Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Continuing and Distance Education in the Knowledge Society

In October 2010, I had the honor of chairing the 15th annual induction ceremony of the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame. The ceremony was held in at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara in conjunction with the Mexican Association for Continuing and Distance Education conference. It was a delightful event, in which nine leaders from six nations on four continents were brought into the Hall of Fame’s increasingly global community. My thanks to Jose Morales Gonzales (HOF 2002) for hosting the event.

After the ceremony, I was invited to participate in an AMECYD conference panel discussion on the Role of Continuing and Distance Education in the Knowledge Society at the Mexican Association for Continuing and Distance Education. Jose Morales offered an opening statement that addressed the many ways in which technology and globalization are affecting society and, in turn, education. He then asked each panelist to respond briefly to a question targeted at their special role in the field.

I was asked about how continuing and distance education respond to the needs of the Information Revolution and what role can the Hall of Fame and its members can play in this new era. I noted that we are already a generation into the Information Revolution. There are many ways to define the beginning of this new era. However, my personal milestone is the publication, in 1970, of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, the book that first planted in the popular mind the idea that things had changed and would continue to change dramatically. The careers of many Hall of Famers span this period. They are the first generation of adult and continuing education scholars and practitioners whose total careers were spent helping our institutions, our students, and our policy agencies adapt to the new reality that was emerging in the first generation of the Knowledge Society. That experience can provide an invaluable roadmap for today’s emerging leaders, who will spend their careers shaping the second generation of the Knowledge Society.

Several of the societal needs created by the Knowledge Society strike to the core competencies of adult and continuing educators. Most will agree that the Knowledge Society will require more individuals to have some level of postsecondary education. The Obama Administration, for example, has set a goal of increasing the percentage of high school graduates who go on to earn a college degree from the current 39 percent to 60 percent by 2020. This will require that our colleges and universities dramatically increase access to both recent high school graduates and to current workers. It will also require that a higher percentage produce high school students graduate with the skills needed to move onto higher education. Around the country, continuing and distance education units have been at the forefront of innovation in this arena. They have dramatically increased the number and diversity of college degrees available to working adults through online learning, evening programs, and blended programs. They have also pioneered the use of “dual enrollment” courses that allow students to simultaneously earn high school and college credit. The importance of these innovations to the national education and economic development strategy will move continuing and distance education closer to the mainstream of higher education.

The Knowledge Society will also stimulate new collaborations between institutions,as technology eliminates geography as a defining factor in the relationship between the institution and its students and between institutions and faculty in a discipline. Increasingly, online learning allows location-bound students are able to choose to study anywhere in the world. Institutions no longer are restricted to programs that can be taught by local, in-residence faculty members, but can collaborate with other institutions to offer the degrees most relevant to their students, wherever they are located. Examples of this kind of collaboration date back to content sharing consortia of the 1980s, such as the University of Mid-America and the International University Consortium. Today, the online environment has stimulated many new collaborations, such as the American Distance Education Consortium, the Great Plains Inter-Institutional Distance Education Association (IDEA), and smaller collaborations focused on specific professional communities, from nursing to nuclear power.

Many of these collaborations were stimulated and managed within an institution’s continuing education unit. In many institutions, the continuing/distance education unit is one of the few central administrative units that is positioned to work across all academic units to meet the needs of non-traditional constituencies. As such, it historically has been a seedbed for innovation—especially if that innovation requires self-sufficiency. This makes it a potentially powerful force for strategic growth in times of social and institutional transformation.

Unfortunately, much of the work of continuing and distance education units has been done on the periphery of their institutions. Because they have had to be self-sufficient, they are often seen more as cash cows than as strategic resources. As the work of continuing and distance education focuses more on degree programs and on meeting strategic societal needs, it is inevitable that it will move more into the mainstream of our institutions. Some institutions have seen this as an opportunity to decentralize the central C&DE administrative unit, in an attempt to reduce overhead and to integrate C&DE functions within academic departments. This is a shortsighted move, however. Just as campus-based education requires that academic units be supported by a strong administrative infrastructure, off-campus education requires similar support for academic units. A more strategic move would be to develop the professional skills of C&DE leadership so that they can function effectively in a more integrated environment in which they serve as members of strategy-focused teams in the mainstream rather than as individual entrepreneurs on the periphery.

Continuing and distance education units have helped higher education innovate throughout the first generation of the Information Revolution. Now, it is time to move this capacity for innovation into the mainstream.