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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Four Dimensions of Engagement


As we explore the future of higher education outreach in the United States, it is important to think about three distinct audiences for what we can consider traditional continuing education—provision of formal college courses to nontraditional, off-campus audiences.   These audiences have arisen around several factors, including:
·      The Obama administration has set a goal that 60 percent of all high school graduates will go on to higher education.  Right now, about 39 percent do.  So, to reach the goal, we will need to increase by almost double the number of high school graduates who go on to college.
·      The aging of the Baby Boom generation, which is distorting the age profile of the workforce, suggesting the need to focus both on preparing young people to enter the workforce and on re-educating mid-career workers for new jobs in the knowledge economy in order to meet workforce needs.
·      Expanding life expectancy, which is creating a cadre of retired workers who still have decades of active life ahead of them and who may need additional education to prepare them for active participation in the public and volunteer sectors.
            These three factors are among the key factors that are driving change in continuing higher education.    Increasingly, continuing education activities are tied to the long-term strategic interests of their institutions, as higher education tries to navigate the largely uncharted waters of radical social change.
Engaging Youth

The goal of increasing the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college must overcome a significant barrier:  most qualified high school graduates already go to college.  So, in order to reach the goal, we need to significantly increase the percentage of young people who graduate from high school prepared to enter college.   This is a critical social need that should drive a university’s engagement mission and strategy.   The question is:  How can a university engage with the secondary education community to increase the number of students eligible to move on to higher education?
Let me suggest several kinds of engagement that have strategic value:
·      Online Content for Curriculum Improvement  From the 1960s into the 1990s, public broadcasting stations around the nation devoted their daytime schedules to programs designed to be used by classroom teachers.  Several universities produced materials for in-school use.  At Penn State, for example, the University’s public television station collaborated with Education faculty to develop series like Investigative Science for Elementary Education, which featured demonstrations and explanations of different phenomena for grades 1-3, and What’s in the News, a weekly news analysis series for the middle grades that included essay contests for students.  Through the public television station, the University managed a consortium of school districts that used these and other programs and provided in-service training for students.   That service—and the national infrastructure that supported it—faded as technology changed in the 1990s.  However, today, universities can engage classroom teachers through online technology, from providing online content in the form of Open Educational Resources (OERs) to live webinars.  Regardless of the technology, the purpose is the same:  to ensure that all teachers have access to high quality content so that their students can qualify for higher education.
·      High School Courses  In the early days of distance education, it was not unusual for higher education institutions to directly offer high school courses to students through correspondence study.  A leader in this was the University of Nebraska, which licensed its courses to universities in other states, as well.  Today, several states have created online virtual high school programs to ensure that all students have access to the courses they will need in order to quality for higher education.   Universities can contribute directly to this movement by offering their own high school courses, either in collaboration with local school districts or by partnering with a statewide or national virtual high school system.
·      Dual Enrollment Courses  This level of engagement with the schools has high potential for serving high schools and students, but also for recruiting students and supporting local employers.  It involves universities delivering courses to high school students that meet high school graduation requirements and, at the same time, allow students to earn college credits, which students can apply toward degree programs following their high school graduation.   Students thus enter the university with some credits already on their transcripts.  These can be offered face-to-face in a high school or on campus or offered online.   Some states provide tuition support, through the local school district, for students in dual enrollment courses.
·      Youth Camps  Summer youth camps bring students of all ages to campus to learn more about an academic discipline.  Whether designed as residential camps or day camps, these programs introduce students to the campus environment and, often, give them an early exposure to different cultures.  In addition, they establish relationships that can be continued in more formal ways.
Engaging Mid-Career Workers
Engaging employers and industries is a traditional role of Continuing Education—one that is increasingly vital in order to help employers adjust to the new realities of the information society and to help communities make the match between employer needs and employee workforce skills.  
·      Workforce Training  From front-line skills to management and leadership, this is a kind of engagement that will be needed well into the future.  Online technology may be useful in embedding training in the worksite.  As manufacturing and other processes become increasingly distributed across state and national boundaries, technology allows universities to partner with other institutions to better distribute training and education across multiple sites.  Managing the non-academic aspects of these partnerships is a natural role for an Engagement unit.
·      Research and Technology Transfer  Increasingly, employers’ needs for access to new research and technology development information are multi-disciplinary.  Coordinating the engagement between a company and research faculty from multiple disciplines is, for some institutions, a new function.  For others, it is a function that has been traditionally housed in a central Continuing Education unit.
·      Accelerated Degree Programs  Where universities have a good engagement with the local community, they can also organize accelerated degree programs that prepare high school graduates for productive careers with key local industries.  Such programs might start with dual enrollment courses taken while students are in high school.  They would move into a degree program that includes summer internships in the local industry location, with these complemented by online courses.  The result would be a three-year baccalaureate that prepares people to enter the local professional workforce.
Engaging Older Citizens
            In The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin described a phenomenon of our generation: that both men and women are now living much longer than was the case in previous generations.  That was in the 1990s.  The average life expectancy of an American born in 2009 is 78.5 years.  Americans who were 65 in 2009 can expect to live to the age of 74.2.  Americans are living active, productive lives much longer into retirement than has ever been the case before.               Rifkin posited that this, in turn would stimulate a new “third act” in American life:  a post-retirement “career” in public service.   The idea is that these older adults, freed of work and family responsibilities, will find value in engaging in social sector activities, either as paid professionals or as volunteers.
            Preparing people for this third act could emerge as a critical dimension of Continuing Education over the next decade—and as a significant innovation for higher education as we adapt to new social realities and engage a society that has been potentially, dramatically changed by the information revolution.   One can imagine, for instance, that society would want to encourage the development of a social expectation that seniors would get involved in the delivery of social programs of all sorts—from serving as museum docents to assisting in soup kitchens, teaching GED and other programs, volunteering in hospitals and nursing homes, and working as professional staff in public agencies.  In addition to the obvious benefit of expanding services,  this would free up other jobs for younger workers, helping to ensure full employment among workers still striving to establishing themselves and raising their families.  The government might even decide to provide some financial benefits to seniors who engage in the social sectors by providing a tax credit or increasing their social security benefit, etc.
The Fourth Audience:  Engaging the Community
            There is one other audience that continuing education needs to better serve as we proceed through the second generation of the Information Revolution.   It is the community at large.  “Community” is hard to define in a global information society.  It used to mean a group of people who live interdependently in a defined geographic area.  The Information Age seems to be eliminating geography as a necessary factor in that definition—our geographic communities are now often very dependent on people in other places for their day-to-day well-being—but it remains a fact that our colleges and universities exist in physical communities and need to serve them.  The very fact that higher education has come to embody a variety of virtual communities—academic research communities that cross institutional and geographic boundaries, student bodies that attract people from all parts of the world, curricula that help students understand the new global inter-relationships, etc.—make our institutions an important resource for helping our communities adapt and position themselves to thrive in this new world.              From small farming villages to cities trying to shift from an industrial to knowledge economy, Pennsylvania communities are the fourth audience of continuing education.  We serve them through programs and services—from conferences to training programs to onsite consultation—that translate research into informed practice.   
           
Moving to Engagement
In all four areas, most institutions can say, “Yes, we are already doing a lot of this.  That’s true.  What we need, however, is to organize a multi-year strategic plan to show how our colleges and university continuing education offices will have a significant impact in each of these four dimensions.  It is no longer sufficient for continuing education to be opportunistic and short-term.  We need a strategy at the institutional level.   Perhaps part of that strategy is to re-contextualize continuing education in light of society’s new needs.   Engagement is the better term to describe a re-invented continuing education function.  It has been a while since the Kellogg Commission used that term in its Returning to Our Roots reports, and some institutions have adopted it already, but now we need to fully understand it as an institutional strategy and build a fresh Engagement infrastructure that will support all four dimensions described above and a new institutional strategy for engagement.  That is the leadership challenge.