The Global Context
Adult education touches the lives of millions of individuals around the world but only now is the literature in the West catching up to the rest of the world "where adult education has always been seen as a political enterprise" (Cervero & Wilson, 2001, p. 7). As recently as the 1980s, adult literacy was a concern primarily for developing countries, where it was considered a determinant of health, economic development, and civic participation. By the 1990s, workplace innovation in industrialised and developing countries resulted in a premium being placed on literacy skills and workers who could retrain quickly and easily. Computerisation had become an integral part not only of high technology fields but also of agricultural, resource, and service sectors, the very sectors that had traditionally employed workers with less education. This technological change placed continually increasing literacy demands on individuals and societies (Verhoeven, 1994).
There has been a growing realization that workers must learn new skills throughout their working lives because of continuous change in technology. As a result the ability and willingness of individuals to continue learning new skills are now considered almost as important as entry-level qualifications. Discussions about adult education are moving beyond the acquisition of literacy skills to how best to encourage continual learning throughout life. Lifelong learning was the theme of three major international symposia held during 2001 (Grace, 2002), an indication of how seriously the topic is being taken by policymakers around the world.
In the context of globalization, and based on a general understanding that literacy skills are key to competitiveness, it is not surprising that governments are interested in comparing adult literacy levels among countries. The International Adult Literacy Survey (1995) provided a benchmark of skills in seven industrialised countries: Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. This survey was the first cross-cultural, multi-language documentation of literacy skills in industrialised societies. An additional fourteen countries participated in a subsequent survey (Statistics Canada, 1997). Results of the most recent iteration of the survey, the Adult Literacy and Skills Survey, were released in 2003 (see http://www.ets.org/all/). According to the IALS, a high percentage of adults in industrialised countries lacked the literacy skills needed for full and effective participation in modern society and the global economy.
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