While looking for books on adult education at the ADFA library I came across "A history of adult education in Australia" by Derek A Whitelock (University of Queensland Press, 1974). Whitelock starts with British adult education and then relates this to the Australian experience. One difficulty I had was with what was being referred to. The modern definition of "Adult Education" refers to any form of education of adults, in the workplace, special institutions or the same institutions as used for educating children, for vocational or other purposes. However, Whitelock appears to exclude both vocational education and adults undertaking classes at conventional institutions. He concentrates on Mechanics Institutes and university extension schools.
Advocates of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) propose these are a new innovation in open low cost education reaching beyond those currently catered for by universities. But
Whitelock points out that 1891 there were 45,000 university extension students in England., with Sydney University setting up extension program as early as 1886. They were catered to by traveling lecturers, printed syllabus, discussion groups and assessment by essay. Features of the waves of initiatives with such programs are access to reading materials, with institutions providing local libraries and educators making special compendiums of texts. There were issues with how to contain costs, subsidies from government, vocational versus cultural studies and entertainment/hobby versus "serious" education. Apart from the Internet largely solving the problem of distribution of materials, not much seems to have changed in one hundred years.
Adult education's link with the military in Australia started with the first fleet, with a Royal Navy officer teaching reading to the convicts on board ship from England. Military adult education in the first world war with the AIF Education Scheme and Australian Army Education Scheme (AAES) in WWII is also of interest due to its scale. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) military personnel and civilian staff are now trained, in part by use of learning management systems, such as Moodle: (at the Australian Defence College, Australian Defence Force Academy, Defence International Training Centre (DITC), Defence Estate Quality Management System (DEQMS) and the Defence Systems Innovation Centre (DSIC)).
On lesson from Whitelock's history of adult education in Australia are that it has to have a sustainable business model (and that the customer for such education, even if they are poor are still willing to pay). The local community and businesses, as well as all levels of government, are willing to help with resources, where there is a clear social benefit from education. Adults are interested in both vocational topics which can get them a better job and more cultural non-vocational topics. Assessment is an appropriate part of such education. University academics are willing to help with adult education, even where there is no official support from their institutions.
One important lesson for MOOCs is that there are likely to be waves of new initiatives, each claiming benefits for the organization and the community, in terms of promotion of existing programs, lower cost, and wider access. Most such schemes soon fail and are quickly forgotten.
ps: In looking for current distance education programs in Australia, I came accross the very interesting "Advanced Technology Industry School Pathways Program" sponsored by the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO). This program is to encourage students in science, maths and technology, with nineteen schools participating.