Lifelong learning in the digital age: A content analysis of recent research on participation
First Monday

Lifelong learning in the digital age: A content analysis of recent research on participation by Alison J. Head, Michele Van Hoeck, and Deborah S. Garson

This paper presents results from a cross-disciplinary content analysis of 185 recent research articles, published between 2008 and 2013. These articles examined factors affecting adult participation in lifelong learning, including the availability and use of Internet-based and face-to-face modes of learning. Articles were written by scholars from 39 countries, including the European Union (EU), United States (U.S.), Canada, Australia, and, to a lesser extent, from developing and newly industrialized countries, such as Mexico, Brazil, China, and Taiwan. Despite widespread assumptions as to online learning’s potential and promise, articles focused on traditional face-to-face learning and training modes more than Internet-based modes. Seven thematic research areas were identified from the article dataset: four major and three emerging themes. Key findings from 40 studies about the adult participation in learning in the workplace and community-based programs are highlighted. These articles present broad and deep investigations about diverse groups of lifelong learners previously unstudied, while equity issues pertaining to access and availability of training and learning opportunities are addressed. Directions for future research are identified and discussed.


Review of key concepts




A rapid expansion of communication technologies and the burgeoning availability of information have led to increasing expectations for lifelong learning, a process we define as the purposeful and continuous acquisition of skills and knowledge throughout an individual’s lifespan (Edwards, 2002; Green, et al., 1999; Longworth, 2006).

For any number of vocational, personal, and civic reasons, today’s adults are engaging in lifelong learning. An increasingly fluid and technology-intensive workplace requires workers to be professionally nimble in order to remain competitive and employable in a globalized and networked economy.

Outside of their jobs, adults are presented with a diverse network of information for managing the myriad details of modern life. Many engage in learning for social enrichment and personal growth, as well as to stay informed and active as citizens in their own communities.

As global and local recognition of lifelong learning has increased, so have the available learning outlets (Davidson and Goldberg, 2009; Ingram, et al., 2009; Leinonen, 2009).

Educational software, YouTube videos, Webinars, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) exist in conjunction with traditional apprenticeships, professional conferences, community education courses, and workplace training.

Though the pathways to learning venues have multiplied, individual participation in lifelong learning cannot be taken for granted (Desjardins and Rubenson, 2013).

In one such case, proponents of MOOCs espoused the democratizing virtues of connected learning through largely scalable networks (Siemens, 2006). Yet, critics have recently questioned whether MOOCS can fulfill their potential by reaching and retaining users from around the world (Emanuel, 2013).

Accordingly, some researchers have examined what enables and motivates participation in continuous learning (Boeren, et al., 2012; Borg and Mayo, 2006). Others have looked at the spectrum of potential lifelong learning goals relative to an individual’s needs, literacy, and access to learning opportunities (Field and Leicester, 2000).

A cross-disciplinary body of literature on lifelong learning allowed us to inquire into the factors affecting adult participation in lifelong learning. What new understandings can be gleaned from today’s research on lifelong learning and participation in the digital age? What can be learned from recent research about participation in Internet-based as well as traditional face-to-face modes of lifelong learning?

We approached these questions, and others, by conducting a large-scale, cross-disciplinary content analysis of the literature on participation in lifelong learning, published in English between 2008 and 2013. We identified four major thematic areas of study about participation in lifelong learning:

  • Organizational climate
  • Learner characteristics and attitudes
  • Market, social policy, and regulatory forces
  • Underserved populations

In addition, we identified three emerging areas of study:

  • Generational differences
  • Civic involvement
  • Gender differences

The purpose of our study was to analyze the recent research, identify key research themes, and examine factors that drive or impede participation in lifelong learning today.

We present our results at a time when participation is being defined as essential to social and economic progress, when networked technologies hold the promise of delivering lifelong learning to more people than ever, and when personal well-being and equity are growing global concerns in an increasingly connected world.



Review of key concepts

The breadth of settings and subjects within the extensive body of lifelong learning literature requires some introduction. In this section, we discuss definitions of lifelong learning and how they have developed through the twentieth and into the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Who are lifelong learners? Where does lifelong learning occur? How do stakeholders, including learners themselves, define and determine this learning orientation? These discussions and debates have coursed through the scholarly literature for more than a century.

Today, lifelong learning means many different things to stakeholders, whether government entities or the learners themselves. Lifelong learning has been defined as an activity that is purposeful, self-directed, deliberate, voluntary, and continuous; in addition it may be formal, non-formal, or informal (Candy and Brookfield, 1991; Long and Redding, 1991). Lifelong learners have been characterized as curious, flexible, motivated, and reflective (Knapper and Cropley, 2000; Pintrich and Schrauben,1992).

These defining characteristics underscore the self-motivated and self-perpetuated nature of lifelong learning behaviors as well as the dispositions that facilitate engagement in continuous and purposeful learning (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991).

For purposes of this paper, we have defined lifelong learning as purposeful learning, occurring among adults on an ongoing basis with the aim of improving skills or acquiring knowledge or competencies. This kind of learning occurs online as well as in bricks-and-mortar settings. As such, it can occur in the workplace, in community and civic life, and in personal life. Lifelong learning may also take place through formal, informal, or non-formal exchanges.

Despite these seemingly straightforward definitions, lifelong learning is a multifaceted, often ambiguous concept, especially as it applies to participation. Part of this ambiguity comes from the two different ways in which lifelong learning has been defined when justifying programs and policies and their funding initiatives.

Some policy-makers define lifelong learning as the end goal for the self-actualized learner. Others define it as a vehicle for economic growth. Beyond these definitions, the provision and use of continuous learning through multiple and emerging technologies has contributed to uncertain outcomes and equities.

Defining rationales

The post-industrial age brought sweeping changes that led the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to release seminal reports defining the need for lifelong learning. These reports have framed the debate and discussion about the purpose of lifelong learning since the 1970s.

The UNESCO report (Faure, et al., 1972), applied a cultural rationale, championing lifelong learning for personal growth and social equality (Delors, 1996; DfEE,1998). The OECD report used an economic rationale to argue for a competitive workforce in times of turbulent global change (CERI, 1973).

Taken together, these documents generated a far-reaching debate about when lifelong learning occurs and what participatory activities constitute it. Europeans, for instance, applied the term lifelong learning to the entire lifespan, describing it as institutional and individual (Edwards, 2006) and occurring “from cradle to grave” (Jarvis, 2009).

For decades, U.S. stakeholders in higher education and government have focused on “adult education,” leaving the development and enactment of national lifelong learning policies to their international counterparts (Merriam and Brockett, 1997).

Most stakeholders around the globe now view lifelong learning as a continuous process occurring across a lifespan (Jarvis, 2007). Further, participation in lifelong learning is defined as occurring in three arenas (Beddie, 2004; Tough, 1971).

Two of these types of lifelong learning--formal and non-formal — take place in schools and the workplace. Formal learning consists of education and training in an institutional context where diplomas or certifications are awarded upon completion. Non-formal learning occurs in lessons, discussions, seminars, either in the workplace or other organizations, but without resulting in certification.

The third type of learning--informal learning — is incidental and self-directed, in which individuals learn independently to advance their knowledge and skills. The ubiquity of networked devices in their different shapes and forms have expanded these learning opportunities in addition to the traditional and formal venues that remain in place.

Continued debate

Despite a global consensus on the need for lifelong learning, stakeholders still debate the 1972 UNESCO and 1973 OECD reports (Medel-Añonuevo, et al., 2001).

For instance, researchers have questioned whether lifelong learning is an economic imperative in European policy and practice, claiming that “learning for earning” has displaced the cultural and inclusive rationale of learning for the sake of learning (Biesta 2006; Jackson, 2005). Similarly, others have analyzed the OECD reports, claiming they have a strong bias for economic productivity and wealth at the expense of social equality and civic engagement (Walker, 2009).

Some social scientists have argued that lifelong learning has been co-opted to lend legitimacy to destabilizing forces of globalization (Coffield, 1999; Crowther, 2004; Gelpi,1979; Uggla, 2008).

Others have critiqued the packaging of lifelong learning as a commodity, in which learners must pay for instruction and training. They have claimed that the business of continuing education raises the bottom line of an enterprise more than it enriches learners’ lives (Bagnall, 2000).

In a broader context, scholars have examined the impact of networked technologies on lifelong learning, participation, and equitable access. Some have questioned whether information communication technologies (ICTs) deliver the enhanced access that lifelong learning policies and programs promise (DiMaggio, et al., 2004; Hargittai, 2002; White and Selywyn, 2012).

Education researchers have claimed the reliance on and the use of technology has not been deeply researched or sufficiently critiqued for its pedagogical outcomes (Thompson, 2011). Instead, researchers and practitioners have relied on existing theories and practices rather than developing new epistemologies to further the understanding of online learning practices.

New media scholars have called for a clearer distinction between information and knowledge. Some of these scholars have warned against the assumption that computers, and the digital information they readily transmit, equate to lifelong learning and ultimately, to widespread knowledge (Resnick, 2002).

Higher education policy analysts and academic librarians have argued for instilling lifelong learning competencies through curriculum and instruction. They share the goal of graduating people who will be self-directed and motivated learners for the rest of their lives (Candy, 2000; Candy, et al., 1994; Jongbloed, 2002).

In sum, lifelong learning, as a subject of study, has been critiqued for being limited to debates about definition and theory. Some critics have argued the lack of coordinated efforts toward integrating lifelong learning policies, practices, and theories have created serious disparities in participation (Toth, 2009). Others have claimed that when defined by policy-makers, lifelong learning itself becomes a mechanism for exclusion and control (Field, 2006).

It has been argued the global implementation of programmatic solutions has flagged where greater equities could be achieved (UNESCO, 2009). Moreover, lifelong learning policy initiatives in OECD member states have been ineffectual due to a lack of agreement about implementation strategies, inequitable systems of funding initiatives for lifelong learning, and a dearth of educational buy-in and support (Bengtsson, 2013).




Given the ongoing discussion and debate over lifelong learning, we conducted a systematic content analysis of a sample of recent research. Our purpose was to identify and analyze key findings of adult participation — and non-participation — in continued learning.

Five questions guided our analysis:

  1. Which countries have scholars who are contributing to recent research about lifelong learning and participation?

  2. Which disciplinary domains have added to recent literature on lifelong learning and participation?

  3. To what extent has Internet-based learning been investigated in conjunction with traditional face-to-face modes of lifelong learning?

  4. What key research themes about participation in lifelong learning have been recently identified and studied and what notable findings exist?

  5. What gaps can we identify as new directions for future research based on our analysis results?




Our content analysis was undertaken as part of Project Information Literacy (PIL), a national and ongoing research project about college students and recent graduates and their research practices [1].

The literature analyzed in this paper spanned the disciplines of education, business, the social sciences (i.e., economics, psychology, political science, sociology), and library and information science. We also focused on research from the standpoint of civic involvement, a growing area of scholarly attention within the disciplines of sociology and political science.

The article dataset reviewed consisted of scholarship about adult participation in continued learning in the arenas of work and community. The dataset was derived from authors representing 39 countries, writing in English-language publications.

Scholarly articles that presented qualitative or quantitative data and empirical findings were the focus. These articles reported on a variety of research methods, from surveys to case studies to content analysis. We limited our scope to primary sources and original research. The dataset did not include secondary sources such as book chapters, how-to essays, editorials, programmatic solutions, or book reviews.

Since our targeted and defined population was adult learners, we excluded articles on formal education in colleges and universities. We also excluded articles focusing on children and adolescents. We do acknowledge, however, that adult learning is shaped by dispositions, habits, and practices developed through previous learning experiences, and cannot be strictly segregated in the literature.

Search strategy

The search for literature comprised two phases. In Phase 1 (February and March 2014), we searched 12 databases and research websites. The databases were both proprietary and open access.

We searched across disciplines using Academic Search Complete. Within disciplines, we searched ERIC, Educational Abstracts, Emerald Insight, Business Source Premier, PsycINFO, PsycArticles, PAIS International, Sociological Abstracts, Social Sciences Resources Network, Library and Information Science Source, and Library and Information Science Abstracts.

Each searcher used an iterative strategy to identify the most effective keywords, Boolean operators, and controlled vocabulary in the databases to find research specific to the paired concept of participation and lifelong learning.

Search terms were lifelong learning, continuing education, adult education, vocational education, workplace learning, self-regulatory learning, online learning, computer-assisted learning, Web-based learning, training, professional development, career, employment, motivation, knowledge society, learning organization, digital divide, civic involvement, civic engagement, information literacy, information poverty, information access, resources, Internet, networked technologies, information communication technologies, ICTs, computers, participation, access, drivers, barriers, and involvement.

In Phase 2 (April and May, 2014) manifest and latent coding methods were used for analytic reduction and a systematic interpretation of underlying patterns in the article dataset. Krippendorff’s Alpha (KALPHA), the most rigorous means of testing intercoder reliability, was run on the pilot test round of articles coded by the researchers. KALPHA takes into account chance agreement among content analysis coders.

There is no universally accepted standard for intercoder reliability. Yet communications researchers have suggested that a coefficient between 0.81 and 0.99 is “almost perfect,” between 0.61 and 0.80 is “substantial,” and 0.41 to 0.60 is “moderate.”

One pilot coding round of six articles was used, since our joint coding practices reached the acceptable reliability level of 0.82. Thereafter, we coded all articles using individual properties (i.e., date of publication, authors’ country of origin, disciplinary arena of the article, and research theme).

Methodological limitations

There are challenges associated with the content analysis and coding for evaluative reviews like this one. One such challenge is ensuring that coders are thoroughly trained and have provided accurate and complete interpretations.

Accordingly, coders must carefully evaluate each coding artifact while keeping track of the codes. To address this limitation, we pilot-tested our coding form and used inter-reliability testing until an acceptable level of agreement was achieved.

Another issue is the generalizability of the themes defined in any content analysis. Clearly, one limitation of our derivation of key themes affecting participation in lifelong learning is its Western viewpoint. Our literature review was intended to be global in its scope, but it was only to the extent that the dataset was confined to articles published in the English language.

A final limitation of our review is our singular focus on adult lifelong learning participation, a concept that is inherently multi-faceted and thus ambiguous. Accordingly, we broadened our search strategy so that we also searched for terms synonymous with lifelong learning, such as continuous learning, training, professional development, self-regulatory learning, and continuing education.




The literature analyzed consisted of 185 research articles on lifelong learning and participation. Articles in the dataset were published in English between 2008 and 2013.

Geographical origins

Authors from 39 countries contributed to this research dataset (see Figure 1). The largest percentages of these authors were from the U.K. (20 percent), U.S. (19 percent), Canada (eight percent), Netherlands (six percent), Germany (five percent), Australia (four percent), and Belgium (four percent).


Geographic origins of scholarship
Figure 1: Geographic origins of scholarship. Results show frequency of coding results for each instance an author appeared separately or with one or more co-authors from other countries (n=210). European Union (EU) countries appear with an asterisk and with gray bars. Results are listed from most to least frequent instances of authorship and geographic origins.


Notably, authors from countries in the European Union (EU) constituted over half (53 percent of the dataset). EU supranational and national government organizations have long been at the forefront of defining and directly funding lifelong learning initiatives and governmental policies. These coding results suggest EU authors may still hold the lead in publishing research about lifelong learning.

Disciplinary domains

Two disciplinary standpoints — education (51 percent) and business (43 percent) — accounted for almost all of the recent lifelong learning research analyzed (Figure 2). To a much lesser extent, the disciplines of the social sciences (four percent) and library and information science (two percent) were represented in the dataset.

Nearly all of the articles in the dataset mentioned some aspect of learning activities in the workplace, whether written from an education or business perspective.


Recent research by discipline
Figure 2: Recent research by discipline. Results show frequency of coding results for disciplinary domains of each article in the dataset (n=185).


Learning modes

A subset of the article dataset (n=109) with studies focusing on types of learning and training modes was compared [2]. The analysis compared whether these articles had research focused on Internet-based modes versus face-to-face modes (Figure 3).


Comparison of the modes studied in recent research
Figure 3: Comparison of the modes studied in recent research. Results show frequency of coding results for an analysis of studies about Internet-based versus face-to-face learning and training modes, n=109.


More than two-thirds of the articles studied face-to-face modes in the workplace (41 percent) — and to a lesser extent — community-based programs (28 percent). At the same time, very few of the articles focused on Internet-based learning modes in either workplace settings (16 percent) or community-based programs (15 percent).

These findings suggest a dearth of recent research about Internet-based learning modes as they apply to lifelong learning participation. These coding results are revealing given widespread assumptions about the promise of online learning today.

In a follow-up analysis, the distribution of studies about Internet-based versus face-to-face learning modes was compared by publication year. Figure 4 shows the results for studies about different learning modes in the workplace by count of articles per year.

Between 2008 and 2013, articles published about face-to-face modes in the workplace outpaced those about Internet-based modes by an average of 326 percent.


Workplace: Modes by publication year
Figure 4: Workplace: Modes by publication year. Results show frequency of coding results for an analysis of studies about Internet-based versus face-to-face learning and training modes in the workplace, n=62.


Figure 5 shows the results for studies about different learning modes in the community by count of articles per year.


Community: Modes by publication year
Figure 5: Community: Modes by publication year. Results show frequency of coding results for an analysis of studies about Internet-based versus face-to-face learning and training modes in the community, n=47.


In all years, except 2010, the number of articles published about face-to-face modes in the community was equivalent to, or more than, those published about Internet-based modes in the workplace. Between 2008 and 2013, articles published about face-to-face modes in the community outnumbered those about Internet-based modes by an average of 147 percent.

As a whole, the coding results in Figure 4 and Figure 5 suggest an increased focus on lifelong learning and training modes in recent years with an emphasis on face-to-face modes of communication. Yet, in 2013, there was a significant drop-off in publications about both Internet-based and face-to-face modes in the workplace or community.

Major themes

Using an inductive and critical evaluation of the recent article dataset, we identified four major thematic areas about participation in lifelong learning recently studied.

Based on an assessment of the articles’ main purpose and findings, one theme was assigned per article. In several cases, though, two themes were assigned to articles with overlapping themes. This method was used for articles with overlapping themes. Table 1 presents a breakdown of each major themes and notable research studies.


Table 1: Major research themes.
Note: Total n=185 articles; 2008-2013. Results based on the coding results of each instance a code was applied (n=228) separately or in combination with another code. Listed from most frequent to least instances of coded themes.
 Major themesFrequencyPercentageNotable research studies
1Organizational climate6227Conte, 2012; Kim, et al., 2008; Matschke, et al., 2012; Grip and Smits, 2012; Fouarge, et al., 2012; Riddell, et al., 2009; Bjørk, et al., 2013; Ranieri, et al., 2012; Guldburg and Mackness, 2009; Sligo, et al., 2011; Hildrum, 2009
2Learner characteristics and attitudes3917Garavan, et al., 2010; Page and Hill, 2008; Porras-Hernández and Salinas-Amescua, 2012; Prins and Schafft, 2009; Hertz, et al., 2008; Antoni, 2011; MacLeod and Lambe, 2008; Kyndt, et al., 2013; White, 2012
3Market, social policy, or regulatory forces3616Bassanini and Brunello, 2011; Montizaan, et al., 2010; Hipp and Warner, 2008
4Underserved populations3114Schafft and Prins, 2009


More than two-thirds of the articles (69 percent) were coded with these four major themes: organizational climate; learner characteristics and attitudes; the impact of market, social policy; and regulatory forces; or reaching underserved populations.

These thematic areas provided an overarching view of recent research on identified factors driving or impeding participation in lifelong learning. Further, their analysis revealed established agendas that scholars are pursuing and, tacitly, ones they have not.

A detailed breakdown of each of these themes follows in the next section. Key takeaways about participation in lifelong learning are highlighted from 36 notable research studies. Research contributions and limitations for each theme are presented.

Organizational climate

The largest percentage of articles in the dataset (27 percent) studied the impact of endogenous environmental factors on participation in lifelong learning in organizations.

Many of these studies focused on workplace training, as in nursing (Brekelmans, et al., 2013; Nordentoft and Wistoft, 2012), human resources (Crouse, et al., 2011), and teaching (Giavrimis, et al., 2011; Guemide and Benachiaiba, 2012; Renninger, et al., 2011).

To a lesser extent, research addressed a cross-section of industries or organized associations of workers. Factors affecting workplace learning included firm size, i.e., micro, small, and medium enterprises (Gibb, 2009; Panagiotakopoulos, 2011), or labor unions (Bacon and Hoque, 2010; Lindsay, et al., 2012; Perrett and Lucio, 2008).

Preferences for modes

Whether adult learners preferred online or traditional face-to-face lifelong learning modes were an oft-studied dichotomy. One such study found that Puerto Rican pharmacists enrolled in online continuing education classes preferred the social aspect of face-to-face instruction in formal sessions more (Conte, 2012).

Not all recent studies, however, arrived at such conclusions. Other researchers found that whether an organization was for-profit or non-profit was a critical factor in learning participation (Matschke, et al., 2012).

In this study, workers in Germany preferred learning through social media in a large non-governmental organization (NGO). It was concluded that the informal, participatory nature of knowledge exchange on Web 2.0 platforms matched the mission and knowledge-sharing culture of a typical NGO and thus, was a preferred mode for knowledge exchange.

In a related study, a survey of U.S. human resource trainers (n=118) found an increased use of “blended learning,” i.e., face-to-face instruction combined with online training (Kim, et al., 2008). Two-thirds of this study sample reported using these hybrid-training methods. Despite the increased use of these modes, respondents reported the lack of managerial support was an obstacle to participation.

Together, studies such as these pointed to difficulties establishing definitive conclusions about preferences for different types of online learning modes. What was agreed upon in the recent research, if anything, is organizational characteristics are strongly correlated with workers’ online learning participation.

Whether workers preferred formal or informal face-to-face training opportunities in different types of workplaces has also been studied. One Dutch study used survey results (n=4,396) to discover scientists and engineers working in research and development firms where a high level of technical expertise is required were more likely to engage in face-to-face formal training (Grip and Smits, 2012).

In companies requiring general problem-solving skills, scientists and engineers were more likely to take advantage of informal learning. Yet in firms demanding advanced commercial and financial skills, scientists and engineers eschewed both informal and formal learning. The necessity, and thus demand, for commercial skills by this group of professionals was relatively low.

Studies such as this (Fouarge, et al., 2012), have explored new territory about motivational factors driving traditional modes of participation in job training in different firms.

What was unique about these studies was their focus on firms’ business characteristics, instead of the workers’ professional affiliation, as a driving force explaining participation. Using an extended view of such causal factors impacting participation in vocational training provided for a deeper analysis than in previous research.

The lifelong learning practices of highly educated professionals, however, were not the sole focus of recent research. Other research delved into a diversity of learning backgrounds.

One study examined why less educated employees took advantage of available training (Raemdonck, et al., 2012). This study highlighted the importance of organizational support as a motivating force in training participation for this group. Another study focused on the effects of the lack of managerial support on participation in U.K. manufacturing companies (Riddell, et al., 2009).

This research found most employers to be openly skeptical of the benefits of ongoing training, even though workers with technology skills were in increasingly high demand. Instead, managers prioritized company profitability over employee skill development so few low-skilled workers had an incentive to seek out vocational training.

Communities of practice

Some of the most useful insights into workers’ participatory preferences came from research about training modes in certain industries. For instance, a Norwegian study found that immediate supervisors of nurses in the medical field can establish a culture of support for face-to-face learning that drives participation in informal rather than formal learning (Bjørk, et al., 2013).

Based on field observation and interviews in a hospital employing 17 nurses, researchers found that the head nurse was a role model for informal workplace learning. This study underscored the importance of “arenas for learning.” These arenas were defined as physical spaces in which co-workers naturally crossed paths and taught each other by sharing workplace problems and solutions.

Studies such as these showcase the continued impact of communities of practice on workplace learning, a well-researched area for decades (Brown and Duguid, 1991; Brown and Duguid, 2000; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). In their groundbreaking research, Brown and Duguid (1991) found social interactions at work to be highly contextualized and developed in situ. This happens when new employees become insiders to the community’s shared meanings for understanding complex activities and learning workplace practices.

One recent study extended this area of research by examining the impact of social media in communities of practice for informal learning among teachers. These authors studied the Facebook habits of Italian K-12 teachers (n=1,107) (Ranieri, et al., 2012). This study identified how these teachers amassed professional social capital via social media and then used it for informational as well as emotional support.

Yet, other studies found apprentices with field expertise faced difficulties aligning with other workers in Internet-based communities of practice. What impeded their participation was a lack of shared value sets and familiarity with trade terminology (Guldberg and Mackness, 2009; Sligo, et al., 2011).

In a related Norwegian study, factors facilitating the exchange of tacit knowledge in online forums by workers at Cisco’s systems integrator labs were studied (Hildrum, 2009). Based on 11 interviews, the study found geographically dispersed workers were motivated to participate in the company online forums when the same threshold of technical knowledge, language, and problem-solving abilities was shared.

Taken together, these studies underscore a critical factor about participation in online communities of practice: Shared language about terms of a trade help drive workers’ participation in informal learning.

What distinguished the recent research from prior work in this area was the expanded investigation of workers’ preferences for, and use of, non-formal and informal learning modes. Most of these modes were face-to-face; however, some investigated the impact of social media on learning in the workplace.

In this context, recent research has both implicitly and explicitly emphasized the extent to which participation in organizational learning opportunities might or might not be equitable. Among the causal factors influencing the opportunity to learn are professional status, managerial support, shared language, and the pursuit of economic incentives.

Learner characteristics and attitudes

A host of studies in the dataset (17 percent) examined the impact of self-perceived identity on participation in lifelong learning, using the lens of learning dispositions.

Recent research focused on adults’ beliefs and attitudes about learning (Bariso, 2008; Hurtz and Williams, 2009); self-efficacy and construal characteristics (Garipağaoğlu, 2013; Rijn, et al., 2013; Tett and MacLachlan, 2008); and persistence and self-directedness (Gijbels, et al., 2012).

To a lesser extent, there were studies about situational identity factors such as individuals’ previous learning experiences (Zoogah, 2010) and socioeconomic status (Hällsten, 2011; Simone and Cesena, 2010).

Personal and cultural beliefs

In the context of workplace training, recent studies examined factors driving and impeding participation based on workers’ personal beliefs and attitudes.

For instance, one Irish study found workers’ (n=557) motivation to engage in e-learning was driven more by self-efficacy than by other factors measured (Garavan, et al., 2010). Moreover, when e-learning modules included feedback on workers’ performance, participation persisted in the sessions.

Importantly, research about the impact of belief systems on participation in lifelong learning extended outside the workplace, often with unexpected results. For instance, in a U.S. study, researchers interviewed a small set of “bush educators” and IT coordinators to investigate the diffusion of information communication technologies (ICTs) in rural areas of Alaska (Page and Hill, 2008).

This study examined the impact of ICTs connecting remote areas of Alaska to the world, often for the first time. Yet, some native Alaskans were cautious of and resistant to acquiring Internet access when it was possible to set up. Many considered it a threat to their deep cultural heritage. They were more motivated by preserving their cultural “ways of knowing,” i.e., indigenous knowledge about living in their harsh environment.

Another related study examined dispositional factors affecting non-participation among 279 Mexican native women with limited formal education. This study did not find, as expected, that non-participation was based on low self-efficacy (Porras-Hernández and Salinas-Amescua, 2012). Instead, these rural women had high levels of self-efficacy and a positive self-image; most considered participation in face-to-face programs irrelevant to their social sphere.

In yet another study from the U.S., Prins and Schafft (2009) used ethnographic and participatory methods to challenge previous conclusions about the impact of dispositional factors on non-participation in learning. This study examined educational persistence by contrasting the beliefs of adult literacy and GED educators with the self-perceptions of their students, most of whom lived in poverty.

What was unique about these studies was their focus on situational characteristics, especially the exclusionary effect of economic poverty or cultural factors. Notably, researchers found these factors impeded participation as much as, if not more than, dispositional or programmatic factors.

Family background

For years, the relationships between family background and educational attainment have held a significant position in education research (Antoni, 2011). Research has found children of educated parents are more likely to achieve academic success than children who come from less educated families (Hertz, et al., 2008).

One recent study confirmed this conclusion: adults with less educated parents were least likely to participate in adult literacy programs (MacLeod and Lambe, 2008). Another study based on a survey of 39 Belgian organizations found that low-qualified workers (n=673) with prior negative learning experiences were reluctant to engage in workplace training (Kyndt, et al., 2013).

Within this context, a study like this one found a relationship between learning intentions and dispositions in under-qualified workers. Notably, this research focused on workers’ perceptions and attitudes about continuous learning, separate from their family history.

A related study asked whether technology reduces or increases the division between learners and non-learners. What is different about one study is its examination of how computers were used, based on data from more than 47,000 U.K. respondents during 2002 through 2010 (White, 2012).

Previous learning in formal education was found to be a predictor of participation in later in life learning by adults. Importantly, though, the researcher found no evidence to confirm that information and communication technologies were expanding access to lifelong learning.

While providing new empirically based findings, studies like these extended previous research by challenging the current conceptual framework and factors used to define non-participation using both Internet-based and human-mediated modes.

A strength of this area of recent research was its well-supported challenges to disciplinary and professional assumptions about lifelong learning and participation. This research was distinct from prior research, revealing the richness of studying attitudes and learner characteristics, themselves, as opposed to socioeconomic and demographic factors as determinants of lifelong learning potential.

At the same time, though, many researchers continue to rely on longstanding assumptions about at-risk populations’ disposition factors and ignore or undervalue external drivers such as mobility, poverty, or health.

Another limitation of recent research is the scarcity of studies about the impact of the digital age on individual learners and the use of informal and non-formal modes that might be expected. Specifically, there were comparatively fewer studies on how learners’ behavioral traits and attitudes about continued learning may have influenced their need to keep up with technological change, workplace competitiveness, and networked personal lives.

Market, social policy, and regulatory forces

A group of studies in the dataset (16 percent) analyzed the effect of external levers on participation in lifelong learning and workplace training.

This research focused on training costs’ return on investment to the organization (Coetzer, et al., 2012), economic downturns in developed countries (Colley, 2012), and centralized training systems in Communist countries (Yang, et al., 2012).

Several other studies used big data sets for comparative labor market analyses of participation in job training (Boeren, et al., 2012; Pendleton and Robinson, 2011; Xu and Lin, 2011).

As a whole, research in this area was not as much about the impact of Internet-based instruction on lifeline learning. Rather, it focused on what could be learned from online databases of large governmental survey datasets.

External levers

In an economic context, a recent study was based on an analysis of OECD data across 12 industrial sectors in 15 European countries (Bassanini and Brunello, 2011).

This study used eight years of data to study the impact of market deregulation on training participation. Results showed that worker training increased in industries that had been heavily deregulated in the 1990s, concluding that governmental policy had a positive impact on participation in job training.

Following this thread of research, labor economists used a large dataset from a governmental survey to study Dutch workers (n=27,871) who had to postpone their retirement in the wake of the national pension reform (Montizaan, et al., 2010).

Findings indicated workers in larger organizations whose benefits were reduced were more likely to undergo formal training than those who had been eligible for retirement before the pension plan reform.

Analyses like these reinforced findings about the positive impact that external regulatory bodies may exert on participation in job training over time. However, the assumption that regulatory policy was consistently effective in increasing job training participation was questioned and results from the recent research were inconclusive.

For instance, a large-scale policy analysis of data from the U.S. and Germany compared the success of two governmental programs issuing job training vouchers. This study found market failure occurred regardless of whether governments or private providers had purchased job training vouchers for the unemployed (Hipp and Warner, 2008).

Recent studies, such as this one, called attention to the difficulty of establishing definitive conclusions about participation in training due to external policy and market changes. What is agreed upon in the research, if anything, is that many variables about job training contribute to the range of interpretations of research results.

One strength of this group of studies was the emergence of a longitudinal approach made possible through big data analyses. As such, the success or failure of governmental interventions could be examined on a large scale and over time.

Despite these methodological possibilities, third-party data sets could be limited. In these studies, qualitative data was limited to defining nuanced findings about underlying reasons for participation in adult education and job training.

Underserved populations

A small collection of articles (14 percent) focused on formal learning opportunities and participation among underserved populations.

The groups most recently studied included the less educated (Bernsmann and Croll, 2013; Louys, et al., 2009); the impoverished (Schafft and Prins, 2009); and, immigrants (Andersson, and Osman, 2008; Glastra and Meerman, 2012).

Research in this arena also evaluated whether skill sets improved and feelings of social inclusion, self-efficacy, and community connection increased for at-risk populations (Shiffman, 2011; Wightman and Moriarty, 2012) and the elderly (Duay and Bryan, 2008).

Social inclusion

Previous researchers have claimed individuals, in general, are more apt to develop social networks, be productive in the workplace, fulfill personal goals, and gain meaning in life (Christian, 1974).

Importantly, recent research has refuted the veracity of this longstanding claim. Studies in the dataset offered new insights into how participation outcomes have been defined for disadvantaged individuals. As such, established learning outcomes in the field of lifelong learning were no longer considered applicable to all learners.

In a first-of-its-kind survey of practitioners of mental health services, researchers examined lifelong learning opportunities offered to patients in eight EU countries (Stenfors-Hayes, et al., 2008). This study found patients had a curriculum focused on basic skills training, such as Internet literacy and personal care, rather than higher order skills involving on-the-job training many would have preferred.

Researchers concluded policies aimed at providing lifelong learning training to mental health patients were sporadic and limited in their pedagogical focus. Most lacked the common legal framework, coordination, and educational resources that were conducive to ongoing participation and, thus, to active engagement.

A related study used phenomenographic analysis of vulnerable adults (n=32) participating in adult education programs at two regional training centers in the Netherlands (Greef, et al., 2012). While participants reported that the improvement in their reading, writing, and Internet skills gave them a greater sense of satisfaction, far fewer reported experiencing feelings of social inclusion, collective membership, and community connection.

Further, other recent studies about barriers to participation among underserved populations revealed permutations about lifelong learning not present in the populace at large. From a qualitative analysis of illiterate individuals in Turkey, researchers concluded the fear of not being able to learn--as well as age, oral culture, and gender--kept the illiterate from enrolling in face-to-face adult literacy programs (Yildiz, 2008).

In the same vein, a study of low-income adults in Pennsylvania investigated how poverty and residential mobility influenced their motivation and persistence in family literacy programs (Schaftt and Prins, 2009). Researchers concluded that patterns of frequent relocation were a greater impediment to program persistence than was a sense of self-efficacy.

As a whole, the research concluded disadvantaged adults were less likely to participate in formal learning for reasons that had little to do with poverty. The studies in this area made a strong case for understanding, fostering, and enhancing the learning potential of underserved populations. Some researchers focused on the acquisition of Internet skills and its impact on community and inclusion.

Further, different subgroups were studied to more deeply understand factors associated with the lack of participation and persistence in lifelong learning. As such, recent research on the underserved explored new territory in notable ways.

These studies examined conditions associated with the lack of motivation in relation to the circumstances and attitudes of underserved individuals rather than in relation to individual factors. Causes were found to be early difficulties with acquiring basic skills, a lack of environmental nurturance of individual potential, relocation, and learning disabilities.

Emerging themes

Over one in four of the articles (27 percent) in the dataset yielded three themes about participation in lifelong learning that we identified as emerging. These themes were associated with participation in lifelong learning as it applied to age, gender, civic involvement and drivers of and barriers to technology.

Together, these emerging themes highlighted new directions and challenges for future research about participation and lifelong learning. Further, the research attested to issues of inequity among lifelong learners. Table 2 presents three emerging themes affecting participation in lifelong learning and notable studies.


Table 2: Emerging research themes.
Note: Total n=185 articles; 2008-2013. Results based on the coding results of each instance a code was applied (n=220) separately or in combination with another code. Listed from most frequent to least instances of coded themes.
 Major themesFrequencyPercentageNotable research studies
1Generational differences2511Lazazzara, et al., 2013; Allen and de Grip, 2012; Lang, 2012; González, et al., 2012
2Civic involvement209Crowther, et al., 2012; Gadotti, 2011; Hirano, et al., 2013; Hamilton and Pitt, 2011
3Gender differences 7 


The following section presents an overview of the three emerging themes and the related factors affecting participation in lifelong learning.

Generational differences

One in 10 articles examined the impact of age on participation in lifelong learning. Empirical studies in this area focused on lower rates of participation in job training for older workers in a variety of locales, including the U.K. (Lindsay, et al., 2012), Denmark (Simonsen and Skipper, 2008), and Singapore (Thangavelu, et al., 2011).

At the same time, an international literature review documented lower participation rates among older versus younger workers worldwide (Liu, et al., 2011). Still, other studies compared younger to older individuals’ engagement in leisure time learning (Dattilo and Dattilo, 2012).

Age discrimination

A frequent topic was the impact of managerial support on older workers’ participation in training. This research built on studies published since the 1990s. Yet, more recent research has expanded and extended investigations on causal factors such as age discrimination.

One study reported results of factorial surveys administered to 66 human resource (HR) managers at a professional conference in Italy (Lazazzara, et al., 2013). This study focused on managers’ allocation of training opportunities.

Researchers found age was correlated with managers’ decision-making. The older an HR manager evaluating a training proposal was, the more likely that manager was to allocate training opportunities to older workers.

In other research, data was collected from older workers themselves about their reasons for participating in job training, a new feature of much of the recent research.

In an economic context, a large set of Dutch survey data (n=4,683) was used to test whether intensive IT changes at companies result in skill obsolescence and loss of jobs for older workers (Allen and de Grip, 2012). Notably, the study found older workers participated more often in training in order to protect their job security.

Again, a study used a national survey dataset (n=2,075) to highlight the dichotomy between two age groups participating in job training in Germany (Lang, 2012). Older workers, i.e., over 50, were more motivated to undergo training out of fear of losing their jobs. Yet, their younger peers (under 40) were more likely to enroll in training in order to increase their wages and earn promotions.

Beyond the workplace, a Spanish study examined what motivated older people in Spain to take a community center course for improving their ICT skills (González, et al., 2012). Researchers found the respondents enrolled in the course to learn about computer science, increase personal competence, and boost self-efficacy, rather than engage in memory exercises to fill their time.

One strength of these studies was their analytic, rather than descriptive, approach to studying older workers and the elderly. Moreover, the lifelong learning propensities and practices of these less studied and overlapping demographic groups were often richly revealed. Yet, one notable limitation was the lack of research about the cultural and age barriers contributing to the older generation’s participation and learning outcomes.

Civic involvement

A handful of articles (nine percent) focused on the interplay between civic involvement and related practices of lifelong learning. This newer area of research comprised studies of participation in lifelong learning as it related to striving for environmental justice, adult literacy and equity (Cronin and Messemer, 2013), or community change (Alfred, 2010; Chickering, 2008; Jubas, 2012).

How the Internet’s social and collaborative features have united the public sphere was reviewed by authors such as Black (2012). At the same time, a small set of empirical studies provided case studies about civic activism.

For example, one Scottish study examined the impact of formal as opposed to local training on the success of environmental justice movement in an isolated community in the Northern Highlands (Crowther, et al., 2012). Researchers interviewed rural townspeople to investigate an eight-year campaign against the development of a corporate fish farm.

This study concluded that mobile Internet devices played an important role in alerting supporters of local protests. Yet, these devices had little effect on the ways in which townspeople learned about the larger underlying issues of the campaign against the fish farm.

Instead, leaders of the campaign became the deepest learners, who acquired the most knowledge. They relied on the Internet for information about the corporation proposing the fish farm. They also benefitted from taking an online training course on activism.

Notably, studies such as these extended the research on civic involvement. Many had begun to focus on how networked technologies can redefine public sphere leadership as well as participation in lifelong learning.

Establishing equity

In a different vein, literature from developing countries often made a case for continuous learning for Latin America’s indigenous adult populations so that citizenship efforts would have broader reach and more success (Gadotti, 2011; Hirano, et al., 2013). According to these authors, intercultural literacy programs promoting culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives led to increased participation of the rural poor.

Elsewhere in the EU, U.K. researchers used a content analysis to compare two documents and 30 years worth of governmental policies on adult literacy (Hamilton and Pitt, 2011).

This analysis revealed a rhetorical shift from participation rights in the earlier document to social inclusion in the later document. The authors concluded adult literacy is now a policy underscored by individual duty and sense of responsibility, though still primarily related to finding or maintaining employment.

One strength of this research was the challenge that it posed to longstanding assumptions about community, continued learning, and participation in the public sphere. These studies revealed how participation in community — especially among the poor, illiterate, or disenfranchised — may be evolving given the impact of networked technologies.

Further, recent research used a different lens for studying rural and indigenous populations. Many studies concluded that civic engagement promotes lifelong learning, especially when it allows for intercultural education and a broader inclusion of groups which have historically been excluded.

Gender differences

A small subset of articles (7 percent) focused on gender and its effect on participation in lifelong learning.

Several authors identified the importance of social interaction and personal development as drivers of lifelong learning among women (Mareschal, 2012; Medel-Añonuevo and Bernhard, 2011), many of whom were socially and economically disadvantaged (Prins, et al., 2009).

Unskilled women

Several studies focused on the promise of computers to extend the reach of lifelong learning, especially to disenfranchised women in rural and impoverished areas. One study identified how curriculum could drive participation in lifelong learning among under-educated and unskilled women taking Internet training workshops in a rural area of southern Spain (Del Prete, et al., 2011).

These researchers concluded when women used computers and the Internet to write their own autobiographies, they learned faster and reported elevated levels of empowerment, satisfaction, and liberation.

In another study, 41 in-depth interviews about lifelong learning preferences were conducted with female migrants newly arriving in London (Jackson, 2010). This study found these women were more likely to participate in informal learning than formal learning. Importantly, the researcher identified the significance of community-based programs as little recognized social spaces for informal learning.

Several other studies examined the role of family as a factor of training participation. In one large-scale survey study using data from Taiwan, researchers concluded women’s participation in different lifelong learning programs was negatively affected by family responsibilities (Chang, et al., 2012).

Again, in another study using Canadian national survey data, researchers found family responsibilities impeded women managers’ participation in voluntary training (Cloutier, et al., 2008). Notably, the constraints women reported having did not impact male managers’ decision to participate in the same training opportunities.

Importantly, findings from recent studies about the impact of family responsibilities on lifelong learning participation were inconclusive. Vandenbroeck, et al. (2008), for instance, provided one recent study from Belgium with unexpected results.

In this study, low-income women (n=551) who had young children and worked as family day care providers were shown to be active participants in e-learning sessions, according to survey results. Researchers concluded that their children may be an important form of support, motivating unskilled women to enroll in training to become computer literate.

Taken together, these recent studies call attention to two previously understudied areas in lifelong learning: older women and migrant women. A key finding in the recent research was that social interaction was a driver for participation in informal, community lifelong learning programs for both older and migrant women.

Specific to gender, the emerging research also questioned whether lifelong learning enhances or contributes to women’s lives. While research has considered lifelong learning as a factor in the gains of women in the workplace, it has lagged in examining other arenas such as parenting or well-being.




The literature on lifelong learning has grown exponentially in the past few decades (Schuller and Desjardins, 2007). The emergence of governmental and economic policies promoting lifelong learning, the proliferation of networked technologies, and the dramatic shift from distinct national economies to a global economy have ushered in a new era in which learning is ongoing.

In this new world order no one will ever be able to say they have “completed their education.” This premise, however, assumes equitable access for all, which we have found from our analysis, is more of an ideal than a reality.

And yet, despite these sweeping changes and oft-contradictory claims, empirical research is only beginning to look at how and to what extent, people are able to engage in new learning opportunities.

Educational researchers, such as Prins, et al. (2009), have argued that a recent shift to the study of previously unstudied populations, especially disenfranchised women, has produced greater knowledge about participation in lifelong learning. Studies such as these have focused on what motivates different populations to enroll in community programs.

John Field (2012) has noted a substantial increase in large-scale longitudinal analyses based on the U.K.’s national lifelong learning surveys. Such open access, large datasets, many made possible through governmental repositories, have provided insight into how learning practices develop over time.

To a large extent, our content analysis substantiated these scholars’ claims about the changing focus on research about participation in lifelong learning. However, beyond identifying a widening and deepening of the research on previously unstudied populations, our analysis reveals more about the arc and complexities of lifelong learning research.

First, our results describe current research that is global and multidisciplinary in perspective and content.

Second, our results describe a thematic territory about the drivers and barriers to participation in lifelong learning. In particular, our analysis focuses on participatory factors related to adults’ access.

Lastly, our results indicate how few studies focus on Internet-based learning modes and what opportunities for future research may exist for the study of participation in lifelong learning.

But it is worth noting the results we present are not representative of all scholarly work about lifelong learning. For instance, our analysis does not include studies about lifelong learning that may have been published in languages other than English. It does not include studies that may have presented at conferences, in book chapters, or as blog posts. In these respects, our results are limited.

Yet the literature we did analyze, and the factors impacting participation in lifelong learning that we did identify, show consistent patterns across the literature. In the following sections, we summarize and discuss our content analysis results as they relate to the five primary questions of our content analysis.

Diffuse authorship

In the analyzed dataset, we found a diverse international discussion and debate by authors from 39 countries. These countries span the economic and political spectrum, have a range of standards of living, and different industrial bases.

Authors from EU countries accounted for almost half of the articles in the dataset, which was not surprising. These are countries that include the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

EU countries have had governmental lifelong learning policies in place for decades. Because of these traditions of lifelong learning practices and policies, some EU authors were able to use longitudinal data to assess the efficacy of these policies over time.

Much of the EU research focused on workplace learning, repeating the familiar refrain that lifelong learning is a crucial component of individual, corporate, and national economic competitiveness.

Yet, authors from this part of the world also investigated the impact of cultural and other endogenous factors that had previously been unstudied, especially as these factors relate to Internet-based learning modes. Significantly, this subset of studies brings a new perspective to the field of lifelong learning by identifying factors not considered only a few years ago.

We found, for instance, recent studies about Italian teachers using Facebook for informal learning. Others looked at environmental activists using mobile Internet devices to teach supporters about resistance events in the Scottish hinterlands or migrant women’s preference for informal learning in community-based groups upon their arrival in London.

Almost one in 10 authors in the dataset were from developing and newly industrialized countries such as Botswana, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa, Mexico, Taiwan, and China. In these and similar countries, learning policies were newer and programs were still being developed and put into practice.

These authors discussed the practicalities of establishing lifelong learning programs beyond the workplace in addition to the challenges of reaching previously underserved populations.

One study, for instance, investigated the impact of sociocultural values instead of self-efficacy on learning. Other studies looked at the impediments that prevent uneducated women in rural Mexico from engaging in formal adult education programs.

What distinguishes this group of researchers from those in developed countries is their focus on human rights, literacy, and social and political inclusion. These findings underscore an emerging research trend: authors from developing and newly industrialized countries investigated how lifelong learning policies and programs can unify their country’s diverse and often geographically dispersed and less educated citizens.

A quarter of the articles in the dataset was written by authors from the U.S. and Canada; both of which are countries without national policies for lifelong learning. This research focused on the lifelong learning needs of a dramatically changing national demographic, such as aging Baby Boomers, immigrants, and the growing number of female professionals in managerial roles.

The geographically dispersed authorship on lifelong learning reflects the modern challenges of globalization and aging populations as studied through the prism of participation. The range of authorial perspectives suggests a further broadening of the topics covered in adult lifelong learning research.

Disciplinary overlap

Perhaps as expected, the majority of articles in our dataset were from the discipline of education. Surprisingly, though, almost all of the remaining articles in the dataset were from the business literature.

What makes these results significant is the predominant focus on lifelong learning activities in relation to employment, whether they were written in an educational or business disciplinary context.

This trend leads us to conclude recent studies, such as these, are most concerned with the enduring presence of an overarching economic rationale for lifelong learning. This viewpoint is rooted in the OECD’s 1973 report. This seminal document advocated the need for a competitive workplace.

Yet, this was not the only viewpoint to appear in the research. A smaller set of articles relied on the cultural rationale for lifelong learning, as a basis for equality and inclusion, as first articulated in UNESCO’s 1972 Faure Report.

These studies focused on the individual’s capacity for, and access to, lifelong learning. For instance, some studies examined the role of social interaction and inclusion in fostering persistence in workplace training as well as community-based programs among older individuals.

In a different vein, there were surprisingly few empirical library studies in our dataset. Given the library’s mission to promote lifelong learning, we expected the library research to have a larger body of literature on the use of information service support systems to promote continued learning.

Instead, the small set of articles from the library literature had an abundance of programmatic examples for reaching and serving library patrons. Few articles included measurable outcomes, or provided scalable models or theories for advancing the lifelong learning field.

We also found few studies from the disciplinary standpoint of the social sciences and specifically, communication, about the paired concept of participation and lifelong learning.

While platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have fundamentally changed how and why people engage in the public sphere, there were comparatively few studies about civic engagement and/or technology that intersected with lifelong learning practices and participation [3].

As a whole, the coding results about disciplinary provenance offer an eclectic blending of educational and business viewpoints, while connecting recent research to earlier lifelong learning rationales.

Further, our results suggest the need for a more multidisciplinary perspective in lifelong learning research, especially when investigating emerging trends in civic involvement, inclusion and exclusion, and technology proficiencies.

Few Internet studies

We found a sizable difference between articles on Internet-based versus traditional face-to-face modes for lifelong learning. Specifically, there were twice as many studies in the dataset on face-to-face learning modes in both the workplace and community-based programs.

One explanation may be that studying online learning by monitoring online practices may have logistical challenges in truly assessing an individual’s practices.

Yet, this is not to say there was no recent research about online learning and participation in our dataset. There was business research about Web 2.0 platforms in NGOs, pharmacists’ preferences for online or off-line training modes, and the role of self-efficacy and performance feedback in motivating worker to participate in e-learning sessions.

Likewise, there were education studies about e-learning and computer literacy. Educational research examined what persistent characteristics or factors kept rural inhabitants using networked technologies. There was a study about what motivates the elderly to learn computer skills. Another examined how family responsibilities prompted young mothers to become more computer literate.

Despite these noteworthy contributions, studies on participation in online learning were very much in the minority in our dataset. This dearth of studies about Internet-based modes of lifelong learning is a key takeaway from our analysis.

In this sense, our results are at odds with a widespread narrative that acknowledges the role of globalized connectivity and the promise of increased access and lower barriers of entry to lifelong learning platforms.

Further, our results shed light on fundamental research questions still to be answered about the Internet’s impact on participation in lifelong learning today: If the Internet is expanding the venues in which lifelong learning occurs, is online learning attracting more learners as might have been originally expected? [4]

What do adults gain from participating in non-formal online venues that do not include formal certifications? How does online learning work in combination with traditional face-to-face modes, not as a substitute but as a complement for lifelong learning?

More broadly, why has the “mirage” of distance learning, from the educational possibilities of radio to television to the Internet, been so persistent and enduring over time? [5]

From these results, we conclude there is a need for future research to investigate these, and other, questions. Even though the Internet may solve some participation and thus, equity challenges, it also creates a set of different and new challenges that have not yet been fully and empirically researched.

Thematic patterns

From the international and cross-disciplinary literature analyzed, we identified four major thematic areas for where there was recent research about participation in lifelong learning: (1) organizational climate; (2) learner characteristics and attitudes; (3) market, social policy, and regulatory forces; and, (4) underserved populations.

We also identified three emerging thematic areas. These themes represented newer areas of research on lifelong learning and participation, which align with several timely issues: generational differences, civic involvement, and gender differences.

An examination of the common threads across these themes is useful for mapping the recent literature while suggesting directions for future research.

What the themes have in common, from our perspective, was the lens used for studying lifelong learning and participation. Adult education research has traditionally measured program enrollment numbers as an indicator of participation.

We found current research, however, has begun to apply a more granular and refined lens to examine access and motivational factors. Further, researchers are identifying and analyzing participant characteristics based on newly identified lifelong learning groups.

One study of organizational climate investigated how managerial support motivated workers without high school diplomas to participate in workplace training sessions. Another study examined how and why workers, who had lost early pensions, were likely to enroll in job training.

Still another study about underserved populations focused on how learning Internet skills gave at-risk adults greater feelings of individual satisfaction rather than a sense of social inclusion.

Across the seven thematic categories, studies such as these drew from extensive empirical data to investigate previously undefined or identified groups and their motivations for engaging in continued learning. They investigated how different groups behaved and interacted as lifelong learners, given how they were socially situated or constituted [6].

From a methodological standpoint, the recent research has a greater degree of specificity, as far as the units of analysis studied, than did prior research. Whereas studies of women, the disadvantaged, and the elderly may have constituted some of the farthest reaches of unstudied populations a decade ago, that is no longer the case. The research we analyzed has gone beyond these limiting groupings of the lifelong learner.

Our results suggest the recent research has a greater awareness of, and interest in, a wider spectrum of marginalized populations. Accordingly, many of the groups studied paralleled shifting demographic trends occurring today. There were studies about the lifelong learning needs and participation practices of rural women, immigrants, refugees, and older workers.

From this range of perspectives, the recent research raises new issues about the equity of lifelong learning opportunities. For instance, articles about organizational climate looked at the equity of managerial support.

Those focusing on learner attitudes examined neutrality and equitable characterization of a specific group. At the same time, we found global demographics are driving emerging research on gender and generational differences towards accountability and equity for the individual and society.

One explanation for this pronounced, yet diverse, focus on equity may be directly related to a broader conception of how participation in lifelong learning is defined. Significantly, researchers have begun to extend beyond formal modes of learning to investigate the use of informal and non-formal modes.

From online communities of practice to using the Internet to write personal histories, studies like these delved into the possibilities of access to, and participation in, lifelong learning in the twenty-first century.

Comparatively, though, we found that the research on informal and non-formal learning in the business research lagged behind the education literature in our sample. One explanation for this outcome may be the nature of informal and non-formal learning. Both modes are difficult to measure and quantify.

One exception in the business literature is the realm of communities of practice research. This is an area in which qualitative business research focusing on issues of equity, participation, and diverse populations has flourished.

New directions

Looking forward, and thinking broadly, we contend that future research must continue the exploration of groups comprised of diverse and distinct learners, sometimes called studies about other learners. Some of these learners may be found in group homes, assisted living facilities, prisons, refugee or migrant workers camps.

Dramatic shifts in global demographics are generating new patterns of participation. These changes are related to globalization, such as changes in individual life transitions, migration, population mobility, life expectancy, and economic pressure and income distribution.

Many intriguing questions persist about how learning occurs informally and incidentally throughout life in a world with online and face-to-face learning. Today, a variety of new and old venues, such as museums, YouTube, hackathons, bookstores, Pinterest, book clubs, and Maker Faires, invite deeper understanding and future investigation.

These changes raise new questions about access — and barriers — to knowledge. As such, we conclude that patterns of participation necessitate a re-balancing of individual and societal goals and objectives of lifelong learning. This is particularly true given the ambivalent and multifaceted meaning of lifelong learning.

This meaning of lifelong learning is further complicated, given the complexity of equity issues in the digital age. This is a time when mobile technologies — in most global locales — are ubiquitous, but access to and networked participation in lifelong learning may not be. The lifelong learning needs of a global society may vary greatly, but through current and future participation studies, access, and thus, equity, remain tangible possibilities.




This paper analyzed a recent research dataset about drivers and barriers to adult participation in lifelong learning in the digital age. Results were presented from a content analysis of 185 research articles published in English between 2008 and 2013.

We analyzed this dataset for its disciplinary origins and its authorial provenance. Moreover, we identified seven research themes about participation in different modes of continuous learning today. These themes revealed new research directions about learning across a lifespan as well future research opportunities.

Taken together, we found:

  1. A majority of the recent research on lifelong learning and participation was written by authors from EU countries, which are known for some of the world’s most progressive lifelong learning initiatives. Yet, there was also representation from authors in developing and newly industrialized countries and the U.S. These findings suggest that a more balanced authorship is contributing to the research. These global voices, specifically in the EU, are growing strong and advancing research in relation to lifelong learning in addition to providing a source of transnational data.

  2. The research analyzed had its disciplinary origins in education and, to a slightly lesser degree, business. The result is a new perspective focused on drivers of and barriers to workplace learning that also acknowledges the critical need for training in a global and rapidly changing economy.

  3. Comparatively few studies focused on the impact of Internet-based learning, despite mainstream assumptions about the promise of online learning today. Rather, most analyses concentrated on segments of the workforce and participation in traditional face-to-face instruction and learning.

  4. There was an expanded awareness of, and interest in, informal and non-formal learning practices in the dataset of articles analyzed. This research extended across community-based settings, and to a lesser extent, across the workplace. Findings suggest a new and different focus on equity as it applies to participation in lifelong learning that also takes into consideration the impact of such conditions and circumstances as managerial support, cultural orientation, and self-efficacy.

  5. The articles we identified with emerging themes underscored the limitations of the recent research as well as its future promises. This small set of studies touched on the intersection of patterns of online learning and changing demographic patterns around the world.

In sum, the fundamental question regarding how lifelong learning is differentiated from formal education needs to be re-addressed. In confining lifelong learning research to traditional settings and singular modes like face-to-face workplace training or community-based programs, recent research runs the risk of being severely limited.

Networked technologies are disrupting continuous learning modes in unforeseen ways. With an ever-changing cycle of technology development, equity issues will continue to challenge both providers and stakeholders of lifelong learning. The impact of the Internet on lifelong learning therefore requires ongoing inquiry and new understandings. End of article


About the authors

Alison J. Head, Ph.D., is the Founder and Director of Project Information Literacy (PIL), a Principal Research Scientist in the University of Washington’s Information School, and a Faculty Associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Michele Van Hoeck, MLIS, is Dean at California Maritime Academy Library and a PIL researcher. Deborah S. Garson, MLS, is the Head of Research and Instruction Services at Monroe C. Gutman Library and a Lecturer on Education in the Graduate School of Education, both at Harvard University, and a member of PIL’s Lifelong Learning Advisory Board.

Web: http://projectinfolit [dot] org
Send comments to: ajhead1 [at] uw [dot] edu



Eric Gordon, an Associate Professor at Emerson College in Boston and a Berkman Faculty Associate at Harvard University, made insightful recommendations for this paper. Kate Faoro, Chris Setzer, and Daniel Wilson, all graduates students at the University of Washington, contributed skills for fact checking and creating charts. This research was sponsored with a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).



1. Between November 2013 and December 2015, Project Information Literacy (PIL) conducted a large-scale, national study about recent college graduates and their lifelong learning information-seeking practices. More details about the study are at This research was sponsored with a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

2. Results in Figure 3 are based on a comparative analysis of an article subset (n=109) we extracted of research specifically on Internet-based versus face-to-face modes of learning and training in either the workplace or community-based programs. The 76 articles not included in the analysis presented literature reviews, policy analysis, or were studies about lifelong learning and participation, without specifying whether a learning mode was Internet-based or face-to-face instruction, or both.

3. For a discussion of the developing concept of civic engagement, see the literature review by Eric Gordon, et al. (2013).

4. See Schuman, 2013.

5. See Carr, 2014.

6. Philosophers of social science, such as David Little, have discussed what they term methodological localism. This concept emphasizes how individuals are socially embedded, based on how their surroundings define how they are socially situated, or socially constituted, given their attitudes, beliefs, values, and self-construal.



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Editorial history

Received 14 January 2015; accepted 29 January 2015.

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Lifelong learning in the digital age: A content analysis of recent research on participation
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First Monday, Volume 20, Number 2 - 2 February 2015

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