Collection of papers: Transdisciplinary perspectives on the futures of lifelong learning


Lifelong learning is widely recognized as a powerful tool for developing more sustainable societies, economies and living environments. Addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century and shaping a sustainable future, calls for adopting the concept of lifelong learning in its entirety and valuing it as a human right. This requires societies to rethink learning and education as truly lifelong and life-wide, accessible to all people.

The complex and interlinked challenges we face today cannot be solved by single disciplines or within particular sectors: they require a holistic approach, achieved by venturing beyond the usual disciplinary boundaries. Moreover, addressing learning-related issues beyond the field of education can help to raise awareness of the relevance of lifelong learning in different sectors.

To initiate transdisciplinary dialogue and address critical questions about the future of lifelong learning, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) in Hamburg, Germany, hosted an online consultation forum with international experts from different research fields. The consultation took place in the spring of 2020 within the framework of UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative. Its aim was to provide an opportunity for the participants to collectively reflect on and analyse how, in light of the deep and rapid changes affecting contemporary societies, lifelong learning can contribute to building a desirable future beyond the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Insights from the consultation were later captured in a UIL report, Embracing a Culture of Lifelong Learning, which presents a compelling future vision of lifelong learning and calls on the international community to recognize lifelong learning as a new human right.

Building on the results of this rich consultation process, UIL invited the experts to produce papers which further reflect on the concept of lifelong learning, its policy relevance and innovative potential to build inclusive and sustainable learning societies. This collection of papers offers transdisciplinary perspectives on the futures of lifelong learning, covering diverse research fields such as demography, education, philosophy, public health, neuroscience and sociology. In doing so, the collection also acknowledges transdisciplinarity as a crucial principle of future knowledge production and problem solving in an increasingly complex world.

Transdisciplinary perspectives on the futures of lifelong learning

In light of the ever-expanding and increasingly diverse learning opportunities available today, Daniel Baril’s paper1  argues for a more holistic and systematic approach to guide education policy debate to address current and future challenges. The framework of lifelong learning captures the complexity of learning processes and serves as a powerful model for transforming education and learning. The paper also exposes some tendencies that are shaping the landscape of lifelong learning and explores current shifts regarding learning supply, learning demand and learning process design.

Learn how to learn collectively: Lifelong learning to take care of oneself, others, and the planet

Both contemporary systemic crises and technological innovation invite us to rethink the ways in which we share information, learn, and work together to find solutions to individual, local and global challenges, contend Gaëll Mainguy, Marie-Cécile Naves and François Taddei in their paper2 . The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to develop and nurture ‘learning communities’ which work collectively to solve problems. Access to and the sharing of knowledge and experience are essential in local, individual and democratic public spheres. This paper showcases a selection of inspiring learning communities and formulates the key principles to empowering people to take care of themselves, others and the planet.

Lifelong learning in ageing societies: Lessons from Europe

The paper by Jim Ogg3  sets out the main challenges for lifelong learning in ageing societies. The context is Europe, where there is an urgent need to increase the availability of vocational training in the workplace, particularly in relation to digitalization and new technologies. Acquiring digital skills can help older people to remain active in the workforce longer and maintain a healthy lifestyle and lessens the risk of social isolation. After retirement, lifelong learning has a central role in promoting well-being and quality of life. The paper concludes that there is growing need to promote lifelong learning in local and community settings and for all age groups.

Older adult learning and active ageing: Bridging self-actualisation and emancipation

Population ageing as one of the most significant demographic megatrends of the twenty-first century is the background of the paper by Abla M. Sibai and Hany Hachem 4. Opportunities to promote the participation and autonomy of older persons and strengthen their ‘reserve capacity’ – that is, their ability to respond to challenging conditions – are thus gradually being woven into policies and programmes. Learning empowers older people on many levels, including by equipping them with better health practices. This paper explores a key debate in education for older people: should the focus be on the individual (self-actualisation) or on the social emancipation of the demographic group? Concluding, the paper provides a vision for lifelong learning based on life politics, which bridges these two positions.

(Re)imagining the futures of lifelong learning: Some sociotechnical tensions

Neil Selwyn’s paper5  highlights the need to move beyond expectations of digital transformation and technological ‘solutionism’ when thinking about the futures of lifelong learning, and instead engage with the ‘messy’ realities of education and technology. In particular, the paper identifies four sociotechnical ‘tensions’: (1) of environmental sustainability (2) between the commercial and the commons, (3) between inclusivity and exclusivity, and (4) between personalisation and collectivism. It argues that these tensions can play a generative role in how we set about (re)imagining the futures of lifelong learning.

Strategies and challenges in promoting lifelong learning in higher education – the case of China

In view of rapid information technology development, promoting lifelong learning has become a compelling obligation of higher education. Taking the example of China, the paper by Sunny X. Niu and Heqing Liu6  proposes several strategies to rejuvenate teaching in higher education. These include revisiting the purpose of education, helping individuals to personalize ‘what to learn’, encouraging faculty members to be lifelong learners, looking at higher education admission selections, and cooperating with employers to update curriculum design. To implement these strategies, the paper identifies two main challenges that higher education needs to overcome.

From the paperback to the ebook: Lifelong learning in the age of the internet

The history of education can be told as the story of its democratization. Against this backdrop, Eduardo Mendieta’s paper7  offers an overview of the impact of the publishing industry on the democratization and availability of education for greater numbers of people. It focuses on the development of the publishing sector and how it interacts with the educational sectors, taking into consideration the impact of digital and audio books on mass education and general literacy. Following the assumption that the ecology of books constitutes an important ‘learning space’, this paper aims to map out how ebooks have altered the educational landscape.

The science of lifelong learning

By maximizing human potential, lifelong learning holds the key to sustainability and to address the needs of the future argue Alicia M. Goodwill and Annabel Chen Shen-Hsing8 . Moreover, the science of lifelong learning, which has its foundations in brain development, degeneration and plasticity, provides the framework to view learning as an ongoing pursuit. Translating the science of lifelong learning for the masses is instrumental in promoting participatory knowledge production and sharing. This paper provides an overview of the current state of the science of lifelong learning, showcases ongoing research, and posits the implications of lifelong learning on the futures of education, economy, health and well-being.

Towards using the potential of lifelong learning for human and planetary sustainability

Walter Leal Filho’s paper 9 presents lifelong learning as a tool to foster human and planetary sustainability. It introduces the practices that pose the biggest threat to people and the planet, and elaborates on different factors – such as the role of local and global citizenship for maintaining healthy ecosystems – needed to nurture global responsibility and solidarity. It concludes with the contribution of lifelong learning to intergenerational knowledge dissemination, the co-creation of regenerative cultures, and appropriate participation in living processes.

Envisioning lifelong learning for sustainable futures in Southern Africa

This paper by Tonic L. Maruatona10  holds that, although the Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states endorse lifelong learning as a useful framework for education and sustainable development, the region still lacks some basic foundations, including adequate lifelong learning policies and programmes to bolster the socioeconomic inclusion of marginalized groups. In response to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the COVID-19 crisis, this paper envisions a regional education and training curricula based on inclusive learning policies and infrastructure. In addition, strengthening early childhood education and creating permeable regional and national qualifications frameworks are regarded as essential to the region’s sustainable future.

1 “Transdiciplinary perspectives on the futures of lifelong learning” by Daniel Baril, Director General of the Institute for Cooperation on Adult Education (ICAE), Canada, and Chair of the Governing Board of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong learning (UIL)


2 “Learn how to learn collectively: Lifelong learning to take care of oneself, others, and the planet” by Gaëll Mainguy, Marie-Cécile Naves and François Taddei, Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity, Paris, France


3 “Lifelong learning in ageing societies: Lessons from Europe” by Jim Ogg, Ageing Research Unit, French National Pension Fund (Caisse nationale d’assurance vieillesse), Paris, France


4 “Older adult learning and active ageing: Bridging self-actualisation and emancipation” by Abla M. Sibai, Faculty of Health Sciences and University for Seniors, American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon, and Hany Hachem, Department of Education, School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, Örebro University, Örebro, Sweden


5 “(Re)imagining the futures of lifelong learning: Some sociotechnical tensions” by Neil Selwyn, Faculty of Education, Digital Education Research Group, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia


6 “Strategies and challenges in promoting lifelong learning in higher education – the case of China” by Sunny X. Niu and Heqing Liu, Research Institute of Higher Education, Fudan University, Shanghai, China


7 “From the paperback to the ebook: Lifelong learning in the age of the internet” by Eduardo Mendieta, Department of Philosophy, Penn State University, Pennsylvania, United States of America


8 “The science of lifelong learning” by Alicia M. Goodwill and Annabel Chen Shen-Hsing, The Centre for Research and Development in Learning (CRADLE), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


9 “Towards using the potential of lifelong learning for human and planetary sustainability” by Walter Leal Filho, European School of Sustainability Science and Research, Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Hamburg, Germany


10 “Envisioning lifelong learning for sustainable futures in Southern Africa” by Tonic L. Maruatona, Department of Lifelong Learning and Community Development, University of Botswana, Gabarone, Botswana