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Preparing students for a flexible society: An institutional strategy for developing lifelong learning

Rigmor George
Holly McCausland
Dale Wache

Flexible Learning Centre, University of South Australia
Irene Doskatsch
Library, University of South Australia
Lifelong learning is a critical aspect of educating professions for participation in society. It provides the flexibility for ongoing professional development and an increased repertoire of professional practice. For this reason the University of South Australia is committed to the development of lifelong learning as a quality in all its graduates. This paper outlines an institution-wide strategy in which a portfolio grouping of a number of service Units have collaborated with the teaching Divisions to implement lifelong learning at the curriculum level. The strategy is located within the University's approach to graduate qualities as outcomes for all students at the course level, its commitment to student centred learning and increased access through flexible forms of delivery. As such it is concerned with both curriculum intentions at the course development and delivery level, as well as student driven initiatives through the recording of achievement at the level of student experience.

The framework involves three layers, with each layer increasing in specificity and particularity. The most detailed layer outlines the characteristics of a lifelong learner and this is used as a means of identifying and organising a range of resources, examples of best practice and tools for both staff and students. This provides a key resource to be used by both staff and students in teaching and learning within subjects and courses.

The distinctive features of the strategy include: the institution-wide nature of the activity, as a focus for, and arising from, collaborative efforts among the Flexible Learning Centre, the Library, Information Technology Services and the Divisions; its curriculum-based approach; the wide scope of the resources gathered; and the focus on a staged development of outcomes through the achievement of graduate qualities.


Flexibility is a critical outcome for students at all levels and in all forms of education. This paper explores the ways in which the concepts of lifelong learning and information literacy provide a necessary foundation for that flexibility within the arenas of education and work. Education within competitive capitalist societies is fundamentally linked to the general wealth of a nation and the distributed wealth of its citizens. Information literacy is critical to achieving these economic outcomes because it facilitates the changes to work practices that are necessary in these times of technological and social change.

Recent rapid and pervasive social, technological and economic changes have significantly impacted on educational contexts, requiring radical rethinking of the manner and means of higher education. In particular, there has been a new emphasis on information literacy/lifelong learning to take account of the demands of the knowledge society.

This paper outlines a strategy to implement information literacy/lifelong learning at the curriculum level at the University of South Australia. It is, to a significant degree, a work-in-progress with trials currently being undertaken in courses across the University. The strategy consists of three components:

  1. a comprehensive and yet accessible means of understanding the concept of lifelong learning;
  2. resources to be used in the design and delivery of lifelong learning within subjects and courses and examples of how this has been done within specific fields; and
  3. a tool for auditing the lifelong learning dimensions of subjects and courses.
The first component is the central core of the strategy, conceptualising lifelong learning through a powerful framework which identifies and maps the progression of skills and understandings (see Appendix). Components 2 and 3 are part of the implementation phase and are currently under development. They use the framework to build practical field and discipline-specific resources and exemplars, and an audit tool for use in evaluation.

An important feature of the strategy is the way in which it challenges the roles of those involved in information literacy related activities - teachers as well as staff providing academic services such as librarians, professional development staff and learning advisers. Traditional boundaries based on professional expertise no longer have currency. Instead the approach needs to involve multi-skilled teams with the common purpose of engineering opportunities for student learning - professional coalitions rather than the marking of territories, with common goals and a common vocabulary for both learners and the facilitators of learning.

The need for flexibility - changing relationships between higher education and work

Economic and technological shifts that have fundamentally challenged the relationship between education and work have caused significant and pervasive changes within higher education. Many authors (Candy et al. 1994, Coaldrake & Stedman 1998, Coaldrake & Stedman 1999, OECD 1993, Readings 1995, Smyth 1995, West 1998) have catalogued these interrelated changes which include: These wider changes are the engine of reform for universities creating new demands and also impacting directly upon universities themselves as an 'industry'. New technologies have revolutionised the making and exchange of information and knowledge and enabled its unmediated access and streamlined administration. In addition, new technologies provide new opportunities, new demands and new forms of educational delivery. These are impacted by the significant decline of Government funding in universities and the resulting increased competition to secure income. In such an international market place, the quality of courses, teaching and support take on a new significance. Student satisfaction becomes a central feature of the teacher-learner relationship - education is seen less as a privilege than as a consumer transaction with particular expectations and obligations for both teachers and learner (Coaldrake & Stedman 1998).

In such a social context, there is increasing demand for universities to demonstrate - rather than assert - their value to government, private industry and to the wider community. The demands for mass education and ongoing education have brought a more highly diverse student body with diverse needs and abilities. These pressures have also impacted upon the University as workplace, with competition and change demanding that institutions themselves become 'learning organisations' in the ways that they operate and in the ways that they apply technology (Senge 1990, Senge et al. 1999; George and Hicks 2000).

All of these forces are creating fundamentally new relationships both within universities and with their external stakeholders as well as directly impacting on both the processes and content of the curriculum. There is a need for flexibility at the institutional level in meeting these demands as well as a need to ensure graduates have the flexibility to respond to the rapidly changing social and technological context. These rapid and continuing changes have influenced the growing emphasis on lifelong learning and its facilitating portfolio of skills and understandings - information literacy.

Developing notions of Lifelong learning and information literacy

The notion of lifelong learning has evolved by way of continuing education and Universities of the Third Age which value learning for its own sake and personal fulfilment through learning. The term has been taken up and redefined in the contexts of the pace and nature of changes in work and society by organisations such as UNESCO (Faure report 1972, Delors report 1996), and the OECD (1993) and by other writers (Candy et al 1994, Coaldrake & Stedman 1998, Edwards 1997, West 1998). The redefinition moved from conceptualisation of lifelong learning as recurrent formal education for adults to notions that encompass cradle-to-grave learning in formal or informal settings, planned or opportunistic ways, underpinned by appropriate skills and motivation. Lifelong learning has become the means of ensuring national competitiveness and social cohesion.

Notions of information literacy have a somewhat different history arising from information literacy as an academic research skill to information literacy as a set of knowledge, skills and abilities transferable to the workplace. This literature has largely been the domain of university library professionals (Behrens 1994, Bjorner 1991, Breivik 1998, Bruce 1995, Bundy 1998, Nahl-Jakobovits 1993, and Radomsky 1999).

These notions - of lifelong learning and information literacy - have been understood as interrelated, but their integration into coherent and strategic frameworks for implementation have been problematic. Key implementation questions include what is information literacy, and is it the same for all students? how are information literacy and lifelong learning related? how do you know when a student is 'information literate'? who has responsibility for teaching information literacy? what are the respective roles of teaching academics and librarians and information technology professionals? what is the relationship of information literacy to the curriculum and in particular assessment? what are the developmental stages of information literacy? what are reasonable expectations of students at various levels of study and achievement? how is the professional development of teaching academics undertaken? Although it can be argued that there is no single approach and no clear and definitive answers to the above questions, the position taken here is that a coherent and strategic initiative is required if long term and comprehensive outcomes are to be achieved.

Features of Strategic approaches to lifelong learning

While there may exist a constellation of practices in any institution, a systematic, developmental, curriculum driven approach is required to achieve outcomes that are responsive to the increasingly complex information society. To this extent, information literacy is a key condition in design and delivery at the course and subject levels. It is not an extra set of understandings or skills that are acquired in addition to the field of study - it is integral to the professional preparation provided through a course, specific to the field of study and central to the learning expectations of stakeholders, including students.

Curriculum as induction into the professions

The challenge to university curricula in recent years has involved the desire for a closer relationship between the outcomes of courses and the professional contexts for which graduates are destined. All curricula involve choices based on what is valued by stakeholders - choices about what will be taught and how it will be taught. With information and change such critical features of today's professional context, information literacy is a key issue for all professional education.

How this aspect of the curriculum is made manifest in the teaching and learning experiences of students is the point in question. To leave such a critical aspect of professional education open to the processes of chance is not a responsible option. Just as the key knowledge outcomes are designed into a course to provide a systematic and developmentally sound sequence of learning, so information literacy outcomes need to be integral to the course. Although there are some generic information literacy skills which apply across all fields, the higher order skills will be highly specific to a field or discipline. That is, when any teaching and learning occurs within a field of study, using whatever processes are appropriate to that field of study, students will be developing information literacy in preparation for lifelong learning.

To this extent, a student cannot be seen as competent in the field without the appropriate levels of information literacy associated with that field. Undertaking processes such as identifying information for a given task, how it can be located and retrieved and the criteria by which judgements are made about its authenticity and value for the task are all deeply embedded within a field or discipline. These skills can only be developed in conjunction with the discourse of the field, not apart from it. Furthermore, the only teaching and assessment which has any real currency is that which occurs as part of the general teaching and assessment of the subject and so this must incorporate an information literacy dimension.

Engineers of opportunities - rethinking the roles of professional staff

In order to give effect to this curriculum based approach, the roles of staff involved within the teaching and learning environment need to be reconsidered. Academic teaching staff, librarians, student support and information technology professionals and professional development staff all need to be involved in the information literacy dimension of the design and delivery of courses (George & Luke 1995).

Increasingly librarians are engaging in curricula. In collaboration with academic teaching staff, they are exploring ways to integrate new electronic information formats into the curriculum and helping teachers to design learning activities that promote self-directed and lifelong learning. However, many librarians still operate in parallel with teaching. These are 'back end' processes in which librarians are asked to design and deliver training after the major decisions about the course and subjects have been made. A more effective way is for librarians to be involved with teaching staff in the crafting of the developmental sequences of skills and understandings and their realisation within the teaching and assessment processes. This a 'front end' approach which integrates the required skills and understanding into the mainstream delivery of the subjects and courses.

Such an approach assumes a significant dimension of professional development for teaching staff because of the rapidly changing nature of information services. For the most part, librarians would not take responsibility for the delivery of information literacy; rather it would be a seamless aspect of the mainstream experience of learning, integrated into the teaching and assessment. In order to achieve this, teaching staff need to be provided with, and avail themselves of, continuing professional development focusing on their own personal information literacy skills and information rich teaching strategies. This is as critical as any aspect of the subject matter. Just as students cannot be inducted into a field without the requisite field-specific information literacy, so the continuing professional development of academic teaching staff goes beyond new insights into the content. A variety of information sources - databases, online journals and major websites people, agencies, computer networks, libraries, television, radio, government sources - are the building blocks of the curriculum and familiarity with them and their implications for teaching and learning are a necessary precondition of providing quality educational experiences.

These emphases on curriculum based approaches and the professional development of teaching staff in information literacy recognise the highly technical nature and increasing complexity of the information age. If subjects and courses are to meet the information demands of society, the roles of teaching staff, librarians and other support staff - including those in student support and professional development - will need to be reconceptualised to ensure that the strengths and skills of each group are coordinated to contribute to the desired outcomes.

The teaching and learning strategy of the University of South Australia

The University's approach to information literacy in the context of lifelong learning is situated within a wider teaching and learning strategy (Bradley 1998). The University of South Australia has taken a particular approach in responding to the changes in the wider social and economic climate. Institution wide planning and development processes are directed by a set of curriculum outcomes - the seven qualities of a University of South Australia graduate - and by student centred approaches which foster student access to and control of their learning processes. Flexible delivery is seen as the means to achieve these.

The seven qualities are:
A graduate of the University of South Australia:

  1. operates effectively with and upon a body of knowledge of sufficient depth to begin professional practice
  2. is prepared for life-long learning in pursuit of personal development and excellence in professional practice
  3. is committed to ethical action and social responsibility as a professional and as a citizen
  4. is an effective problem solver, capable of applying logical, critical and creative thinking to a range of problems
  5. can work both autonomously and collaboratively as a professional
  6. communicates effectively in professional practice and as a member of the community
  7. demonstrates international perspectives as a professional and as a citizen.
Even though the qualities are identified separately, it is understood that they are interlinked in a fundamental way. Information literacy is identified as a component of lifelong learning, but it is also essential in operating with and upon a body of knowledge, for effective problem solving and in forming international perspectives, for example. A set of indicators for each of the qualities has been developed to illustrate the scope of the qualities. For example, lifelong learning is understood to include information literacy skills and understandings as well as the disposition and commitment to ongoing learning.

The process of integrating the graduate qualities within a course begins with the development of course approval documentation. This includes:

The power of this approach lies in the linking of graduate outcomes to the curriculum through the assessment tasks and the teaching and learning arrangements, and the institution wide planning and development processes that declare this relationship within the public arena.

This has two aspects. First, it takes the seven generic qualities and their indicators and interprets them within the field so that they are connected in real terms to the subject matter. For example, particular kinds of subject matter may be best explored through specific websites or journals or archival material. The process for undertaking these need to be taught in association with the relevant subject matter. Second, it identifies the emphasis given to the qualities and how they will be developed and assessed through the subjects, providing a high degree of transparency for all stakeholders. For example, the developmental sequence of information literacy within a course and its relationship to the teaching and assessment is open for consideration in the approval process.

Components of implementation

Graduate Quality 2 - the development of lifelong learning - is being facilitated by a strategy which fits within this wider framework of graduate qualities. A significant aspect of the lifelong learning strategy is that it is a collaborative initiative, bringing together the efforts of three service sections within the Access and Learning Support portfolio of the University. The Library, the Flexible Learning Centre (which includes professional development for teaching and learning and student learning support) and Information Technology Services each have responsibility for aspects of institution-wide implementation of the lifelong learning strategy. Representatives from each of these areas will work with teaching staff from the Divisions to develop a set of interrelated components which will be central in the implementation process.

The three components constitute a 'front end' professional development approach, providing teaching staff with:

  1. a comprehensive and yet accessible means of understanding the concept of lifelong learning;
  2. resources to be used in the design and delivery of lifelong learning within subjects and courses and examples of how this has been done within specific fields; and
  3. a tool for auditing subjects and courses.
Components 1 and 2 are currently the focus of a trial that aims to embed particular characteristics of lifelong learning at the course level in all Divisions of the University. This developmental process involves identifying field specific resources and associating them with the relevant teaching and learning arrangements appropriate to the targeted courses. The trial brings together a range of professionals within the University including lecturers of the courses, librarians, student support staff and professional development staff. By working in this trial phase with courses in a range of fields, the intention is to:

Component 1 - Characteristics of a lifelong learner

Although Graduate Quality 2 and its indicators provide some pointers to the developmental aspects of lifelong learning, a finer level of specificity has been developed as a statement Characteristics of a lifelong learner. This framework has a professional development dimension for academic staff, provides students with guidance in the development of their own skills and understandings and clarifies the possible roles of other stakeholders. These characteristics are identified below - see Appendix 1 for a the full statement which includes subcategories for further clarification:

A lifelong learner:

These characteristics have come from two main sources. The first seven are widely agreed characteristics of the 'information literate person' (Bjorner 1991, Doyle 1994, Isbell 1993, Lennox 1993, Nahl-Jakobovits 1993, SUNY Council of Head Librarians 1997). The remaining two were added to the strategy to include attitudinal characteristics which position information literacy within the wider notion of lifelong learning as one of the seven qualities of a graduate of the University of South Australia. This integration of skills, understandings and attitudinal aspects within the curriculum equips learners for their own ongoing development as professionals and citizens. The approach links professional competence for both the novice and the expert to the capacity for, and motivation to, lifelong learning.

Component 2 - a web-based resource for design and delivery

The Characteristics of a lifelong learner provide the framework for a web-based resource which is currently being developed. Resource is a database known as QILL, Quality Information for Lifelong Learning which will provide generic and field specific resources for both staff and students on information literacy strategies at the micro level within subjects. It will initially draw together existing resources and examples of best practice from within the University and beyond. New resources will then be developed in those areas not adequately represented.

It is anticipated that staff will use the resources directly in their teaching and assessment and that examples will provide ideas for the development of lifelong learning in subjects and courses. To this extent the web based resource will provide a significant professional development dimension at a highly practical level.

For students, the resource will enlarge their appreciation of the dimensions of lifelong learning and permit self assessment and self development of their skills. The framework is capable of being linked with University initiatives that are being developed in the area of recording student achievement (see Nunan 1999 for the background to this approach). The framework provides a common basis for discussion, debate and negotiation of the concept between all stakeholders.

The following example illustrates how the Characteristics of a lifelong learner (see Appendix) draws together information about resources and examples of best practice that serve to explicate the dimensions of the particular feature of a lifelong learner at various developmental stages and in different fields of study.

For example, one of the characteristics of a lifelong learner is one who 'develops skills in using information technology'. This is further extended in a range of subcategories:

If we take one of these subcategories - uses group communication methods, electronic mail, discussion groups for information gathering, feedback and interaction - the links or location information show resources and practices that can be used at various levels of student development as follows: These sample resources can be woven into teaching programs at various levels from first year undergraduate to postgraduate levels by teachers and support staff. They also stand as a group of resources that students may access directly, providing a degree of access and control of learning that helps students build their sense of agency and responsibility for their own learning.

In addition to these resources examples of best practice are being gathered. These will document initiatives such as a communications subject which included as an assessment item a debate involving students in the subject and students from other institutions in Australia and overseas collaborating electronically to build their arguments. Gathering information about best practice in this way is a means of breaching the almost 'tribal' boundaries that can exist within and between disciplines that work against dissemination of innovation and best practice.

The resource is cumulative. As it is built it has the potential to become a stimulus for creation of new resources that push the boundaries of the concepts of information literacy and lifelong learning.

Component 3 - an audit tool

Based on the Characteristics of a lifelong learner, an audit tool is being developed for use by course teams in the design and evaluation of the lifelong learning dimension of their course or individual subjects. The tool provides a framework against which to assess the degree to which a course and its component subjects provides opportunities, resources and the stimulus for students to develop information literacy skills that will equip them as graduates to value and participate in lifelong learning as professionals and in their personal development. Such an audit provides a basis against which the web based resource (component 2) can then be 'mined' to extend and improve dimensions of development of lifelong learning.


Flexibility is a critical characteristic of graduates. The lifelong learning framework proposed here provides a means of facilitating the development of flexibility through the curriculum. It is a relatively simple statement of characteristics which is derived from information literacy and lifelong learning literatures. This is situated within an overarching teaching and learning strategy which focuses on graduate outcomes as an organising principle for activities across the University of South Australia. This curriculum approach requires the rethinking of the roles and relationships of teachers and support professionals as the engineers of learning opportunities. The changed roles It underpin the use of a resource for teachers and learners which draws together a range of resources and exemplars of practice to extend and improve the way lifelong learning and its enabling portfolio of skills - information literacy - can be supported and developed throughout courses and subjects.

We would like to thank our colleague Ted Nunan for his comments on a draft of this paper.


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Graduate quality 2

A graduate of the University of South Australia will be prepared for lifelong learning in pursuit of personal development and excellence in professional practice.

Indicators of graduate quality 2

Characteristics of a lifelong learner

recognises the need for information
  • formulates and focuses appropriate questions based on information needs
  • recognises that the accurate and comprehensive information is the basis for intelligent decision making and problem solving
  • defines a manageable focus and timeline
accesses information from appropriate sources
  • understands the purpose, scope and appropriateness of a variety of information sources including: people, agencies, computer networks, libraries, television, radio, government sources etc
  • develops and refines efficient and effective search strategies
  • understands standard systems of information organisation
  • understands the purpose, potential and limitations of the world wide web, email and electronic mailing lists
  • interprets bibliographic citations from printed and electronic sources
  • interprets a resource list to identify the nature and source of specific items eg identify resources citing a book, a chapter from a book, a journal article, a web page, and audiovisual presentation
  • understands the purpose of components of resources eg a table of contents, preface or foreword, index, list of references or bibliography, credits for visual productions, hypertext links
develops skills in using information technology
  • keeps up to date with developments in information technology
  • can access the Internet, and can navigate the information highway to locate information appropriate to need
  • uses group communication methods, electronic mail, discussion groups for information gathering, feedback and interaction
  • effectively expands or narrows a search as needed
  • manipulates and transfers electronic information
critically analyses and evaluates information
  • understands that information and knowledge in any discipline is a social construction and is subject to change as a result of ongoing dialogue and research
  • maintains a sceptical predisposition when using information sources
  • understands the difference between data, information and knowledge
  • evaluates information sources for purpose, conceptual framework, level of information, point of view, audience, accuracy and currency of information
  • can understand and use the criteria for determining the credibility of the producers of information
  • takes a critical evaluative approach to the relevance, currency, comprehensiveness and accuracy of information
  • distinguishes among facts, points of view and opinions
organises and processes information
  • analyses and synthesises information from a variety of sources
  • integrates new information into own knowledge base
  • makes inferences, connections, and draws conclusions
  • organises information for practical application
applies information for effective and creative decision making
  • manages, interprets and uses information for effective decision making or problem solving
generates and effectively communicates information and knowledge
  • presents and communicates the information so that it is accessible to the target audience
  • evaluates the effectiveness/success of products developed and presented
develops attitudinal objectives which lead to appreciation of lifelong learning
  • understands the power and scope of information in today's society
  • is motivated to read beyond set texts
  • derives satisfaction and sense of pleasure from research
  • applies these information seeking skills to independent, self directed lifelong learning
appreciates their own developing position as a learner in relation to the field of knowledge or profession
  • recognises their limitations and potential
  • identifies their own preferences in learning styles and strategies
  • acknowledges achievements as a learner
  • consciously adopts a position within the field based on knowledge and values

Contact details Rigmor George, University of South Australia
Phone 08 8302 4681 Fax 08 302 4390 Email

Please cite as: George, R., McCausland, H., Wache, D. and Doskatsch, I. (2001). Preparing students for a flexible society: An institutional strategy for developing lifelong learning. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 294-305. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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