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Setting Up for Success: The 60-Year Curriculum Vision

By adopting a lifelong learning vision and executing learner demands, institutions have the ability to foster a lifelong learning community while retaining enrollment numbers. 

Non-traditional learners have become the majority in the learner demographics, and it’s time for institutions to foster the lifelong learning culture that students not only want but need. With an evolving workforce, the demand for credentials is at an all-time high, but institutions can’t serve their learners without having the right systems and visions in place. In this interview, April Philpotts discusses the importance of focusing on the 60-year curriculum, adapting to the expected user, and how continuing ed divisions can be drive this innovative shift. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why should higher ed leaders start taking the 60-year curriculum vision more seriously?

April Philpotts (AP): Gone are the days when we entered a career, went along our career path and retired in that same career. People are living a lot longer, so that extends our working years, giving rise to second, third, fourth, even fifth careers. And the nature of work is changing due to increased use of technology and dependence on it. I used to say in my former job that I worked in the tech industry, but the tech industry is embedded into every other industry now.

Evo: From an institutional perspective, is there an opportunity to address pathways for lifelong learners—or conversely, is there an inherent threat to not preparing institutions for the 60-year curriculum? 

AP: If we don’t do it, others will. When I worked at Communitech, which was developed by a group of entrepreneurs in the Waterloo region, they were looking at ways to help tech companies start, grow and succeed. In my role as an education manager, I was looking at what colleges and universities were not doing. I remember touring the U.S. to meet with coding bootcamps that were being pulled together to develop programming for people to become software developers within ten weeks. 

I’m not going to comment on their degree of success, but it brings me back to my point that if higher ed isn’t going to address these pathways, someone else will. IBM and Google will gladly do it instead. At the end of the day, it’s the partnerships between industry and academia who can do this best. Neither one is succeeding on their own, so that’s why that marriage of the two is really important.

Evo: Why are continuing and professional ed divisions so well-suited to capture and execute the 60-year curriculum? 

AP: Years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague about when our institution was going to wake up and see what those of us working in continuing education have been seeing for 15 years now—that life is changing. There’s a much greater need for ongoing, lifelong learning than ever before.

Where I work now, the Center for Extended Learning, has been around for 50 years. There’s always been extended, part-time learning on the side. But for the first time, our departments are beginning to be woven into the institution. I can see pathways down the line to potentially bridge past learning experiences into credit programs, so they can get recognition for past accomplishments—because there are many different ways of learning. 

As professionals focused on continuing education and lifelong learning, we’ve been doing this for a number of years. We’ve learned how to both design and deliver education to professional audiences. Many learners today have many responsibilities—taking care of children or elderly parents, maintaining a second job on the side—and so we need to deliver learning in flexible, bite-sized chunks that can be completed in the learner’s free time. 

On the delivery side, the way learning is facilitated is different from how a professor would teach an undergrad or Master’s program. In teaching professionals, the role of instructor is to really to draw the expertise from the room and facilitate great dialogue. When you’re working with people who have some prior knowledge, you want to tap into it and bring in elements of peer learning. 

Evo: What are some similarities and differences between traditional and non-traditional learners in regard to what they expect both inside and outside of the learning environment? 

AP: A lot of the adult learning principles apply to both the traditional and the non-traditional learner. The material has to be engaging, and you want to tap into prior learning experience; it’s just at a different level. There’s a lot more learning experience to tap into with a mid-career professional than there is with a 20-year-old. 

What could be a little bit different, though, is the timeliness of it all. With adult learners who are working professionals, you want to teach something relevant that will solve a problem they potentially have at work. The traditional learner doesn’t have those problems yet, so you can spend more time talking about hypothetical situations and case studies. But at the end of the day, some of it won’t be relevant. We also have much less time with non-traditional students because their time is very valuable, so you need to get right to the point and hit the core problem. It’s meant to be very experiential and tied directly to their work.

Evo: What are some major steps to having continuing ed—and the 60-year curriculum concept—shift towards the core of the institution? 

AP: We’re trying to do things a little differently than I’ve experienced outside of Waterloo—leveraging the expertise within the faculties. A lot of continuing education departments will hire adjunct professors from outside industries. It’s important to bring in industry expertise, but we also want to leverage the expertise that’s already around us as well. By that I mean our leading and bleeding edge researchers, but there will be some challenges. Instructors’ primary job is not to teach the lifelong learner; they were hired to teach undergrad and graduate students. So, it’s about accessing intellectual know-how within faculties when there are competing priorities and many still see their primary function as teaching the traditional student. 

Waterloo is highly entrepreneurial, and there are some people who, outside of being a full-time professor, have pursued other professional opportunities and therefore have additional experience. So, it’s about finding which individuals have a desire to help other professionals succeed in the way that they did. You need to build relationships with like-minded people within the institution. Hopefully, you’re able to do that.

The last obstacle lies in harvesting intellectual know-how and working with faculty members to divide programs and courses into digestible chunks. As I mentioned earlier, these programs for professionals need to be succinct, so they can immediately transfer to the workplace. It’s about balancing theory with practice. 

This idea of creating bize-sized chunks is the root to stackable programming and that’s where the institution needs to be willing to break it into competencies and also give recognition for prior learning. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it’s going to take for higher education to start delivering a 60-year curriculum at their institution?

AP: Yes, the technologies used for professional learners need to be different from those built for traditional learners.  

Evo: How does technology poorly suited to your business impact your staff and student experiences?

AP: A lot of continuing education departments are using the registration system that was set up for the traditional learner, which creates a number of issues. The LMS is rarely intuitive and takes time to learn, which time-strapped professionals don’t have. It’s about the user experience. I did some journey mapping one time when we talked about the experience of somebody showing up at an event center. It’s not just about reaching the event center, it’s also about knowing whether the individual had to drive along a highway full of traffic for two hours to get there—to know where they were coming from. So, if a student can’t find where the discussion boards in the LMS are, then they’re going to totally miss out on that value of peer discussion in the course. Similarly, with respect to student registration, again, it’s about the user experience and being able to find things easily—to deliver an Amazon shopping cart experience for the professional learner.

The other point to consider is the ease of use for the instructors. If you’re trying to partner with them but don’t give them a lot of time to let them learn this new technology, it’s going to become a barrier. You have to find a way to remove it. You need an interface in which the instructor can create and develop content easily.

Evo: What else do institutions need to think about when delivering a 60-year curriculum experience?

AP: An aspect that tends to get overlooked but is very important is staying connected to your alumni. I recently conducted some market research with alumni from across Waterloo’s six faculties. Making that connection with alumni allows you to build a lifelong learning committee that will constantly provide an influx of current information. You gain those insights into what’s coming, the challenges people are facing, the pain points. Whatever we build, it’s really important that it is market-driven. We’d be remiss not to talk about our alumni. 

And a final thought: it’s key for the institution to have a centralized strategy around lifelong learning. It’s about getting buy-in from everyone—from senior admins, to deans, to faculty members, to staff. All need to be working toward the same vision in order to truly enact a 60-year curriculum. We’re starting to move in that direction at Waterloo, where creating a lifelong learning center is one of the University’s top strategic priorities right now. It’s requiring the entire organization to be working together to make sure we’re moving along that same path.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Disclaimer: All thoughts and opinions reflected in this article are owned by the author and do not reflect the institution. Embedded links in articles don’t represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service.

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