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The Flexibility Factor: Meeting the Professional Needs of Adult Students

Instructional designers and programmers face the challenging task of trying to develop academic programming that is both academically rigorous and aligned with current workforce needs. An institution’s flexibility, specifically from non-credit units, is essential to ensuring that colleges and universities can remain flexible in this regard.

One of the many challenges of working in the competitive environment of adult education is the pressure that most instructional programmers face to keep up with the ever-changing fields of both career development and professional continuing education. The ability to respond to a changing marketplace while maintaining academic rigor and quality is very much dependent on the flexibility of non-degree-granting units to create and approve relevant courses and curricula in a timely manner.

Degree-granting colleges and universities provide the bedrock of a liberal and professional education with an array of requirements and units needed to qualify for a major and/or minor in one’s chosen field of study. While senior thesis opportunities and honors seminars are often available to upper division students, and electives and advanced studies opportunities with distinguished faculty are offered in most professional and graduate degree programs, most courses in these curricula are prescribed and meet the needs of the younger student trying to complete the requirements of a degree program.

In adult education, the audiences tend to be older and have considerable life and work experience to bring into the classroom. In addition, they are often under intense pressure from their own employers (and/or from themselves as they change or develop their careers) to complete workshops and courses that are on the cutting edge of their chosen field.

So, it is incumbent on any high quality, competitive adult education institution to have the capacity to constantly create new and/or updated individual courses and organized curricula, taught by well-respected and highly qualified instructors. This goal requires a programmer to be capable of developing new curricula on an ongoing basis, seeking advice and approval as needed from academic departments and/or curricular review bodies on campus.

This review and approval process (for both course content and instructor qualifications) is essential to ensure that the highest quality of coursework and instruction is offered to the public. A good, hard-working, and knowledgeable ‘programmer’ can submit a full packet of materials for individual courses as well as full curricula and receive approval in a matter of a few weeks or months. Compared to the often lengthy and multi-layered approval process for most new major or degree programs, this is considered very speedy.

There are a number of reasons why the approval process is more flexible in adult education. First, the number of total units needed to complete a certificate program or professional series is generally determined by the programmer and his/her academic advisors, who often work in the field. So, unless otherwise prescribed by external regulations or licensing boards, a new organized curriculum can range from a few academic credit units (or continuing education hours) to a full sequence of courses. Also, the number of required courses can be supplemented by a series of electives that can vary from year to year. And, finally, if there are changes in the field, minor amendments or mid-course corrections can be made to the set of courses required to complete a certificate or professional sequence.

Now, it is true that the flexibility and timing of an approval process will vary from campus to campus. This is also true for different disciplines that will require varying amounts of change in their curricula. For example, in some fields (e.g. accounting, pre-med science courses, history), there may be very little variation from year to year in requirements and expected learning outcomes. In others (e.g. engineering, behavioral sciences, computer sciences), the need to update and create new curricula may be constant. In the latter case, programmers need to be ‘ahead of the curve’ in understanding the training needs of dynamic professions, as well as keeping up with a changing knowledge base in several fields (e.g., programming languages, neuroscience, biotechnology).

This can be a significant challenge for any academic institution, but the adaptability and flexibility of many adult education providers is crucial to the success of their educational mission and to fulfilling the expectations of their adult learners.

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