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Understanding the Innovative Role of Continuing and Professional Education

The EvoLLLution | Understanding the Innovative Role of Continuing and Professional Education
From the margins of their respective institutions, professional and continuing education units have consistently provided leadership when it comes to developing educational innovations, from new degree programs to flexible scheduling options.

The following interview is with Peter Stokes, the Executive Director of Postsecondary Innovation at Northeastern University. Stokes spoke at the recent UPCEA conference about how Professional and Continuing Education units serve as a driver of university-wide innovation at their respective institutions. In this interview, Stokes expands on that topic, discusses how these units have found themselves on the margins of their institutions and shares his thoughts on whether that is actually a bad thing.

1. In your presentation to UPCEA, you characterized Professional Education Units as being on the margins of higher education institutions. Why is this the case, and how is this exemplified?

Well, there are a variety of ways in which we might think of continuing or professional education as being situated at the margins of most institutions of higher education, where they exist. You can think of the core of a typical university as being comprised of what we might consider the day school. These are typically full-time undergraduate students, living on campus, surrounded by colleges or schools that are devoted to individual academic disciplines. The students are not only enrolled full-time but they are typically pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

By contrast the continuing and professional education units are sometimes referred to as the “night school.” They typically serve part-time adult students. They may be on campus, they may be online, they may be at off-campus facilities. The continuing ed units themselves are typically multi-disciplinary in focus and they get contributions from many colleges or schools. Sometimes they are distinct colleges unto themselves. Other times, they might be departments or divisions within other colleges. And they typically offer a mix of credit and non-credit programs. Of course, sometimes, they are literally at the margins of the campus, really on the fringe of the university footprint. In another sense, they also operate as zones of experimentation. They create opportunities to forge new credentials, to create new program formats and to experiment with new delivery methods as well.

By definition, invention tends to happen at the margins rather than at the core. So in that sense, you can think of professional education and continuing education as marginal.

2. What are some of the most significant innovations Professional and Continuing Education units have introduced to traditional higher education?

Professional education and continuing education is an area where lots of invention as taken place. It’s an area where many interesting ideas are tinkered with. There are a number of areas I’ve already mentioned, new credentials—like non-credit training, new certificate offerings or diplomas—these are different kinds of credential packages, a whole host of professional master’s degrees, for example, as diverse as a master’s in health administration, a master’s in library science, or a master’s in urban and regional planning, a whole range of disciplinary focuses.

There’s also been lots of invention especially around format. You might have short-form seminars, you might have six-week courses, you might have nine week courses. Lots of experimentation that breaks out of the semester-system or the 15-week notion of delivering a course. And along with that, you have lots of experimentation around delivering those.

For well over 100 years, a number of institutions have been experimenting with distance education. Originally, of course, that was in the form of correspondence education; later television, radio, video, satellites. And of course, in the last 20 years, we’ve seen a lot of experimentation around online learning, hybrid learning. But we’ve also seen experimentation with night school with weekend courses, executive education and also with education being delivered in the workplace itself. So, lots of experimentation in that area.

In order to achieve all of that, you also have to have some basic operational infrastructure. So there’s been experimentation around enrollment management, marketing and recruiting—where do you find students, how do you reach them, how do you advertise to bring them in? With the online delivery, a lot of focus on instructional design and that’s resulted in a different kind of focus on pedagogy. And because these programs are typically pointed at working adults, the pedagogy is often somewhat different and some folks talk about “andragogy” which is a focus on pedagogy for the adult learner. So, lots of invention, lots of experimentation in a wide variety of areas.

3. As you mentioned a little earlier, that innovation and invention by definition happens on the margins. To continue stoking disruptive innovations to higher education, should Professional and Continuing Education units move closer to the center of main campus operations, or are they better off on the fringes?

Well, I think that the important thing is to aspire to have influence and of course to aspire to be relevant to the institution. I don’t think the issue is really whether or not these units are situated at the margin or the center. As I say, I do think being at the periphery has some benefits. What’s most important is having a practical alignment with the changing needs of the market. And so, innovation should be an area of interest and focus in order to improve programs and services to better align with those evolving market needs.

I’m really not a fan of the notion of “disruptive innovation,” which has very particular meaning insofar as it has been developed by Clayton Christensen. I’m not a huge fan of disruptive innovation for its own purpose. Certainly there are potentially disruptive innovations in the marketplace in many industries. I would say, in higher education we really haven’t seen any evidence of a genuinely disruptive innovation, at least insofar as it’s defined by Clayton Christensen. But we do see lots and lots of innovation. And I think that in some respects, the focus on disruption is itself a distraction. Instead folks should be thinking about how to transform their curricular assets in ways that create more value for the students they want to reach.

4. Do you have anything to add about the role of Professional Development units in campus-wide innovation?

I do think it’s worth emphasizing that being at the periphery does provide you with a certain degree of license. It provides you with freedom to think and to create, to think differently and to create differently. And often it’s accompanied by a different kind of budgetary model. All of those characteristics create opportunity.

I think that’s one of the great values that continuing and professional education bring to higher education overall. Of course what’s important there is for these units, within each of their home institutions to support and deliver on the overall mission of that institution. So, there’s both that freedom to invent but also the responsibility to support the particular objectives of the home institution. Ultimately to do that successfully, leadership is key.

You need to be relevant, there needs to be strong communication between the central university administration and the leadership within the continuing or professional education unit as well. If there’s alignment there, then the chances are much greater that your activities in professional education will be relevant to the host institution.

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