Published on 2015/01/09

Grappling with Irony: The Movement of Continuing Education Towards the Institutional Core

The EvoLLLution Grappling with Irony: The Movement of Continuing Education Towards the Institutional Core
The movement of continuing education units to the core of research institutions has led to a fading of the unique elements that helped these divisions stand out in the first place.

Continuing education in the American research university has evolved significantly over the past decade, and its current status is ironic. This essay will consider continuing education’s historic place in the university environment and the irony accompanying its current acceptance at the university core. Historically, continuing education has been viewed as “marginal” or the junior partner in the teaching, research and public service trinity. Attention to the “engaged university,” given impetus by the Kellogg Commission, has been sporadic. Today, the convergence of societal pressures for accessibility, affordability and cost-effectiveness along with demographic shifts and the essentiality of intellectual capital have moved continuing education at many research universities to center stage.

Life on the Margins

In a positive sense, institutional marginality has enabled continuing education to reach audiences not served by the core and created a culture that tolerates risk and ambiguity. This holds the potential for innovation and creativity. On the negative side, being on the margins of the institution can be equated with low standards or a distraction from the fundamental mission and purpose of the home institution. Two especially troubling outcomes of continuing education’s marginality have been an absence of alignment with institutional expectations and aspirations and faculty resistance or suspicion. At times, university values of selectivity and scarcity count as a measure of prestige; the intrinsic value of knowledge and faculty governance have been at odds with the priorities of continuing education, outreach and engagement.

Yet, the inherent tension between the core and the margin of continuing education in a research university is rooted in epistemology and value systems. Research is an unfettered search for knowledge defined by the norms of academic freedom and assessed through peer review. But for continuing education the goal is to apply knowledge to serve the common good. So, we stand between faculty protection of academic freedom and self-defined measures of excellence and the service mission.

Moving to the Core

At the end of 2014 a confluence of external forces and internal pressures requires transparency, accessibility and accountability from the research university. Continuing education—with its legacy of rapid response, fiscal prudence, and market sensitivity—is well positioned to meet the need. Thus, the once marginal is now critical and for many continuing educators it is, indeed, the best of times.

The irony of continuing education becoming integral to the university core is that the cost may be a lost sense of the value perspective at our essence. Certainly, a continuing educator reading this may remember Groucho Marx’s quip that he would never belong to a club that would have him as a member. But I think it is more elemental. A founding ethos of continuing education has been to serve the “other” who was not served by the central campus. Continuing education was mission driven and manifest in examples like open-door programs for the educationally and economically disenfranchised, public affairs programs like “Great Decisions,” or the education and training of paraprofessionals (for example; Head Start educators, emergency medical technicians and teacher aides). Demands to generate additional revenue and polish our institutional brand are the price to enter the mainstream. An unintended consequence is to abandon many programs for those unable to pay themselves or without “third-party” sponsorship. Our role as a perceived engine of economic development by central administration, governing bodies, and legislators and governors have increasingly set our agenda according to conventional metrics of economic efficiency and productivity.

A second ironic twist is demonstrated by data analytics. There is a correlation between the amount of one’s education and the amount of continuing education pursued. So, rather than reaching the underserved, our programs are most appealing and available to those with higher education and the concomitant economic and social status. The notion of continuing education as an “open door” is less and less true in the context of the research university. What is the result? As philosopher and historian Louis Menard contends, “Knowledge is a form of capital that is always unevenly distributed, and people who have more knowledge, or greater access to knowledge, enjoy advantage over people who have less.” The more sophisticated and higher priced our offerings, the more we unintentionally contribute to these consequences. While are we are core and more respected, our audience has become more affluent and better educated. In fact, ironically, we have promoted the gap between the educational haves and have-nots.

Lost Value: Reducing Access to Higher Ed

As continuing education’s face becomes less distinguishable as unique and resembles that of higher education in general, I posit two more sharpened foci; one rooted in values and one in epistemology. Emerging from our values should be an advocacy role for adult, non-traditional and post-traditional learners and a resource to explain what makes them different from the traditional student. An apostolic role requires that to be comfortable in the mainstream does not mean acquiescence to constrictive options for social mobility and economic enhancement. Instead, we should continue to give voice to those without voice, and ensure the sustainability of the changes coming with the institutional embrace of continuing and lifelong learning. A second role rooted in epistemology is for us to take the lead in programs that span academic disciplines to build interdisciplinary programs where professional practice is rooted in theory. Related is to expand the presence of emerging curricula, alternative means of learning assessment, and partners between the University and stakeholders. Our skills and knowledge in boundary spanning, negotiations, creative funding, and learner-centeredness will be needed to meet the needs of learners to revert a trend toward a bimodal distribution of education and wealth and serve a common good.

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