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Peering into the Crystal Ball: Challenges for Continuing Higher Education in the Next One to Three Years

Co-written with Reed Scull | Associate Dean of Outreach, University of Wyoming

With such significant changes in the higher education industry, it is prudent for leaders to know what challenges lie on the horizon. At the recent UPCEA West conference, continuing education administrators had the opportunity to come together to discuss what challenges they saw coming in the near future.

We were fortunate enough to spend October 3-5 in beautiful Park City, Utah at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) Region West Conference.

The conference featured a thought-provoking panel discussion involving longtime CE deans Thomas Gibbons of Northwestern University, Joe Shapiro of San Diego State University, Sandi Parkes-Pershing of the University of Utah, and Sheila Thomas of the California State University System. We wish to recognize these deans, as many of the ideas below were inspired by their presentations. We invite readers of this essay to share with us their own ideas of crucial issues for CE leaders to watch in the near-term.

Many of us recall a time, not so long ago, when providing opportunities for continuing education and lifelong learning was a sideline for our campus-based, content-driven, traditional full-time student-serving institutions. Life on the periphery of our colleges and universities was for many of us something short of “splendid isolation,” as we have always believed in student-centeredness, creative programming, and innovative pedagogies, and that it might be nice to someday see these values present in our institutions. Clearly, all of us in the continuing education field are now beginning to get just what we wished for. We are living in the center of an interesting yet turbulent time in higher education that recognizes the power of innovation and entrepreneurship in programming, teaching, and finance that our units provide. As we adjust to life within the glare of the spotlight, it is difficult to predict which issues specifically will drive our organizational existence over the long-term; however, we see some issues being particularly influential over the near-term.

Higher education has experienced rapid changes over the past several years. The expansion of the use of technology in academe, rising tuition costs for students due to institutional funding shortfalls, and the decline of state funding to higher education comprise only a few of the changes that are occurring in higher education.

In October 2012, a panel discussion was held at the University Professional and Continuing Education (UPCEA) Region West Conference. Panelists were asked to list ten issues continuing education leaders should be watching over the next one to three years. Their responses reflected the impact of the internal and external influences acting today on U. S. higher education institutions. In summarizing the list from the panelists, three areas were identified as challenges and opportunities for continuing higher education:

  • Expansion of CE organizational mission: to include global issues, workforce development, and a role as engines of experimentation
  • Leading the efforts to control the costs of higher education: growth in online learning technologies (i.e. MOOCs, third-party content generation)
  • Partnerships: institutional partnerships, corporate partnerships, and workforce development

It is clear that continuing higher education has a significant role to play in each of these areas. All are worthy of discussion. However, in this instance, we have selected to address the panelists’ predictions concerning online learning and what they believed to be the challenges and opportunities.

Continued Growth of Online Learning Technologies

The public demand for online learning, the increasing sophistication of online technologies being incorporated into teaching, and the opportunities for innovation, have allowed online learning environments to persist and grow in the higher education setting.

Online learning innovations in the setting of higher education continue to have substantial impact. Newly emerging technologies have found significantly greater use on higher education campuses in a relatively short period of time. The Open Source learning movement (e.g., MOOCs) has highlighted what CE professionals have already known to be the benefits of blended and “flipped” classrooms. Broader recognition of “blending” and “flipping” benefits should, in turn, provide the promise of a more learner-centered environment that may offer more educational opportunities for the greater public . And, it is worth noting the availability of a variety of online learning modalities is increasingly grabbing the attention of those individuals responsible for public policy.

Legislators and agencies at the state and federal levels have weighed in heavily on how these technological tools will be used in education, the shape these tools will take, and how students will gain access to them. Also, concerns about college affordability have seriously impacted the discussions about what role these technologies can play in the cost of higher education.

As the pace of these innovations continues to accelerate, it will be increasingly important for continuing education units to continue to play a key role in higher education.

Continuing education professionals and their programs have long been effective in outreach and engagement efforts through the use of technology with the public and private sectors. More important, they have worked successfully with institutional leadership to set the policies and procedures in which colleges and universities engage new technologies as a means to educate the public. This long history of experience and excellence in technology and innovation will likely provide a platform for CE leaders to have key roles in influencing the policy, programmatic and pedagogical directions their institutions will take.

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