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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Creating Conversations: The New Challenge of Engagement in Continuing Higher Education



In his 2005 essay, “Local Knowledge in the Age of Information” (in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays), Wendell Berry discusses the tension between urban and rural elements of society in the information age.   Noting that information is not knowledge and that some knowledge is centered on the specific attributes of a particular place, he argues that, “until the information is shaped into knowledge in some particular mind and applied without harm to an actual place, we will not know whether or not it is an asset or how valuable an asset it is.”  What is needed, he writes, is not simply one-way communication—from the university outward—but a conversation that goes back and forth between the center and the periphery.  Such a conversation is, by definition, dynamic:  both parties stand to gain from it.  “There is always the possibility,” Berry notes, “that a conversation, by bringing its participants under one another’s influence, will change them, possibly for the better.”  
            For Berry, the situation calls for a new vision to guide the traditional extension mission of the land grant university:
 . . . I am talking about the need for a two-way communication, a conversation, between a land grant university and the region for which it is responsible.  The idea of the extension service should be applied to the whole institution.  Not just the agricultural extension agents, but also the graduate teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other community servants should be involved.  They should be carrying news from the university out into the region, of course.  But this would be extension in two directions:  They would also be carrying back into the university news of what is happening that works well, what is succeeding according to the best standards, what works locally.  And they should be carrying back criticism also: what is not working, what the university is not doing that it should do, what it is doing that it should do better.

            The extension mission dates back to the 1800s, when the national network of Agricultural Extension Services was established to ensure that the United States had the agricultural production power to sustain urban growth and immigration during the Industrial Revolution.  Then, the vision was of the agricultural researcher working side-by-side with local farmers in their fields—a good match with the “conversation” vision.  However, over the years, a variety of services—and other modes of delivery—have developed around the idea of extending the university, gathered under titles like continuing education, distance education, outreach, research and technology transfer, etc.
            Today, “engagement” may be the best term to describe the many ways our land grant universities can best serve their communities.  These include community-based research and research transfer, offering formal education—from workplace training to undergraduate and graduate degree programs—at times and places convenient to working adults, engaging employers in organizational and technical improvement, partnering with community high schools to improve the curriculum, and the broad set of community-based services that have arisen out of the original agricultural extension mission.
            That said, at many institutions the engagement function is often viewed as a one-way “delivery system” rather than as a means of creating conversations between campus and community.  Moreover, engagement programs are often viewed by academic units as cash cows rather than as part of their central mission.   Its many activities—continuing education and distance education courses, conferences, noncredit workshops, consulting services, etc.—produce new, discretionary revenue for academic units, often through the use of adjunct faculty whose experiences in this arena do little to inform research and teaching within the participating academic unit.
            The problem is made more complex as we move into the global information society, where it is increasingly difficult to define “community.”  For today, let’s assume that “community” means the citizens of the state in which the land grant university operates and the organizations—governments, employers, civil society, etc.—through which these communities function.   Here, the need to create and sustain conversations is, perhaps, more clear.
            How do we create sustained conversations between the university and the communities it serves?  Here are some thoughts:
·      Leadership  The Engagement unit—Continuing Education, Outreach, University Extension, etc.—is often the unit most directly involved in linking the university with multiple communities.  Engagement professionals need to see themselves as ambassadors, looking out into the community to identify needs and within the university to identify resources that meet those needs and then managing the relationship to ensure that a true conversation is developing and that the program evolves as the conversation reveals new opportunities.  This is the ultimate role of Engagement leaders.
·      Needs Assessment  Engagement units have developed strong marketing and market research units to determine the financial potential of university programs.  However, this should be complemented by a needs assessment function that goes into the community and ask the basic questions:  What are your problems?  What are your needs?  What can we do to help?   This is the beginning of the engagement conversation.  A periodic needs assessment process—perhaps one that would drive a rolling three-year plan—will help ensure that Engagement programs not only have a market but that they are addressing vital community needs. 
·      Governance  Engagement professionals must be able to match community need with academic readiness.  This requires that the Engagement unit meet with representatives of all academic units to discuss community needs and opportunities and to ensure that the university is bringing the most appropriate resources to the table.  For many years at Penn State, each new program idea was reviewed by a Coordinating Council consisting of representatives from each of the University’s colleges.  This approval process ensured that interdisciplinary opportunities were addressed and that relevant faculty research was brought to the table.  This kind of review ensures an internal “means assessment” conversation that is the counterpart to the needs assessment.
·      Feedback  For the conversation ideal to work, it is important that faculty who participate in engagement programs provide feedback to their colleagues on what they have learned by engaging with the community and with working adult students.  A formal feedback mechanism is essential, given the large number of adjunct faculty who often teach in these programs but do not participate in other aspects of the academic community.  One thought:  offer an annual competition for faculty to write brief essays about their experiences with students and community organizations.  Publish the best articles online and give recognition to those who have worked to develop a true conversation with students/clients.     
·      Partnerships Once the university has determined need, its responsibility is to provide the best possible academic response.  In the past, response was limited by geography.  However, online technology allows an institution to reach out to other universities and partner with them to deliver programs that best meet local needs.  The Great Plains IDEA project is a great example.  At its best, such partnerships also create new relationships among faculty at participating institutions, opening new doors for collaborative research.
·      Learning Design The “conversation” ideal also operates inside individual courses.  In today’s world, education is not simply information transfer.  It is about guiding students through the process of inquiry, evaluation of information, and application of knowledge to solve problems.  It requires conversations at many levels.  Several models for a conversational learning environment are emerging, including the flipped classroom, in which content normally delivered in a lecture is available out of class so that classroom time can focus on discussion. 
            As we—our institutions, our communities, ourselves as professionals—move further into the global information society, it is important that we build new structures to better serve the needs of our communities and, in the process, to build new kinds of community within our work.  In this effort, engagement professionals may well be on the cutting edge of building productive new conversations between our universities and the many communities we serve.