Thursday, May 19, 2011

Being an Adult Student

On May 13, I was honored and delighted to give some remarks at the induction ceremony for Penn State's chapter of Alpha Sigma Lambda, the honorary society for adult learners.  Most of my career has been focused on creating access for adult learners through continuing and distance education, so I was especially pleased that my colleagues invited me back to meet with this year's inductees on graduation weekend.  Here are my remarks:

Let me add my welcome to the inductees who are able to be with us tonight and those who are not with us.   I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see the progress that Alpha Sigma Lambda has made over the past few years and the growth in adult learners here at Penn State.   For you, it is an incredible personal achievement—only those of us who have been adult learners know just how powerful this experience can be—but it also gives me a great deal of professional satisfaction, as someone who has spent many years advocating and organizing continuing and distance education programs, to see how the adult learner has moved into the mainstream of Penn State. 

            I recently interviewed Karen Cator, the director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education.  She noted that the Administration has set a goal of increasing the percentage of high school graduates who go on to earn a college degree from the current 39% to 60% by the year 2020.  That means greatly increasing the number of high school graduates who are prepared to enter college, but it also means doing a much better job of serving high school grads who have already entered the workforce and started their families.   In short, we are about to enter an era where the traditional boundaries between higher education and K-12 education and between higher education and the workplace will be blurred and where helping adult learners will be central to the societal strategy of creating and sustaining the talent that our communities need to compete in the information society.  So, tonight, we are celebrating both your personal achievement and your role as a pioneer in a new era of adult learning. 

            For me, this is an exciting development because, like you, I have been an adult student, too.   We can argue over when one starts to be an adult, but I thought of myself as an adult learner from pretty early on.  I had not originally thought I would be able to go to college, but I got the chance when Penn State opened a campus—the Shenango Campus—in my home community.  That meant that I could live at home, work at night, and go to college during the day.  I had started working at our local Arby’s while still in high school.  By the time I started at Penn State, I was working as a shift manager, and, for one summer, travelled to Denver to open two new restaurants there.   I thought that might be my future.  So, when I knew I would be coming to State College to finish my baccalaureate, I suggested to the company that they open a store here and I could manage it while I finished my undergrad degree.  They, in their wisdom, told me—this was in 1968—that they had done the research and there was no market for fast food in State College! 

            It was, for me, a fortunate market research mistake.  When I got here I needed a job, and a fellow student at East Halls suggested that, since I was a journalism major (I later switched to English), I should go across the street to Wagner Building and get a job at the university’s public TV station—what is now WPSU-TV—writing press releases.   As it turned out, they didn’t have any writing jobs, but they did hire me as a part-time production assistant.  I learned all about television production during those two years—running camera, doing lighting and audio, painting sets—we did just about everything—and, when I graduated, they hired me as a full time production assistant.  I had something that few of my fellow English students had when we graduated in 1970:  a union job with benefits.

            Eventually, I moved out of the studio and into Programming where, first, I did on-air promotion.  Then, a couple of years after graduation, I became the public information director for the station.  Finally, I got to write press releases!  And handle all sorts of other PR and publications work.   When I decided to work on a master’s degree, my first thought was to get a Master’s in Journalism, since I was working in both television and in public information.   I talked with the Department Head, who told me—much to my surprise—that I didn’t need a master’s in journalism, since by then I had several years of good professional experience under my belt.  His advice—some of the best I got in my education—was to get a degree, but get it in something I loved.  So, I got my master’s in English, too. 

            In those days, our philosophy in public broadcasting was that the role of public information was to create an informed viewer—the first step in engaging the viewer in our programs.  Over time, we developed other kinds of engagement:  providing supplementary materials for local shows (for instance, for our “TV Quarterbacks” show with Joe Paterno, I interviewed all the coaches and did a poster on the roles of the different positions), organizing community activities with local social service organizations, sending faculty out to libraries to discuss programs, and, ultimately, organizing credit and noncredit courses around our programs.  We also produced programs designed specifically for use in K-12 classrooms.  Eventually, these were all gathered into a “Viewer Services” unit, which I was asked to head.   Then, in the early 1980s, we combined WPSU with our on-campus instructional media group, and I focused exclusively on instructional activities as Director of Instructional Media. 

            It was an exciting period of technical innovation.  In a very short period of time, we moved from being able to serve only our 29-country broadcast area to having a statewide educational cable TV channel and, starting in the late 1970s, experimenting with satellite delivery throughout the Appalachian region.  By the 1980s, we were offering national live satellite teleconferences.  Our very first satellite conference gave nuclear science faculty around the country their first chance to look at video from the damaged core inside the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.  By the mid 1980s, we were using videoconferencing to extend a master’s degree in education from University Park to campuses in Western Pennsylvania and were producing video courses for national delivery through PBS.  At the same time—while the World Wide Web was not yet upon us—we were experimenting with creating digital content and simulations on videodisc.

            Throughout this period, our emphasis as an organization was not on a particular technology, but on how we could use various technologies to extend access to education both for young people and for adults in both formal and informal settings, in groups and individually.   

            By this time, I had decided that I wanted to stay in higher education.  That meant getting a doctorate, so I enrolled part-time—taking one course per semester—in the doctoral program in Higher Education (we didn’t have a separate program in Adult Education at that time).   The first course I took was a survey of American higher education, and I decided during that course that I would focus my research on the topic of general education.  For most of us, general education is the “distribution” component of an undergraduate education—the stuff we need to take before we get to our major courses.  Over the years, however, general education has meant many things to many people.  I decided to write a history of general education, which brought me into a circle of educational philosophers from John Dewey to Robert Hutchins and, by extension, pioneering social educators like Jane Addams.  It was quite a wonderful journey on its own.  It was also, on hindsight, nice to be able to work on the cutting edge of technology during the day, but, at night, be able to retreat into a century of philosophy and educational innovation.  My advisor, Hans Flexner, took me under his wing and encouraged me to develop my dissertation into a book, which eventually was published by Teachers College Press at Columbia University.

            The interesting thing is that the two parts of my life were never quite separated.  What we were doing with technology in both K-12 and higher education was, it turned out, simply a part of the next phase of educational innovation, the history of which I had been studying in my doctoral program.   The two perspectives worked pretty well together, as things turned out.   My doctoral work gave me a new perspective on the role of what we were by then calling “distance education”—a perspective I might not have developed if I had specialized in an area closer to my daily work environment.  I was able to focus not so much on technology or public media per se, but on the social drivers that were stimulating innovation and on the broader implications for universities.  This became very helpful when we launched the World Campus.

            So, if there is one lesson that I can pass along from my experience as an adult learner, it is the advice that the Journalism Department Head gave me back in the 1970s and which I discovered again as I researched the history of general education:  Study what you love and then apply that to your work.

            The way higher education is structured, we have a tendency, as we advance in education, to become ever more narrow in our scope.  We move from a very general high school education to an undergraduate education where we start, typically, by becoming generally acquainted with a lot of different disciplines (introductory biology, college algebra, surveys of American history and English literature, introductions to psychology and sociology), etc.  in our first two years to a strong focus on one discipline in our junior and senior years.   When we move on to graduate school, we tend to narrow our focus even further within our own discipline.  By the time we get to a doctoral program, we are encouraged to specialize even further.

            This is not a practical approach for us adult learners.  Because we already have experience as workers, as heads of families, and as citizens who are involved in many ways in our communities, the challenge for us is not necessarily to specialize—I acknowledge that we all need a focus in our work—but to develop a new dimension, a new facet to our lives that puts our personal and professional experiences into a new context and that allows us to bring all of our experiences and knowledge to new situations. 

            This is especially important today.  In many ways, the Information Society is also the Innovation Society.  Things are changing pretty quickly out there, and our employers—regardless of the field—need people who can innovate on the front lines to help our organizations be competitive in this new society.

            So, let me leave you with this idea.  As you move ahead and continue your education after this weekend’s graduations, look for opportunities not only to develop specialized knowledge and skills, but also to expand your horizons, to add new perspectives that will allow you to be successful in the unknown territory that lies ahead.

            Congratulations, again, and my thanks to Dr.  Rubba for inviting me to join you tonight.

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