Over the past two decades, online learning has revolutionized how colleges and universities reach out to adult learners to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees and credit certificate programs. Whether fully online or blended, online learning has allowed higher education to respond to a need for adults to extend their formal education in order to remain competitive in a changing workplace. However, the emphasis has been almost entirely on the formal curriculum. Even MOOCs—which often offer access to formal courses at no cost and for no credit—tend to follow the traditional curriculum. As a result, an important part of the traditional higher education service mission—be it called university extension, continuing education, outreach, or engagement—has been left behind in the rush to extend online credit programs to new adult students.
Regardless of the name, the idea of engaging the public in a noncredit environment is a longstanding mission in America’s public universities. The idea of Agricultural Extension—Cooperative Extension, as it came to be known—extends back to the 19th century, when our state land grant universities were charged to improve agricultural production in order to sustain the urbanization that was central to the Industrial Revolution. The vision, then, was of the university researcher standing side-by-side with the farmer in the field, translating research into action while gaining insights from the practitioner that would stimulate new research.
Similarly, continuing education units stimulated the development of professional training services for industry managers, small business owners, etc. Over the years, this expanded to an engagement between the university and wide range of civil society organizations and professions: police departments, small town governments, school administrators, community arts organizations, tourism organizations, and so forth. In many cases, the groups served by these programs are geographically dispersed. They work for internationally distributed corporations or for small communities, where the nearest peer may be miles away. The type of engagement involved may include professional training, translating research into professional action, or, in some cases, engaged research in which faculty and members of the community work together to solve problems.
The challenge today is how we can use online learning to revitalize this aspect of the engagement mission and to stimulate new engaged learning communities, whether in business or civil society, to the benefit of the broader community. My purpose in this post is to suggest briefly a way that universities can bring together online educational technologies and social media to create Communities of Engaged Learners (CELs) in ways that will improve the quality of life in widely dispersed communities and serve communities of interest nationally and globally.
Communities of Engaged Learners
The goal of creating a Community of Engaged Learners is to use multiple online technologies to create a sustained engagement of professionals in specific areas of professional and/or civic life, establishing not only a means to deliver professional continuing education but to create and sustain an ongoing professional network and dialog that will inform future research and teaching.
The CEL might best be offered on an annual subscription basis. Over a year, the institution could offer a variety of professional development programs to CEL members. These might take the form of Webinars, asynchronous online training programs, or TED-like presentations by faculty on recent research. In addition, CEL members would be able to use the CEL’s social media environment to share ideas with faculty and with each other through moderated discussions surrounding the programs and through a general social media group discussion. The result is an ongoing engaged community, in which members learn from faculty, faculty get feedback on research and identify new research opportunities from members, and members learn from each other’s experiences.