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Inclusiveness for whom? The relevance of creating a demand for ICT based adult learning

Sara Williams, Neil Selwyn & Stephen Gorard, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Wales.

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 30th Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2000, University of Nottingham


For the last decade the UK government’s drive to establish a ‘Learning Society’ has been centred upon notions of inclusion. Thus it is acknowledged that the creation of a Learning Society depends upon widening and not just increasing participation in lifelong learning. Academic and policy-makers are in general agreement about who is currently excluded from participation, and therefore who the policies of inclusion should be aimed at. These policies have tended to be concerned with removing the barriers that prevent these specific groups of the population from participating in learning. Moreover, in this quest to facilitate easier access to lifelong learning for all, policy makers are increasingly turning to Information and Communications Technology (ICT). It is envisaged that by providing a flexible alternative to more traditional forms of education and training, ICT can provide a means of overcoming existing barriers to participation, particularly barriers of ‘time, space and pace’ (Essom and Thomson 1999). We have argued elsewhere that, to a large extent, these hopes are unfounded at present, with inequalities of access to ICT reinforcing rather than ameliorating these existing barriers (Selwyn & Gorard 1999, Gorard & Selwyn 1999). In this paper we move on to consider a potentially more significant flaw in this approach stemming from the ‘demand’, rather than the ‘supply’ side of the equation.

Using early findings from two studies carried out in Cardiff (one funded by the Spencer Foundation and one by the ESRC),

this paper will express the concern that ICT is being treated, both by the government and some educators, as a ‘magic button’ for the answer to the problems of social inclusion in lifelong learning. However, our emerging evidence suggests that this is not the case, as such an approach ignores the role of demand. The paper will therefore examine the problems inherent in any initiative that attempts to widen participation in adult learning by instituting changes on the supply side alone.

The supply side of ICT based adult learning - what’s on offer?

There are a number of different programmes designed to provide technology based learning to all sectors of society, including the University for Industry (UfI) and its ‘learndirect’ brand-name, the People’s Network of libraries, the National Grid for Learning, and various ‘digital’ and ‘virtual’ colleges. Most recently, organisations such as the BBC and NIACE have been active in staging campaigns to promote both the use of ICT and adult learning and it has been announced that up to 1000 ICT Learning Centres will be opened across the country by 2001. Against this UK-wide ‘policy-scape’, in Wales the Digital College (or Coleg Digidol) is also being introduced as a technologically based centre for adult learning which emphasises extending learning opportunities through digital television broadcasts and the Internet. Like other similar initiatives, widening participation is one of its chief aims:

Anyone interested in learning new skills – vocational or non-vocational would be able to benefit and exciting and effective access procedures would be put in place to attract and support traditionally non-participating groups such as the young unemployed and adult returners. (Digital College 1998, p.15)

It is monitoring the development of the Digital College, and its success in widening participation, that is at the heart of our on-going project. Our research is concerned with examining not only the demand for the digital college, but also the techniques employed by the digital college in order to attract non-participants. We will turn to this research at a later point in the discussion. First, however we need to consider why the demand side of the equation is so important.

The need to bring demand back into the adult learning equation

In addition to being ICT based providers of learning opportunities, initiatives such as the Digital College and UfI have something else in common – they are all supply led initiatives. In this way they have all been established on the assumption that providing easy access to learning opportunities away from the confines of traditional educational institutions would open up learning resources to all sectors of society; effectively leading to greater social inclusion. However, recent work suggests that the role of technical barriers to participation in adult learning is far more complex than this approach would suggest (Gorard et al. 1999a, 1999b). Above all, this approach neglects another key barrier which also prevents people from engaging with learning opportunities – dispositional (or motivational) barriers. If the problem is based upon people not wanting to participate then it is difficult to envisage how these supply led schemes are going to be successful in terms of widening participation. If particular individuals are not well disposed towards the notion of ‘learning’ then removing other more tangible barriers such as cost and so on will have very limited effect (Gorard & Selwyn 1999). As barriers of any kind are, by definition, more effective against the less motivated, it is not clear how merely making changes on the supply side will tackle this significant barrier. It can be strongly argued, therefore, that in order for these schemes to succeed, it is not enough to simply supply new and innovative learning opportunities, there must also be a demand for them.

It is significant that in a recent debate on the Information Age at the National Assembly for Wales, one assembly member commented that providing the equipment and facilities to all members of society was the ‘easy bit’. Putting the necessary infrastructure into place and ensuring that everyone in the population has access to the necessary facilities, despite being in itself a tall order, is arguably a minor obstacle in comparison to the major challenge of stimulating demand and motivation. In a similar vein, with specific regard to the University for Industry, Robertson (1998, p.10) argued:

Government interventions of an institutional nature have not made much impression hitherto on the intractable problem of demand side resistance to training in the UK. The terrain is littered with the burned-out remnants of doomed supply-side initiatives.

Using examples from earlier supply-side interventions, Robertson contends that little has been learned from past failures and that for such initiatives to work, the problem of ‘demand side resistance to training’ and education must be tackled. He further argues that ‘[a] combination of structural and cultural inhibitors has produced in the UK a familiar pattern of limited individual motivation, provider inertia and lack of responsiveness’ (Robertson 1998, p.14)

Demand side resistance - the centrality of learner identity

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that such dispositional and motivational barriers are, at present, as much of a hurdle to the establishment of a learning society as structural and institutional barriers. Recent studies into lifelong learning point to the importance of learner identities as a determinant of participation (Edwards et al. 1993, Titmus 1994, Gorard et al. 1998). With this in mind, this section of the paper will explore the possible reasons for this ‘limited individual motivation’ using interview data from the recently completed Cardiff-based ESRC funded study into lifelong learning 1.

Rees et al. (2000:11) argue that decisions about whether or not to participate in post compulsory education tend to reflect ‘deep-seated attitudes towards learning in formal settings, such as educational institutions and work places’. In this respect, moves to provide ICT based learning opportunities away from these formal educational settings might prove to be beneficial. However individuals’ learner identities could be more complex than this centring upon notions of whether or not learning or training is relevant to them. Of course this aspect of learner identity can also be linked to early experiences of participation in education. There is evidence to suggest that an individual’s relative success or failure at school has a significant effect on learner identity, with those who fail frequently coming to see learning as irrelevant (Rees et al. 1997, 2000). For example, when asked whether or not they had considered participating in any form of adult learning, one non-participant replied that he had not because:

I’m not brainy I suppose .. Well I never looked to be honest.

This quotation illustrates not only that the individual had a negative learner identity, he is not ‘brainy’ enough to participate, but also that he has not considered that participating in any form of post compulsory education is relevant to him, ‘well I never looked to be honest’.

Fevre et al. (1999) argue that among sections of the population there is a common tendency to devalue formal education and training. For example:

I haven’t got a GCE or BSc or whatever they’re called these days .. but as I say you don’t have to be academic to be able to do things.

For many it is common sense and experience, rather than formal education and training, that is seen as central to carrying out one’s job effectively. As such, many non-participants were at a loss to understand how participating in education could benefit them. The following is a particularly telling example of this, specifically the respondent’s comment that education ‘is still a waste of time as far as I’m concerned’. This comment suggests that the respondent has always felt education to be an irrelevant option for him.

…you asked me about getting education .. which I think would be a foolish thing for me to do really … It’s still a waste of time as far as I’m concerned. You see them on the news like that woman of 70 or 80 getting a degree or something. What for, like? She has wasted hours .. to go and do something like that at her age is a complete waste of a couple of years of her life.

For those who do not have jobs, education and training is also frequently dismissed as irrelevant. For example one young unemployed man in his early twenties commented, ‘basically I need work before I need college’. However it is significant that the relevance of lifelong learning was also questioned by some of those still in full time continuous education. Although participating in immediate post compulsory education might be relevant in terms of helping them to secure employment upon leaving, its value after this point was frequently questioned. For example one undergraduate student, when asked whether she would continue with learning after completing her present studies responded:

Probably not .. I like studying but I don’t like it that much! [laughs] Not to be doing it eternally but for the time being it’s fine, yeah. (emphasis added)

This final comment also lends further support to the central question of this paper – that is; if people do not want to participate, whether this is because they feel that they would not benefit or because they feel that it is simply not a suitable option, how will supply-led initiatives help? In particular, how will ICT based schemes fare given the further barrier associated with the actual use of the technology itself. We have seen how individuals characterise adult learning as not for them, it remains to be seen whether the same people are convinced by the value and relevance of ICT. In the next section of this paper we shall discuss the strategies employed by one of these ICT based initiatives, the Wales Digital College, to attract and recruit learners.

The Wales Digital College – Strategies for recruiting learners through ICT

The Wales Digital College is an ICT based broker and provider of learning opportunities with the aim of widening participation in adult learning through ‘the use of exciting and effective access procedures’ (Digital College 1998, p.15). As participation figures are not yet available we are unable, at present, to test empirically whether or not this goal has been achieved. However we have argued elsewhere that the way in which the Digital College presents itself to potential learners is of vital importance to its success (Gorard et al. 2000). This section will therefore examine current strategies to recruit learners along with a brief analysis of the facilities currently offered by the Digital College. This will allow us to make some tentative comments regarding the likely success of their aims to widen participation.

Publicity for the Digital College has been remarkably low-key. Despite its commitment to ‘driving demand’ (Digital College 1998) there has not yet been a high profile marketing campaign akin to the campaign surrounding the launch of the Ufi pilot in the North East of England (Milner et al. 1999). Of course, this may be explained, in part, by the fact that the ‘official’ launch date of the Digital College has been consistently rescheduled from its original target of mid 1999. Indeed, respondents have reported a certain degree of uncertainty among the staff of the digital college itself as to when it will be fully operational, although it is generally anticipated that it will now not be before Autumn 2000. Nevertheless, to date the Digital College has utilised three main ways of raising its public profile and beginning to recruit learners: the staging of a conference in early 1999; the production of a promotional leaflet; and the launch of its on-line presence on the Internet.

The two-day Digital College Conference in January 1999 saw the launch of the public face of the Digital College. It is not without significance then that the main focus of this conference was ostensibly upon building links with the business community. Indeed, the conference’s title ‘Wales Digital College Network – The Conference’ (emphasis added) reflects this. The conference was opened with an address by Professor Bob Fryer, chairman of NAGCELL and executive director of the UfI, who stressed that concerns to widen participation in lifelong learning should remain at the heart of the Digital College project:

We cannot be seen to merely attract the usual suspects, to do so would be deeply hypocritical. (Fryer 1999)

However even in terms of the conference itself, these concerns largely remained at the level of rhetoric. The remainder of the conference was concerned with the business of running a digital college and little further reference was made to issues of widening participation. In the numerous discussions and seminars on the practical day-to-day running of the Digital College few attempts were made to discuss how the goal of widening participation might be translated into practice. It was apparent throughout that the conference was essentially a public relations exercise in which the Digital College was chiefly concerned with marketing themselves towards business. Two other things stood out. First of all the Welsh language slant of the conference was striking, as was the strong emphasis on the importance of increasing business oriented skills throughout Wales. It is significant that the focus was upon increasing productivity and promoting economic growth in Wales, whereas arguments for widening participation in terms of promoting greater equity and social justice were neglected.

A more sustained ‘public face’ of the Digital College has been provided through the Internet. Although digital broadcasting will eventually form the backbone of the Digital College, most initial development has focused upon the use of the Internet. At present, along with making telephone enquiries to the Digital College, visiting their website via the Internet is the principal way in which a potential user may engage with the Digital College. However, as yet neither of these may be particularly effective means of recruiting disaffected learners or new users. Several informants expressed their frustration when telephone enquiries proved to be far from enlightening. The receptionist was unable to answer even the most basic questions about the most basic functions and purpose of the Digital College, such as what courses it ‘offered’ and how to enrol on them. It also transpires that the Digital College is currently catering for Welsh language learners alone.

The Welsh language emphasis is also evident on the Digital College’s website, where the only resources currently available are for Welsh language. We have argued elsewhere that this emphasis on Welsh language learning could be seen as an attempt to provide content for which a ready audience, and therefore demand, is known to exist (Gorard et al. 2000). However despite the (rather limited) provision of Welsh language resources, the Digital College’s website is primarily concerned with administrative matters. Much of the website is password protected and is presently concerned with the day to day running of the Digital College rather than stimulating demand for lifelong learning. It is significant that the two dominant features of the Digital College conference – a concern with the ‘business’ side of the college and with Welsh language provision – is also clearly reflected on its website.

The third strategy employed by the Digital College to recruit potential users has been a promotional leafleting campaign. However in terms of stimulating demand, the appropriateness of this method is also questionable. To begin with, the leaflet has been largely dispatched to those individuals who have made initial enquiries to the Digital College, whether via a telephone call or the Internet; in other words individuals who are already ‘switched on’ to the idea of participating in ICT based learning. Secondly the leaflet, which is produced in association with the NTL telecommunications company, is more concerned with promoting the technology rather than lifelong learning. It is also worth noting that photographs on the leaflet depict various individuals and families engaging with digital learning in plush homes with oak mantle fire surrounds and thousands of pounds worth of audio and visual equipment clearly on display.

In sum, it is not easy to see how the current strategies employed by the Digital College will stimulate demand. It is noteworthy then that they have recently commissioned a market research company to investigate the current demand for the facilities that it intends to offer. This of course, is a positive move as it reveals that the significance of demand for ICT based learning has at least been recognised. However this investigation into the demand for the Digital College is also framed in a very ‘supply side’ way. Rather than considering how demand might be stimulated, it is concerned with tapping into the existing demand and with monitoring what the demand might be for the services that the institution intends to supply. In addition, the market research is currently concentrating on the readers of a magazine aimed at learners of the Welsh language, students at a further education college in Mid Wales and to Young Farmers groups throughout Wales. Two of these groups are already ‘learners’ by definition.


One of the emerging themes from our on-going work into the Welsh Digital College is that, despite all the hyperbole surrounding the use of ICT in adult learning, the practical implementation of such programmes is proving more haphazard. The ever-changing ‘official’ launch date is testimony to this and means that, as yet, we have been unable to obtain data on the users of the digital college. This will form the next stage of our research. Nevertheless, our initial observations coupled with our earlier ESRC-funded research would suggest that learner demand is unlikely to be significantly altered without a fundamental shift in individual, and indeed cultural, attitudes towards the value of learning. Thus, in light of the observations made in this paper the Digital College’s goal of widening participation in adult learning in Wales appears, at least in the short term, to be a tall order.

Crucially, given the centrality of the problem of demand-side resistance to adult learning, if the Wales Digital College and similar initiatives are to succeed, this demand side problem must be tackled. Indeed, there are signs that the importance of creating demand is beginning to be recognised now that the initial rush of technological enthusiasm is dying down. In the Third National Report of the National Skills Task Force one of the recommendations was that the ‘promotion and encouragement of lifelong learning should be greatly increased’ particularly in terms of ‘individuals who could most benefit from learning but are reluctant to become involved’. (NSTF 2000, p.7)

Nevertheless, relying on ‘innovative’ means to stimulate demand as at present can only ever tackle problem in small way; it is apparent that individual learner identities run much deeper than this and the culture of non-participation needs to be tackled on a wider scale. At the moment, the introduction of ICT-based programmes would not seem capable of (or even specifically focused on) solving this problem. To expect a wide-scale technological fix to the issue of educational inclusiveness would, therefore, appear foolhardy. The establishment of a fully inclusive learning society cannot simply depend upon finding a ‘magic button’, or a technical fix but needs to be approached in a broader, more comprehensive way by policymakers and educationalists alike.


1 - The data presented in this section were collected as part of research carried out as part of the ESRC’s Learning Society Programme (grant L123251041). The remainder of the paper also draws on an on-going project made possible by a grant from the Spencer Foundation (SG#199900305). The statements made and the views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 27 June 2000