Friday, August 14, 2015

Re-Imagining Continuing Education

Continuing Education has a long and proud history in American higher education.  The concept dates back to the early days of the land grant movement, when Agricultural Extension was created with the vision of the academic researcher working with farmers in their fields to improve agricultural production in order to sustain the forces of urbanization and immigration that were key to the Industrial Revolution in the United States.  While Agricultural Extension grew throughout the 20th century, many institutions also created centralized “General Extension” or “Continuing Education” units to link other academic departments across the institution to the broader community that the institution served.
            Over time, these centralized Continuing Education units became expert at matching university resources to community needs.  In the process, they supported innovation and delivered a wide range of programs and services, including:
·      Community needs assessments.
·      Evening and off-campus credit courses, certificate programs, and degree programs, including related student support services to adult, part-time students.
·      Noncredit workshops, professional development programs, and consulting projects.
·      Academic research and technology transfer conferences that create academic and professional communities around university research interests.
·      Summer youth camp programs.
·      Liaison between academic units and employers and other community organizations on responses to community development needs.
            The Continuing Education function grew rapidly in the 20th century.  As far back as 1915, institutions came together to form the National University Extension Association as an umbrella professional and organizational development for CE units.  It is now called the University Professional and Continuing Education Association and includes 400 institutions throughout the U.S. and beyond.   A shared sense of purpose matured around this community, as reflected in institutional mission statements for Continuing Education.  Some examples:

Our mission is to promote lifelong learning through the design and delivery of continuing professional education and training programs for individuals and organizations.

The Center for Continuing Education’s mission is to extend the educational resources and expertise of the University through innovative, non-traditional programs and services.

We connect Penn State’s programs, research, and services to a vast, diverse community. Our mission is to engage, empower, and inspire global learners through the transformative, boundless power of knowledge.

The mission of continuing education at the University of Washington is to extend knowledge and professional development, career advancement, and personal growth opportunities through teaching, research, and public service to the citizens of Washington State and the nation.

The Division of Continuing Studies supports the mission of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea by providing access to educational resources to nontraditional students, lifelong learners, and the community.
             --University of Wisconsin-Madison 
            The Wisconsin Idea captures the essence of Continuing Education in the U.S.  It is “the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom. It spans UW–Madison’s teaching, research, outreach and public service.” 
Continuing Education in Transition
            Many of the traditional continuing education roles—and the idea of a centralized CE function itself—have come under pressure in recent years, for many reasons, not the least of which is technology.  Online learning has created a much more diverse and convenient access to credit programs for adult students, giving students greater options and making traditional evening classes less competitive.  At the same time, reduced state funding for higher education has made academic units more sensitive to the need to generate new funding and more aggressive about creating direct relationships with external clients.  As a result, some longstanding Continuing Education roles have diminished and pressure has increased to decentralize the traditional role of Continuing Education as a single interface between the university and the community.
            All this came into a fresh focus when Inside Higher Education reported this week that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “was set to call for a new focus on accountability in American higher education.”    Secretary Duncan’s immediate focus is on accountability for student success, on behalf of the students, parents, and taxpayers who fund the cost of educating traditional students.  However, there is a broader accountability question.  Recently, Pope Francis used the term “social mortgage” to describe the debt that institutions owe to the public that funds them.  The question for higher education is simple:  how can we best return value for the taxpayer dollars that states provide as general institutional subsidies?  That is, how is the state taxpayer’s direct investment in colleges and universities returning value to the community?   Part of the answer lies in our tradition of Extension and Continuing Education: to extend the university beyond the campus through teaching, research, outreach, and public service.
A Renewed Vision
            Certainly, when colleges and universities properly educate individual students—turning successful students into successful professionals—they directly contribute to the economic and, in some cases, social success of the community.  It is especially important that the commitment to student success extend to adult students, for whom re-entry into higher education is often a high-risk step.  This is a core role for Continuing Education units that offer credit programs to off-campus and adult, part-time learners.  However, we must also consider the quality issue as it relates to other, less formal ways in which colleges and universities contribute to the community.  These include professional development for a wide spectrum of professionals and technical workers in both public and private organizations; supporting organizational development for community institutions, from schools to museums to volunteer organizations; transferring the results of research from faculty members to individuals and organizations in the community; and providing informal learning opportunities for youth, seniors, and others. Continuing Education can serve as a broker for these programs, identifying community need, matching that need with academic expertise, supporting student success at all levels, and funding the development of programs that respond to the need. 
            Here are some specific elements of a renewed vision that will allow Continuing Education to help academic units across the institution engage with the communities they serve:
·      Risk-Free Innovation.  Faculty should be able to serve the community without financial risk to the academic unit.  When the central CE unit is set up as a cost center, with total budgetary responsibility for its programs, it assumes that risk.  The assumption here is that the CE unit has total financial responsibility for any program that it offers. The CE unit can absorb the risk, balancing the risk of innovation against net revenue from other programs.   The CE unit needs two things:  (1) a clear costing and revenue sharing policy that operates as institution-wide policy so that all units are treated equally and (2) a governing body with representation from across the major academic colleges so that risk is balanced.
·      A Community Interface.  A centralized CE unit can provide a single institutional point of contact with key client organizations, serving as the institution’s ambassador to the community.  This does a couple of things.  First, it allows the institution to address multiple needs in client organizations.  For instance, a company may have an immediate need for professional development of its engineering staff, but it may also need some help with marketing staff or with back office issues or with customer relations.  A central CE unit can survey needs across the organization and bring multiple academic units to the response.  It can also manage the overall relationship with a client organization, as needs change.
·      Adult Learner Support.  A key benefit of a centralized unit is its ability to work with adult, part-time students, whose needs are unlike traditional undergraduates.  A CE student services group can help students deal with the many non-academic issues that they face in trying to integrate learning into already busy professional and personal lives.  The CE unit can be a key player in ensuring student success for the adult, part-time learner.
            These roles require a strong governance system in which academic units have a voice in policy, funding, and new initiatives, understanding that funding of new initiatives is based on net revenue generated by previous programs.  All academic units thus should have a voice in CE governance.  The Continuing Education governance should be on a par with the institution’s other major missions, such as undergraduate and graduate education and research.
CE and Online Learning
            Some institutions built strong boundaries between Continuing Education and Online Learning.  That may have been necessary to get online learning started.  However, two decades into the online revolution, it is clear that online technology cannot not be isolated, but should be widely available to help institutions better serve individuals and communities of all sorts.  The online environment is part of the daily life of today’s citizens.  It affects how we work, how we socialize, how we find information and solve problems.  It is part of the fabric of today’s world.  The question, then, is not whether Continuing Education should use online technology, but how best to integrate technology into its mission and services.
            Already, some continuing education units have integrated online learning into their credit offerings, turning evening classes into blended learning courses that reduce the need for adult students to travel to campus.  This makes the courses more competitive and, at the same time, can improve instruction by better engaging adult students in the learning process.
            Beyond that, however, online technology can be used in noncredit continuing education environments.  Open educational resources, webinars, social media, MOOCs, and other variations all have potential to improve the connection between the university and the many communities it serves.  MOOCs, in particular, can be used to bring together geographically dispersed clients—professionals, public servants, etc.—into sustained learning communities that can have an extended consulting and research transfer relationship with faculty in multiple academic units.
            Continuing Education can effectively embrace online technology to better articulate the goal of serving the community with noncredit programs, research and technology transfer programs, support for K-12 education and community development, and related services.
 Looking Forward
            The original idea of Extension was a response to the need for innovation to support the Industrial Revolution.  For the next century, universities used Continuing Education to help their state’s employers, professionals, government agencies, and schools, hospitals, and other community organizations adapt to changing needs.  Today, a generation into the Information Revolution, these communities are facing even more dramatic changes as they try to remain vital in the face of a global economy driven by information technology.   Centralized Continuing Education support services, empowered by the new technology and by internal policies that create a culture of innovative engagement, offer a way that universities can help faculty engage the communities we serve and whose taxes support many aspects of our public higher education system.

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