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Building Social Capital into Your CE Programs

It is critical for institutions of higher education to consider building opportunities for social capital development into their curriculum, especially in CE units, where students can learn from each other’s rich professional and personal experiences. 

In the earliest days of adult and continuing education, social capital may not have been called such. This should not suggest, though, that it wasn’t integral to adult and continuing education. In 2014, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Scott McLean from the University of Calgary on a book chapter in which we explored the history of adult and continuing education across the country. While differences presented themselves on a regional basis, a common theme across diverse geographic regions was how adult and continuing education extended the adult learner’s knowledge, skills, and networks. Interestingly, to some extent, the terms extended education and extended learning are still used today.

While, in certain contexts, extended education may have meant correspondence-based learning, in others, it brought individuals together on nights and weekends to learn from and with each other all the while developing relationships. Although not likely called social capital, this is what it was. We need to sustain this conceptualization of social capital in order to ensure meaningful and effective programs for adult learners. 

Start at the foundation

When social capital development is built into the foundation of a well-conceptualized course or program, the learner has the best of both worlds. He or she acquires knowledge and skills relevant to a specific area, and they know what to do with this new learning—that is, how to translate it into action in the so-called ‘real world.’ 

Where I serve as director of continuing education at McMaster University, the vast majority of learners are adults who choose to continue their education based on a career need. In some instances, the person is in a career change; in others, they have been encouraged by an employer to acquire an additional credential. We also see adult learners who have experienced downsizing or re-structuring and are therefore seeking education and training relevant to their next step.

In all of these cases, the learner benefits not only from up-to-date and meaningful curriculum but also from developing social capital, wittingly or not. For instance, they study with other adults who bring rich life and career experiences to course discussions. Moreover, at McMaster continuing education, we work exceptionally hard to hire instructors who know their subject areas well and bring industry and professional expertise to their courses. As important as the formal curriculum covered in courses are the connections and networks facilitated by instructors and guest presenters. Just today I had the opportunity to speak with one of our instructors who routinely takes extra time with students to make an introduction, point to a job opportunity, and discuss what is happening in industry. In his words, this is what teaching adult learners is about. In my words, this is social capital development in action.

Course design also plays a role in building social capital. As you know, the capacity to foster relationships with others through online discussion has been reported at great length in research literature. Equally important are synchronous interactions and group-based learning activities, particularly when they include connection with the broader community. As Dr. Tony Bates remarked in a workshop that I attended several years ago at Laurentian University, instructional design is critical to a meaningful online education experience. For example, the careful planning that goes into the preparation of most—albeit not all—online courses can lead to exciting and rewarding opportunities for personal and social capital development. Because the online instructional design process is iterative, there is increased likelihood that the resulting course or program will include activities and assessments that have the potential to facilitate internal and external relationship-building.

As a final thought, those of us who have a role in developing and delivering online learning for adults have seen firsthand the benefits of student interactions with employers and community organizations. Such interactions are foundational to the both personal and professional development, virtual teamwork, and cooperation—the human skills that are critical to career and life success. As leaders, we need to recognize this reality and take action. 

Where CE leaders come in 

Upon completion of a course or program, students need to be much more than the sum parts of a set curriculum. Ideally, our students will leave us more competent and confident as human beings and will see life as a positive challenge that they know how to conquer. In the case of adult learners, there is considerable so-called skin in the game in that they are actively balancing family, work, community, and other responsibilities. Given this fact, CE leaders need to be sure that they are doing their part by thinking strategically about how to advance adult learners’ life and work situations.

I have mentioned the importance of hiring the best possible instructors—people who not only know their professional practice area but who are also gifted facilitators of learning willing to go the extra distance by creating connections and building networks that can benefit their students.  This recognized, there is more to the mandate of the CE unit than instructional excellence. Leaders and staff in a CE unit need to make connections with industry, community, and government partners so that program development is authentic, and so that partners want to engage with instructors and students for mutual learning and problem-solving.

There is a risk when we think about developing social capital strictly within the context of certain kinds of programs and not others. For instance, in programs that tie to a person’s career, social capital development should be part of the fabric. The same applies to not-for-credit and community-serving programs. The best example we have of networking and community being at the center of  not-for-credit program is our open access online program for family and informal caregivers. Called Caregiving Essentials, this course was made possible through funding from the Ontario Ministry of Senior Affairs, the Ministry of Health, and Desire2Learn. Through its curriculum and the work of its exceptional facilitator, Donna Thomson, this course has served over 700 caregivers and their families. In addition to providing participants with knowledge about the caregiver role and how to navigate complex challenges and systems, the course focuses on the development of personal and community networks as well as resilience. At this unusual time in our history, these learning and community experiences are making a real difference in the lives of Canadian caregivers and their loved ones.

Don’t let the roadblocks get in your way

Building such a foundation comes with obstacles, and in this case, the greatest challenge is dispositional. As COVID-19 has shown us, we have exceptional technologies to make connections and build relationships—we are doing things today that we could not have imagined in March 2020. Still, there are some among us who concentrate on the glitches rather than the opportunities. In contrast with seeing the expansive potential afforded to us through web conferencing, asynchronous learning platforms, social media applications, and other tools we have yet to imagine,  we can sometimes get stuck on the fall-downs. While I am the first to recognize that there will be challenges, I likewise see challenges as learning opportunities. I recall speaking with a new instructor not long ago who told me the best advice she had received was something I had said to her before the beginning of the term: to know that the hiccups will happen and to get back at it when they do. She then described a recent technical issue in a class, how her students helped solve it and then cheered her when their class re-convened. In my mind, experiences such as this one humanize all of us.

Of particular interest to me is how so many in post-secondary secondary education are only now learning about and attempting online education. My background is rooted in distance, remote, and online education experiences acquired in northern Ontario as far back as the mid to late 1990s. Moreover, it is rooted, principally, in the complexities of health-related education, including nursing and medicine. When geography is vast, winters are real, and resources are limited, organizations and individuals choose to do things differently, and in my time in northern Ontario, this is exactly what occurred. We were not looking for perfection but rather access. Thus, we worked hard and, in turn, celebrated the access and flexibility that distance, remote, and online education affords.

As for today, I believe that we need to assume the perspective that things are different, and that we need to be deliberate in our cultivation of positive learning environments and, by extension, social capital. Just as the vast majority of Canadian businesses have had to do things differently during the pandemic, so too do those of us in the adult and continuing education sector. Moreover, we need to be deliberate about seeking out and enabling those social capital moments. 

Presently, I am participate in a discussion board with various businesses within the Hamilton region. I am impressed by what I am learning—notably, how small- and medium-sized businesses are re-creating themselves and discovering various networks and strategies that hitherto they would not have considered. Indeed, they have inspired me.

Best practices to overcome these obstacles

To overcome contemporary obstacles to the development of social capital in online and other distance-based programs, we need to focus on three things: people, supports, and instructional design. 


In CE units where social capital development is an important goal, the staff need to be strong and capable individuals who are prepared to work hard to accomplish it. This is particularly the case in units in which online and distance models are central to core business. Online and distance learning strategies require heavy lifting. The same kinds of disposition and ethic are required from those working most directly with adult learners as instructors and advisers.


I would be naïve not acknowledge that CE leaders need to support staff, instructors, and students in different ways than they did even ten years ago. In order to ensure resilience in changing times, those in leadership roles need to be thoughtful and responsive to extenuating circumstances and willing to implement relevant supports and services so that we grow together in life-affirming ways. 

Instructional design

The criticality of excellence instruction design in units committed to the development of social capital cannot be overemphasized. Developing for and teaching in the online space are not innate or natural skills for the majority of us. Indeed, this is a worry point for me; in the response to COVID-19, there was insufficient design, training, support, and time for those developing courses and programs. Hence, the outcomes have been mixed. Of course, I recognize the need to respond quickly and aggressively. However, I hope that, in moving forward, CE leaders will do everything they can to advance remote, distance, and online education as well as social capital development in more thoughtful ways that include contemporary instructional design practices. 

What does this thoughtful approach look like? It does not mean talking head lessons, nor does it mean trying to replicate what occurs in face-to-face classrooms. Instead, it means curriculum must be comprised of problem-solving opportunities and project-based learning that requires students to use their knowledge, skills, and understandings in authentic ways. If we build on these ideas, consult the robust research literature that already exists around, and stay appraised of emerging trends, we will offer the learning experiences that adult learners deserve and thus contribute to the development of social capital for individuals and communities. 

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