Published on 2012/10/08

Top Five Lessons Main Campuses Could Learn from Continuing Education

Main campus administrators could ensure the ongoing survival of their institutions by taking notes from the every-day operations of their own continuing education units.

As someone whose administrative experiences have focused on traditional academic colleges and faculties, I am reluctant to advance suggestions designed to position continuing education more favorably on campus. I have been disappointed by the gradual erosion, as I see it, in the standing of continuing education and outreach at most Canadian universities, and am saddened by the limited ability of the traditional faculty members and disciplinary to see the collective benefit of continuing education.

In an earlier article, I suggested that the skills, perspectives and networks of outreach units could help the rest of the campus adjust to the challenges facing the 21st century university. If these connections are made—if the rest of the campus comes to a better appreciation of the skills, mandate and impact of continuing education—perhaps greater support for the outreach effort will follow. In this spirit, then, I offer a personal list of the five ways that I think the rest of campus might adopt the practices of continuing education units for the betterment of the entire university.

1. Understanding the community and regional landscape

Traditional academic units have been increasingly focused on disciplinary and academic matters and constituencies. Continuing education lives and dies on the ability of staff members to understand rapid changes in the professional and business world. Universities, I believe, will face increasing pressure to change and adapt to the new economic and workplace realities. Outreach units are already out there and have a great deal of insight to share.

2. Flexibility in the delivery of academic programs

The academy is built on a “field of dreams” mentality: offer it and they will come. Continuing education, in contrast, finds out where the clientele resides and then goes after it. These are radically different approaches, one well-suited to the years of booming enrollments, the other much more relevant to the market demands and opportunities of the current time. Continuing education units have learned to adapt delivery times, models, approaches and content to suit the needs of learners: something academic departments are likely going to have to discover in a hurry.

3. The bottom line matters

There was a time when universities were much more willing to underwrite the costs of continuing education activity, but those days are largely gone. Outreach is expected to pay an ever-growing percentage of their costs, if not return a profit to the centre. Traditional departments, with some exceptions in full cost-recovery programs, have operated in an entitlement environment, resisting requests to align their operations with income that they have generated. The continuing education approach, where educational quality, market sensitivity and cost effectiveness have to align over time, is likely going to be imposed on many other units. Smart groups will be seeking advice from continuing education right away.

4. The world of learning is changing very fast

Almost everyone I have spoken to in continuing education knows of the work of corporate universities and the impact of for-profit education on the public university market. Very few people within the traditional academic departments appreciate how things are changing. Outreach units know about online success stories, anticipated the massive online courses, know the strengths and limitation of “at your office desk” education, and follow the up and down developments in for-profit education. This multifaceted industry continues to morph and shift at a rapid pace; continuing education lives in this uncertain world. The rest of the academy will feel the effects of these changes soon enough, but they can learn about them sooner by connecting with the continuing education specialists.

5. The traditional academic model needs a rethink

The university is, with some exceptions, based on a very expensive and time-consuming model, typically involving three or four full years of full-time study. In a world where knowledge expands rapidly, where the work force continues to go through gyrations, and where globalization wreaks havoc on local and regional economies, the luxury of time will be available to fewer and fewer students. Learning will have to come in smaller pieces, which perhaps could be assembled later into a course or a program. Knowledge will be expected to be relevant and usable very quickly, at least in many of the science, technology and medicine-based fields. Continuing education has been rethinking academic models for decades, experimenting with new approaches and adapting to changing circumstances.

No one in continuing education, and certainly not me, believes that outreach units have all of the answers for the challenges facing the contemporary university. Indeed, there are many activities in the traditional academic units that would be valuable for continuing education units to learn about and, where appropriate, emulate. What I perceive as the professional gap between traditional academic departments and continuing education is a significant problem. Bridging that gap could serve the entire campus very well.

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Readers Comments

Micheal Fournier 2012/10/08 at 5:11 am

It is true that, when compared to the field of continuing ed which, by its very nature, must be both highly adaptable and on the pulse of the current social and economic climate, the traditional version of “academia” that we see at university campuses across Canada comes across as stale and increasingly irrelevant to the realities of the job market. What makes this painfully clear is the number of university grads who, unable to find a job with their four-year degree (BA, BSc), turn to continuing ed, or more piecemeal educational opportunities, before they have even had an opportunity to develop professionally. Often, they simply must upgrade or supplement their academic undergraduate degree before the job market opens up to them in any real way.

There is something wrong with this picture; the traditional university is failing our young people.

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/10/08 at 8:25 am


You hit the nail with a resounding ‘bang’ with this statement:

“If the rest of the campus comes to a better appreciation of the skills, mandate and impact of continuing education—perhaps greater support for the outreach effort will follow.”

It has been my multi-decade experience in this field that these ‘other’ programs are viewed as the Savior of a campus when they go well (numbers, $, stats) and everybody wants a piece of the action. However, when there is a glich in the program, or it is under a flux of change resulting in realignment that impacts the same ‘stuff’ (numbers, $, stats) no one can blame the ‘failure of the methodology’ faster – and out the door it goes.

The appreciation of the program does not remain consistant as it does with a traditional program. The ‘closed door meetings’ bare witness to this with the amount of emotion expended to save/kill the program. Seriously, how often is it the case where these alternative programs are on the chopping block, say instead of the English Department?

So much energy and suspicion goes into how one ‘feels’ about the continuing ed programs that it’s amazing the work gets done. When the ‘appreciation factor’ goes up, the storm will settle.

Until then…..? Keep championing the cause.

Dr. Heidi Maston

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