The first in a series of four articles by Michael Doneman on ‘Datascapes of Ageing in Place’ action, learning and research with older people as digital education innovators.
It’s common to be advised these days of the value of ‘lifelong learning’ but it was not always so. Once there was an understanding that education was something we did in the first part of our lives, a process of gathering the knowledge and skills we needed to work and keep house, something we engaged with, perhaps struggled with, until that was done and ready to go on and do ‘life’. Now not so much.
Workplaces are volatile and mutable, social structures are changing, the law and health and politics and housing and justice and transport and everything else is shifting under our feet.
We have to keep up, keep at it and adapt, and what the recipe requires for surviving in this environment – let alone thriving in it – is continuing education, more and better learning.
Okay. But is the best way to learn, when you’re 70, analogous to the best way to learn when you’re 17? There are undoubtedly commonalities: we engage with something (and usually someone) and afterwards we know or we can do something we didn’t know or couldn’t do prior to that. We have learned. But there are divergences as well, and it’s in these that we may discover ingredients for a recipe which makes for richer, deeper and more effective educational practice.
Note: This picture is generated by ChatGPT-4 using the DALL-E3 plugin.
The concept of adult education might be termed ‘andragogy’ to distinguish it from ‘pedagogy’, the education of children. The concept and the practice have been alive in the European tradition since at least the 17th Century, with roots in the Italian Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. This is seen clearly in the work and influence of Jan Commenius, the Moravian theologian, philosopher and teacher, who understood the education of adults as a process of individual liberation, human dignity, wisdom and (to use a phrase) the pursuit of happiness. This differed from the education of children, which had the more prosaic function of preparation for the world of adulthood.
These were the values of Christian humanists like Erasmus and Thomas More - education as a kind of ‘getting of wisdom’ - and they have been influential in the formation of education (and other) practices in Western Europe and Scandinavia. A potent exemplar is the 19th Century Danish pastor, poet, politician and teacher Nikolaj Grundtvig, who was instrumental in formulating community-based education still seen in that country’s ‘folk high schools’ and ‘production schools’, institutions designed for the flourishing of folkeoplysning, or ‘people’s enlightenment’.
It was in discussion with a Danish (actually, Swedish) colleague that these perspectives on adult education were raised in relation to emergent ideas on ‘elder’ education. If there is a distinction between the ‘pedagogical’ and ‘andragogical’ projects, could it be seen that the education of older people, let’s say people ‘beyond retirement’, is similarly distinct? Why? How?
Immersed since birth in the Scandinavian principles so often admired by social democrats elsewhere, Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius is Rector and CEO of the KaosPilot business school in Aarhus, which for more than 20 years has been innovating in ethical business education and training, a segment which these days might be called ‘social entrepreneurship’. In the depths of the lockdowns, Christer and I began a conversation on adult education which quickly streamed into the notion of what I called an ‘eldragogy’, which is to say education and training for people over 65 (a fairly arbitrary number, decided because of the notional age of ‘retirement’). We think this differs from an ‘andragogy’ because the learner, and the learner’s world, is different, at least sufficiently different to warrant a ground-up rethink.
As educators, Christer and I are fascinated by the notion that the global West seems ready for a reframing of the social role of ‘elderhood’ driven by the unprecedented longevity of populations – the ‘hundred year life’ and the ‘sixty year career’ – and the risks and opportunities generated as this shifts the political and economic logistics of health and other social services. Could older people be thought of as assets, somehow, rather than deficits?
The idea of eldragogy stems from concern that we risk wasting an enormous and burgeoning resource of human and social capital by relegating ‘retirees’ or others removed from the conventional workforce to as much of a third of their life in God’s waiting room, a slow decline through irrelevance to a final medicalised exit. If people growing beyond the age of ‘retirement’ are to be seen through an asset lens rather than as a deficit, how might they flourish, perhaps contribute, how might they (and all of us) make the most of their remaining years?
Since 2022 the University of the Third Age (U3A) and Shaping Connections have partnered in research focused on issues of digital access and digital literacy.
The research project ‘Datascapes of Ageing in Place’, undertaken by the partners for delivery between November 2023 and early 2026, continues their collaboration by extending the consideration of data access and data literacy into consideration of what’s next, that is, having achieved some degree of access and literacy, what do we do with it? How might we contribute, to add value, to the education of our peers? Is it possible to mentor the mentors, train the trainers, and in doing so bolster the organisation’s capacity?
The research adopts the term 'eldragogy', in place of the more conventional 'geragogy', on which there is a substantial literature. Put simply, 'geragogy' generally assumes a 'deficit' modality among its constituency, where education and training is adapted to address cognitive decline and the many perceived challenges faced by ageing. Education becomes a process 'for' a disadvantaged group, a kind of ‘Special Ed’.
By contrast, ‘Datascapes’ assumes a positive position, a perspective that casts older people as a social asset in much the same way that cultures in East Asia, South Asia and First Nations Australia valorise and honour elderhood.
Datascapes of Ageing in Place
In this research project we set out to identify what we’re calling the superpowers of elderhood, the strengths and resources available to older people and their educators, and to co-create a model for this with the Digital Mentors cohort which emerged from the RMIT/U3A partnership.
We imagine an eldragogy which we can invent and play with in a community of practice towards, perhaps, the getting of wisdom. Throughout our process we take account of the pervasive and ubiquitous influence of data – living and working in and through data, subject to its influence and also using its capacity to communicate and innovate as we ‘age in place’.
The second article in this four part series explores 'eldragogy' and will be published in the coming weeks.