done some personal learning activity in the past year. For the remaining adults (those with just one of these connection devices or neither of them), 64% have done personal learning in the past year.

Technology assets are strongly tied to the likelihood that people engage in personal learning online. Those with multiple access options (that is, a smartphone and home broadband connection) are much more likely to use the internet for most or all of their personal learning – by a 37% to 21% margin – relative to people with one or no access options.

Personal outlook: People’s attitudes toward new information are also tied to the likelihood that people are personal. Those who see themselves as lifelong learners are more likely than others to be personal learners by a 77% to 40% margin. Additionally, those who say they are open to looking for new opportunities to grow are more likely than others to engage in personal learning activities by a 77% to 51% margin.

Race and ethnicity: African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to say they have pursued personal learning activities in the past year by margins that differ significantly from white adults. The differences for professional learning are less pronounced for African Americans, though still substantial for Hispanics. Some 79% of white adults are personal learners, compared with 64% of blacks and 60% of Hispanics. Additionally, 65% of white workers are professional learners, compared with 59% of black workers and 52% of Hispanic workers.

Type of job: Finally, the type of job a person has shapes the likelihood of having had professional training. For instance, four-fifths (83%) of those who work for the government have had some job training in the past year, while half (50%) who work for small businesses have had such training.

Some key new digital platforms and methods of learning are not widely known by the public

The educational ecosystem is expanding dramatically. Still, there is not widespread public awareness of some of the key resources that are becoming available. Noteworthy majorities of Americans say they are “not too” or “not at all” aware of these things:

  • Distance learning – 61% of adults have little or no awareness of this concept.
  • The Khan Academy, which provides video lessons for students on key concepts in things such as math, science, the humanities and languages – 79% of adults do not have much awareness of it
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are now being offered by universities and companies – 80% of adults do not have much awareness of these.
  • Digital badges that can certify if someone has mastered an idea or a skill – 83% of adults do not have much awareness of these.