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Monday, January 12, 2015

Celebrating UPCEA's Century of Support for University Outreach


This year, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association will present its 100th annual conference.   UPCEA—under one of its earlier names, NUEA—was my very first professional association.  The anniversary has made me think back about it and about the role of professional associations in the working life of professionals in higher education.
            In the late 1970s, I was working for Penn State Public Broadcasting as Director of Viewer Services.  This included a variety of ways in which we tried to get video resources used in the community, including formal courses delivered by broadcast, cable, and several non-broadcast technologies.  One day, the Station Manager, Dave Phillips, dropped by my cubicle to tell me that the NUEA would be holding its national conference in the spring and that, while there, several institutions were hoping to start a new professional community within NUEA to be called the Division of Educational Telecommunications Utilization.  He asked that I attend with two goals: (1) to vote for creation of this new division and (2) if possible, to get us involved. 
            I went and found a small group of ten or so colleagues from the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia, Edison State College, Empire State College, and the University of Wisconsin, among others.   We did what we needed to do to establish the Division and then hung out together, since little else on the program dealt with our interests.   In those days, NUEA was dominated by traditional continuing education functions.  The major divisions focused on evening programs, conferencing, and business-related programming.   Distance education was represented by the Division of Correspondence Study.  This was a longstanding and very active professional community within NUEA that encouraged members to share course materials across institutions and helped each other proctor exams for students living in their states.  The Division also worked with a commercial publisher to create an annual catalog of correspondence courses available from all member institutions.  Needless to say, they weren’t real interested in having a bunch of TV folks barging in on their sessions!
            The Educational Telecommunications Utilization Division was a new—and separate—community within the continuing education profession.  Many of the individuals and institutions attracted to educational telecommunications had no history in correspondence study.  It was, truly, a new community.  At most institutions, we in educational media were doubly outsiders.  Like our continuing education colleagues, we were not traditional academics—we were professionals who helped traditional academics extend programs beyond campus.  At the same time, though, we were not traditional continuing education people.  While we reported to the same Dean or Vice President, we operated on different financial models, had different relationships with academic colleagues, and different connections with the communities we served.  As a result, we had few colleagues within our institutions with whom we could share ideas and problems and find solutions.
            The new NUEA Division of Educational Telecommunications Utilization gave us access to a community of professionals with whom we could share experiences and problems and find good solutions to apply back home.  We became friends and, while we all looked forward to the annual conferences, we communicated with each other throughout the year.  With the advent of satellite delivery, the community grew.  The University of Kentucky led a regional Appalachian Educational Satellite Program in the late 1970s.  Several major engineering schools combined to create the National Technological University, using satellite to deliver graduate engineering programs to workplaces around the country.   Around the same time, PBS shifted to satellite delivery; it created a national system of satellite uplinks and downlinks—combined with the ability of local PTV stations to deliver satellite-distributed programs to homes.  This stimulated production of tele-courses, a national marketplace—the PBS Adult Learning Service—for sharing course materials, and a well-funded resource—the CPB/Annenberg Project—to fund major new national educational media projects.  As a result, continuing education units at many more institutions began offering video-based courses as part of their local services.  The Division of Educational Telecommunications Utilization grew quickly as a result.
            Over the years, NUEA changed its name several times.  It became the National University Continuing Education Association (NUCEA), then the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) and, most recently, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA).  Each change reflected a shift in how continuing education (which has gone through identity crises of its own, moving from Extension to Continuing Education to Outreach to Engagement at some institutions) related to its institutional home and to its community.
            I stayed active with the association throughout my years at Penn State and the University of Maryland University College and, again, when I returned to Penn State in 1994.  I served on the Board, helped to write principles of good practice, and, in my last year at Penn State, chaired the UCEA annual conference in Vancouver.  It was an important professional community throughout my career.   Its importance—and, indeed, the importance of any professional organization in our field, is both personal and institutional.  Participation in UCEA put me into contact with individuals at other institutions who were dealing with very similar change and institutional development issues at their institutions as I was doing at mine.  This was incredibly valuable at a time when innovations with technology-based outreach required that instructional technology leaders take on significant new roles within our institutions, to develop new organizational relationships and new institutional policies, and to help stimulate new internal and external partnerships. 
            When online learning came along in the mid-to-late 1990s, something surprising happened.  New online learning initiatives often were not housed in the Continuing/Distance Education units of institutions.  Instead, it soon became apparent that many different areas of our institutions were innovating with the new information technology utilities at their institutions.  In some cases, individual academic units were taking the lead, offering key degree programs to both on-campus and off-campus clients.  In other cases, the central Information Technology unit had the lead, while other initiatives were centered in the Provost’s office.  The Sloan Foundation responded by bringing together the institutions that it funded through its Asynchronous Learning Networks program.  I had already been involved in educational media for over 15 years when I attended the first meeting of what became the Sloan Consortium (now the Online Learning Consortium), and I was surprised at how few people I knew from my days in video-based distance education. 
            As online learning expanded, many UPCEA member institutions began to offer online courses under leadership of their Outreach/Extension administrative unit.  UPCEA responded by creating a new Center for Online Learning Leadership and Strategy, led by a friend, Ray Schroeder, who I got to know first through the Sloan Consortium.   I think we will see many opportunities for UPCEA and OLC—and our international counterparts—to work together in the years to come.
            Meanwhile, it is truly wonderful to see UPCEA celebrating its centennial.  It demonstrates that, whatever we call it—Continuing Education, Distance Education, Outreach, Engagement, etc.—it is here to stay and will continue to thrive as our institutions innovate to meet the needs of our global information society.  Congratulations to UPCEA for a century of leadership.