Published on 2017/07/14

Making the Case for a University-Level Approach to Continuing Education

The EvoLLLution | Making the Case for a University-Level Approach to Continuing Education
While the broad goals of lifelong learningā€”and lifelong learning divisionsā€”are well known, itā€™s critical that leaders in non-traditional units define more concrete expertise and competencies they bring to the table.

The unique mission and value of the continuing and professional education (CE) enterprise in higher education can be both challenging to articulate and difficult to comprehend. This is especially true within our own institutions where traditional faculties and departments are organized and aligned in accordance with specific bodies of knowledge, practices and stakeholders as defined by their disciplinary specialization. In spite of having worked in this context for many years, and with numerous opportunities to explain and clarify the role of our CE unit, I admit to being unprepared when a relatively new dean at our university who, with absolute sincerity, confessed his complete ignorance of the continuing education mission and bluntly posed the following question: What does it mean to offer university-level continuing education and why is it different from what a community college can do? In that moment I became acutely aware of the existential nature of his question and I committed to myself and the new dean that I would return with a proper response.

During my more than two decades in CE, I have always been guided by a sense that everything we did, every program launched and student served, was informed by a sense of needing to ensure we were bringing something to the table that could not be easily replicated elsewhere at our institution, nor at the community colleges across town. Now, the prospect of articulating this in a coherent way presented itself to me as a daunting tabula rasa, a large blank slate begging for something intelligible. This called for more than an articulation of our unitā€™s strengths; it called for a deeper assessment that spoke to the quality, integrity and value of what we do, in the university context. In the weeks that followed, and with significant help from colleagues, we put our minds to answering the deanā€™s challenging question.

It would have been relatively easy to scour the literature for the wisdom of colleagues who have addressed questions about the nature and purpose of the university CE unit, and I was already aware of what some of that would be. Our roles in public engagement, learner access, workforce development, market responsiveness, educational innovation, and incubation are often cited. However, our team felt our response had to be authentic to our situation given that answering the deanā€™s question was a crucial step toward a proposed partnership with his faculty. As such, our response needed to reflect the actual practices of our unit, not generalizations about the broad goals of lifelong learning. This directed us to look specifically at what we were doing in our unit through a bottom-up analysis. Eventually this led us to a concise and coherent response that not only answered the deanā€™s question, but also provided us a guiding framework for our future work that is both practical and aspirational.

In articulating what we called A University-Level Approach to Continuing Education at UBC, we identified six broad strategies and corresponding practices under the following themes: academic rigour, industry relevance, pedagogical practices, intellectual development, career enhancement and student service. Taken as a whole, these strategies and practices contributed to a compelling case for the kind of university-level CE we were proposing for the partnership:

Academic rigour is ensured through appropriate academic oversight. Specific actions to achieve this include:

  • Faculty members participate on advisory committees that guide program design and delivery
  • Faculty members engage in curriculum development and teaching where appropriate
  • Programs are subject to academic oversight and approval policies of Senate
  • Student admission is based on academic and work experience, letters of intent, references
  • Student learning assessment and grading are consistent with university-level standards
  • Courses and instructors are regularly evaluated by students and reviewed by program staff
  • Programs are overseen by program directors (members of Faculty Association) with both academic and administrative expertise
  • Program management team members are actively engaged in university continuing education professional community.

Ā Industry relevance ensures programs respond to employersā€™ needs through the following practices:

  • Industry practitioners participate on advisory committees that guide program design and delivery
  • Industry practitioners engage in curriculum development and teaching where appropriate
  • Curriculum is applied in focus, but guided by best practices developed and researched in both academic and workplace settings
  • Programs integrate leading-edge principles, methods and technologies
  • Programs are aligned with professional certifications and standards
  • Curriculum updates are identified through ongoing networking, consultation and partnerships with industry, and through monitoring industry trends.

Pedagogical excellence is guided by research-based best practices for teaching and learning:

  • Curriculum incorporates experiential learning and recognizes how student interaction in groups can enhance learning
  • Curriculum includes individual and group reflection on key issues that ensure educational experience is immediately relevant
  • Courses emphasize student teamwork that reflects workplace environments, and students assessed on their ability to demonstrate key competencies
  • Flexible format allows adult learners to pursue studies in conjunction with personal and professional commitments
  • Programs employ ā€œbest-of-breedā€ technologies that may not be part of traditional university technology infrastructure.

Intellectual development is encouraged through integrating a broad range of intellectual, social/ethical and creative capacities:

  • Programs emphasize critical and creative thinking, analysis and problem-solving
  • Curriculum develops studentsā€™ abilities to think strategically and tactically, work collaboratively, and communicate effectively
  • Curriculum employs contemporary case studies and examples from instructorsā€™ and studentsā€™ experiences to foster a real-world learning dynamic
  • Programs develop understanding of intercultural contexts within learning and work settings
  • Programs promote understanding of broader social/environmental impacts of decisions and support student engagement in civil society.

Career enhancement objectives ensure program offerings meet studentsā€™ career needs:

  • Industry practitioners are integrated into instructional team to ensure topical focus on current work-related issues
  • Curriculum draws on studentsā€™ personal and professional work experience as part of learning process
  • Program design ensures learning outcomes have practical, real-world application related to studentsā€™ career aspirations
  • Curriculum aligns with credentialing requirements of professional bodies where appropriate
  • Programs and courses are critiqued for relevancy through evaluations completed by students
  • Students are encouraged to establish professional networks and communities as part of their studies, which may include instructors, industry practitioners and fellow students.

Student service excellence is fostered through client-centred practices and systems:

  • Students benefit from flexible, client-centered policies and procedures that adapt to changing realities in adult learnersā€™ lives
  • Interactions with students are often highly personalized
  • Administrative, instructional and support staff use a team-based approach for timely communication and feedback that enhances learner support
  • Student service staff are encouraged to build rapport with clients, practicing a high level of professionalism in customer service.

Undoubtedly there are different strategies and practices other CE units might cite in answering the question about what it means to offer university-level continuing education. For us, it was the unique combination of these strategies and practices within our own university context that allowed us to answer the deanā€™s question. Colleagues may find these to be a helpful starting point in addressing difficult existential questions within their own institutions, but also in thinking about the expertise and competencies needed to excel at university-level CE. As our unit undergoes significant transformation as part of a campus-wide Career and Personal Education Strategy, these are the questions we are continuing to ask of ourselves, our operations and our programs.

With acknowledgement of the following colleagues for their contributions: Deena Boeck, Raquel Collins, Mary Holmes, William Koty, and Jennifer Mielguj.

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