Lifelong learning

Academic ceremonial celebrates the cliquishness of education, even when its rituals are rehearsed by the most inclusive and dispersed of universities. Gowned Seniors process to dignified music, accompanied by a glistening mace and inspiring orations, and the long stream of successful students shake an official hand to mark their admission to the ranks of the learned.

This week I had the pleasure of witnessing my wife’s graduation in the Open University – a remarkable institution which has brought first-class education to hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, apprentices to pensioners, mums squeezing hours of study into the frenetic routines of child care, and others.

As a young full-time undergraduate student, it is actually quite hard not to graduate. But when someone has struggled late at night and most weekends over ten years or more to gradually accrue points from various courses, attending summer schools in what should have been their holiday, and worse, every successful Open University student earns their degree by dogged determination and endurance.

The Open University (founded 1969) is perhaps the most established implementation of the more recent idea of “lifelong learning”. This theme is equally vigorous in iTunes U, one of Apple’s least sung but most atruistic achievements. It has also blossomed into MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – which are often free or very low cost and open to anyone with web access. Some experts have argued that MOOCs have achieved little and are already in decline, which would be a crying shame.

For many, particularly those working in the public sector, and in many large organisations, the qualification ultimately proves more important than the skills developed.

In far too many workplaces, a questioning mind is seen as a dangerous thing. The prescriptive manager has neither time nor truck for questions which might expose their lack of understanding or ignorance. The threatened workgroup is insecure if one of its members dares asks whether they are doing things the best way. Thought is a dangerous alternative to silent compliance.

One classic illustration of this quandary is the current vogue for trying to prevent osteoporosis with calcium, Vitamin D, and biphosphonate. Two and a half years ago, my (same!) wife fell and suffered a fracture in her shoulder. She was referred for a routine bone density scan, which led to her being prescribed five years of supplements, although she did not have osteoporosis. Experts in the field are unable to tell whether such treatment does prevent the development of osteoporosis, or has any measurable benefit at all, as there is a dearth of suitable clinical trials: example US advice is here and here.

Those who are most able to conduct such trials – the bone scanning centres who currently initiate this treatment – are understandably reluctant to embark on them, given that a less-than-positive outcome would result in their closure. So the UK NHS continues to put large numbers of patients onto a costly treatment which may serve little or no purpose, even for the smaller numbers who complete the entire course.

I wonder how many of those who will graduate this summer will find that their workplace expects silent submission, and stifles the real benefits of lifelong learning.