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Placing the Focus on the Needs of Employers

AUDIO | Placing the Focus on the Needs of Employers
Continuing education must take the focus off of strictly serving the needs of adult students, and place it on serving the needs of their local communities and employers.

The following interview is with Mary Walshok, associate vice-chancellor of University of California, San Diego (UCSD). In a recent article, Walshok discussed the reinvention imperative that is central to continuing education’s (CE) mission and shared her thoughts on what it will take for CE units to survive and thrive in the coming years. In this interview, she expands on those ideas, discussing the need for CE units to act not just as adult learning centers, but as central figures in local community and economic development.

1. Why is it in the best interests of a CE unit to ensure its regional economy is thriving?

In the United States, the two most important things that will assure our global competitiveness — as the whole world economy is changing — is our capacity to continue to be one of the more innovative economies in the world. …

Because more and more work is knowledge based, it requires more and more competencies in technology, in foreign language and culture, in the ability of workers at all levels to adapt as global conditions change and as technology transforms the content of all work. And, so, innovation has to do with new ways to solve old and new problems and the ability of people to use processes or technologies that help them solve problems.

The talent piece is the people who are going to run the new and emerging companies that are going to assure jobs and prosperity. Now, all of those issues are tied to continuous learning, to lifelong learning, and that’s why I think continuing education has a huge role to play. …

Employers want people with college degrees but they even more want people with the skills to [ensure] that their college degrees are put to work in a way that’s productive and creative for their enterprises. I think that’s the business we should be in.

2. What are a few strategies institutions can put in place to be part of that regional economic development?

I think that the field of adult and continuing education has been dominated by a focus on the needs of the individual learner. And, so, we talk about pedagogy, we talk about flexible formats for delivering programs and now we’ve gone wild with online education. What’s convenient and useful for the individual learner?

But my sense … is that the demand for learning and for new skills is coming from employers; it’s coming from hospital systems, it’s coming from urban planning departments in the big city. In other words, it’s being driven by the talent needs of institutions and employers and organizations in society.

So we should be focusing on … what those organizational and employer needs are and then satisfying those needs through programs which educate, retrain, upgrade, help the individual learner adapt. I think we tend to talk to the student more than we talk to the organizations and employers who will need these students and will value these students.

3. Why are CE units better suited to this kind of work than other departments or colleges within a university?

It’s a question whether we’re better suited. I think that we have a history of being more nimble and more adaptable but I’m not sure all continuing education units are as integrated in their communities as they might be. So, their departments of urban planning, engineering schools, business schools do a very good job of listening to employers. The problem with traditional schools like that is that they’re still locked into, “Four units represents a course,” and they tend to rely on their own faculty rather than practitioners to teach courses. So they have a longer hill to climb.

We know how to vary formats. We know how to utilize a much broader range of faculty, particularly in the professional- and practice-oriented world. But we don’t always listen to employers and institutions as much as we need to do.

So my argument is: if we become more embedded in our communities — the community that needs the talent that we can help train and upgrade and reeducate for new demands — we’re much better equipped to move quickly to serve those needs. But … I think we think, “Oh, well, we just have to make things convenient and easy for students,” which is why I think there’s all this excitement about online. But we’re not recognizing that for many institutions and organizations, online is one form of delivery but a lot of the other things we’ve been able to do in the past are still valuable. And, so, online should be a tool through which we serve the community but it has sort of become the central conversation among continuing educators. If you’re not doing online, you’re not ‘with it.’

If we’re going to grow our portfolios, … if we want to serve a larger market of needs, I think we have to be more engaged with organizations and the community. And some of us do that very well and others of us do that not at all.

4. Does that need for local embedded-ness provide an opportunity for different units within the same institution to collaborate on various projects?

Absolutely! … Often the content or the skills the community needs, is looking for, include our own traditional faculty. I see, [continuing education] as kind of an integrator, if you will, of academic knowledge and a practice-based knowledge.

So, for example, we’re doing an international program right now — my division here at UCSD — with the World Wildlife Foundation on carbon accounting and all of these new tools you can use to track environmental impacts of different technologies and different fuels. And that program is a mix, in terms of instructors; of people who lead environmental initiatives at the city or the state level, of hard-nosed scientists from our Scripps Institution of Oceanography, as well as representatives from large corporations that are interested in reducing their carbon footprint.

And, so, the value that the extension brings is not just that we can organize a two-week course in a format that’s convenient for high-powered professionals, but that we’re able to integrate, if you will, the knowledge that is resident in the world of practice and the knowledge that is coming out of cutting-edge research so that people are thinking about how to implement these accounting processes not only with what is today, but what is likely to emerge tomorrow. And that function, again, requires a continuing education unit with people who live in multiple worlds and are good at helping integrate knowledge and practice so that you can deliver a first-class program to practitioners.

5. Is there anything you would like to add about this central role that CE can play in delivering programs that are well suited to local communities?

I think what I said in the article, and I would emphasize, is that a lot of traditional continuing education programs draw their talent and professional leadership from the adult and continuing education academic world. These are people who are well versed in pedagogy for adults and how adults learn, etc.

I think that’s too narrow a talent pool, moving forward.

Continuing education units need people with depths of science and engineering knowledge, experience in the arts and cultural institutions — in their community or nationally — working experience, potentially, in healthcare or in education, who bring that knowledge and those networks to their development of relationships and programs in continuing education that are going to be responsive to those sectors.

You need content knowledge. You need to be part of communities of practice, not just an expert on adult education. And I think that suggests a lot of exciting and promising opportunities for schools of education, but also for extension and continuing education in terms of where they find their talent and how they develop their talent.

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