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Education for the “Other 50 Years”

With today's massive influx of new learning options, do associations continue to play a key role in adult education?

Those first 18 years of education are a huge focus in the U.S. and elsewhere, and rightly so. We can quibble about how effective the current system is ad nauseam, but one thing we can all agree on is the value of giving kids the basic educational building blocks they’ll need to become effective adults. The most important of these (says the proud English major) is not so much the individual facts and formulas we cram into their growing skulls, but learning how to learn.

Once we get beyond high school and, if we’re lucky, post-secondary education, we’re basically educationally on our own for what Tagoras’ Jeff Cobb calls “the other 50 years.” Our employer might provide training to help us move to the next level, or we can continue to take continuing education courses at a local college or one of the increasing horde of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, such as Coursera, or more task-specific sites such as We hop over to YouTube for video instruction, or Instagram for ideas and inspiration, or the ubiquitous encyclopedia to the world that’s always one search term away, Google.

As long as we have learned how to learn—and been given a thirst for lifelong learning—the educational environment is pretty rich for adults these days. Which makes me wonder: Given all these (often free or pretty cheap) resources, are associations still a relevant place for us to get our “other 50” education?

That’s an easy one. Professional and trade associations still have the biggest treasure trove of resources—human and data-related—specific to what you do every day, and where you aspire to go in your career. It would be great if, as Cobb calls for, associations took a greater role in pulling together all these disparate resources into one coherent system we could tap into for all our educational needs, but it’s not essential. 

The self-guided educational patchwork quilt available to us nowadays works, even if it’s not coordinated into a unified vision for adult learning formed via an alliance of academia, private sector corporations, and associations that Cobb would like to see happen. I would too.

In the meantime, our individual associations are—and should continue to be—our educational home base. We’ll still Google and YouTube and take a course here and there, but when it comes to the in-depth knowledge that only comes from deep conversations among people who get what you do because they do it too, that’s where associations shine. Because whatever you can learn from an online video, you learn better when you work it through with others who share your challenges.

Yes, the learning landscape for the other 50 years is undeniably changing. Yet I feel strongly that associations, if they’re smart about it, will not just stay ahead of those changes, but will lead the way forward by continuing to show us how to learn.

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