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The Evolution of Change in Adult and Continuing Education

The EvoLLLution | The Evolution of Change in Adult and Continuing Education
Continuing and adult education divisions have traditionally served the non-traditional audience that’s becoming the quiet majority at colleges and universities across the United States, and are well positioned to help their institutions adapt to the shifting demographics and market realities.

Over the past 30 years, continuing and adult education programs have experienced significant disruptions and changes in the delivery of education and training for its students. Perhaps the most significant change has been the introduction of electronically supported learning modalities in the form of online learning in its various formats to higher education.

However, continuing and adult education units have been very successful in their ongoing effort to maintain strategic agility. Online modalities and strategic agility were innovations initiated out of necessity by adult and continuing education units in higher education rather than traditional academic units. Both will continue to have a profound impact in the delivery of education and training for current and future students enrolled in higher education.

Online Education

The continued growth of online education in all its forms has been ubiquitous. Whether or not online learning will be considered transformational in shaping higher education is still open to debate. However, it has influenced policies at the state and federal levels as well as the many national accrediting bodies’ standards and regulations concerning the use of online modalities.

Picciano, Seaman and Allen state that online education is, “a transformation based on access and convenience that has begun to occur in institutions and programs that have traditionally emphasized professional preparation (e.g., business administration, education, health services) and may see its way into other academic programs” (p.32).

The increasing threat from the disruptive technology of online education has also served to impact course formats and the ability of faculty to modify their pedagogy and teaching approaches within a compressed timeframe. Several states have opted to create virtual universities that forego having physical campuses while placing a significant dependence on online technology. Moreover, many colleges and universities have incorporated into their strategic plans, goals to provide academic and training programs in the form of online education to serve students who otherwise may not have the time to attend face-to-face offerings. A majority of American colleges and universities have now employed some form of course management system or learning management system to handle online courses and programs. Some studies show that twenty percent of college and university students enroll in at least one online course (Allen & Seaman, 2015).

While higher education is still largely disseminated in the traditional face-to-face format, current and future modes of online learning will have an impact on the training and education of students. The continuous improvement of online education delivery continues to have a growing acceptance among students in either credit or non-credit offerings.

Strategic Agility in Continuing and Adult Education

Strategic agility has always been the hallmark of strong continuing and adult education programs. Successful continuing and adult education units are those that embrace change to drive growth and contributed greatly to the expansion of higher education. The ability of these programs to handle market uncertainty, unforeseen changes and seize programmatic challenges is a tribute to these units’ entrepreneurial spirit and adept skills at engaging their communities with effective services and initiatives.

Higher education faces many challenges today. External pressures that encompass increased competition for public funds, the rising cost of college and student debt, the technological transformation of the learning environment, and pressure from external constituencies for accountability through outcome measures have increasingly infiltrated the higher education system. Continuing and adult education leaders for many years have been accustomed to rapid change and agile adaptation. While traditional members of academic life tread carefully into today’s era of potentially disruptive transformation, continuing and adult education units—for the most part—have continued to operate within a volatile self-support environment.

While higher education is still somewhat focused on the traditional-age population (18- 22-year-old), non-traditional students are making their presence known in higher education. Continuing and adult education units have traditionally focused on non-traditional students (25 years of age and above) and have strategies and expertise to share with traditionally focused universities and colleges to serve this growing population. More than 36 million adults between 25 and 64 years of age have attended college but don’t have a degree, according to the Lumina Foundation. Some 44 million adults have high school diplomas but no college experience (2013).

Strong continuing and adult education units can leverage a greater role within the broader campus in helping to develop strategies to serve more non-traditional students. Continuing and adult education units have relied on collaborative processes as a part of their organization. This contributes to strategic agility by relying on the collective intelligence of the unit that engages everyone in the organization. In addition, continuing and adult education programs in the higher education setting have been the first to foster strategic alliances with business and industry through the development of certificate and training programs. In many cases these partnerships have led to the creation of academic degree programs in the traditional setting.

Student access to education will continue to increase due to technological advances, and the traditional face-to-face method of instruction will persist. This bodes well for continuing and adult education programs that continue to provide their strategic agility and influence in the setting of higher education.

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Allen, E. and Seaman, J. (2015). Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group: Babson, MA.

“A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education,” Lumina Foundation 2013.

Picciano, A., Seaman, J. and Allen, E. (2010). Educational Transformation Through Online Learning: To Be or Not to Be. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 14: 4. Pp. 17-35.

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