One of the things that interests me is the strategies adults use to learn new skills and concepts. As a book lover and a publishing professional, my go to medium is Amazon.com. Their search engine is a powerful tool for discovering book-length resources on topics that are in my learning and developmental cross-hairs. I’m talking about the types of topics that adult education guru Maryellen Weimer identifies as requiring “hard, messy work.” As Weimer has said elsewhere, this type of learning “can be so frustrating, emotions so strong and raw, that insight and understanding escape us.”
In an ideal world, everyone would would be able to pop into a free local community college or an on-line class to engage in this type of learning. As it stands, social structures such as class, income, and the quality of prior educational experiences all serve to limit access to personal growth tools.
But equality is just one dimension of the problem. Another dimension is what appears to be a diminishing habit of book use and book-length reading among adults. Public libraries used to serve as a bulwark against inequal access to more difficult-to-acquire forms of knowledge. But book circulation is down across the board at libraries and years ago these institutions began transforming themselves into places where those who could not afford a home computer or internet connection could gain access to the world wide web. Those who have gained the habit of book reading and have the resources to purchase them have greatly expanded options for continuing education.
I have friends who have taught themselves difficult skills through Googling articles and watching videos on Youtube. In some ways this is more efficient than learning from a book because it allows the learner to pick her own way through the process. It’s probably not as efficient as a good classroom environment would be where there is an expert in the field into which you’re delving. But it works.
On the other side of the equation, many people with advanced skills and experience are hungry for opportunities to mentor young people in the field and share their know-how. Many people I have spoken with would love to write a book about their area of expertise, but lack the time and commitment needed to see a project like that through. Writing a book takes an incredible amount of effort. Skilled people usually have heavy demands on their time. Some in later years find their way to adjunct professorships at local colleges or teaching courses on-line. But the slots for those assignments are competitive and not everyone has what it takes to run a class and all that goes with it.
What needs to emerge are new ways of connecting learners with experts. I believe that books will always play a role in this equation. And before long, someone is going to figure out semantic search, which will make using the internet much less arduous for learners. Surely technology has additional roles to play in making connections.