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Vision Me This: Continuing Education Circa 2028

Given the nature of Continuing Education’s model and its ability to thrive in uncertainty. For traditional higher ed to remain relevant in the coming years, it has no choice but to incorporate CE practices and qualities into its education model.

“Step right up and don’t be shy, because you will not believe your eyes.”

~ John Waldo “Fee” Waybill

Welcome to Cirque de l’Enseignement Supérieur, a place of wonder and exploration. Walk with me for a while and see sights unseen; peer, albeit briefly, into the near future of Continuing Education.

There on the right is the Tent of Amazing Strength and Unimaginable Resilience, where inside you will find a myriad of rooms, chambers, dungeons and cubicles filled with diverse and brilliant professional staff who effortlessly lift and carry entire universities on their backs. They are quiet and unassuming, but don’t let that mask their strikingly sharp focus and implacable pragmatism. If you look long and intently enough, you may even see one or two of them lithely leap in a single bound over senseless procedures and questionable directives, never losing sight of the students and faculties they tirelessly serve.

Over here is the House of Sagacity. Inside you’ll find a cabal of faculty—some silent and erudite, many vociferous and passionate—all singularly focused on carrying out the missions of the public and private universities where they work. Be careful to not hold their eye directly, as you will immediately be hypnotized by otherworldly stories of fantastical research and implausible teaching, transported to a distant realm where knowledge is only ever used to improve the world by transforming people’s lives through education. Truly inconceivable!

Ah, I see you’ve noticed that wee little nondescript hovel there on the edge of the grounds—the one that looks conspicuously out of place amid the mystique and grandeur of the circus. Yes, this is what you’ve come to see: an enigmatic venue that holds the most fascinating and variegated individuals found anywhere in higher education. We call it the Tower of Practicality and Illumination, but you know it by its quotidian name: Continuing Education.

What’s that? You’re curious about the future of Continuing Education? Well, I just happen to have here a crystal ball of destiny. For an inconsequential fee, it will be my delight to conjure a five-year vision of Continuing Education that will not require you to suspend your disbelief longer than it takes to finish a bag of popcorn.

Voila! Look closely as the crystal ball replays for us the immediate past. See how from their typically ordinary position within the university, Continuing Education units were left to watch (often with awe and a sprinkle of wonder) how higher education managed, mismanaged and otherwise muddled through so much of the disruption experienced since 2020. But then look here at how, out of necessity, Continuing Education units aggressively leaned into the disruption to capitalize on market conditions and create growth opportunities where other areas of their universities experienced contraction, atrophy or failure.

Now the vision shifts forward—yes a five-year view forward—where we can see abundant opportunity and change realized by making only a few modest assumptions. What’s this blurry image here coming into focus? It looks like a seismic shift to the traditional core of higher education. Indeed, higher education was already pulling at so many Continuing Education threads prior to the catastrophic disruption caused by the COVID pandemic beginning in spring 2020. And yes, of course, the pandemic did simply magnify those threads and necessitate that some universities weave Continuing Education programming, services and practices into their academic core. But see where the vision reveals how the expertise, innovation, agility and entrepreneurialism found within Continuing Education units were precisely what universities needed to stay solvent, open, operational and relevant throughout the pandemic? The crystal ball reveals that this meshing with the traditional core will continue for future-focused universities over the next five years. The vision shows us Continuing Education units designing, delivering and supporting increasingly larger portions of their university’s residential and online programs portfolios. Much clearer now, the crystal ball reveals a dramatically different but realistic future in which universities adopt Continuation Education’s alternative models of faculty governance that accommodate rapid program ideation and deployment; new (radical?) definitions of faculty; and an acceptance of the rich and unchartered space between educational perennialism and essentialist curricula in which scalable and purposeful lifelong learning programs are forged. With their Continuing Education units firmly supported and funded, universities find in this future state that they can compete in the credit and degree market in ways previously hidden behind their rigid adherence to dated assumptions about price, quality and brand. What the vision shows is Continuing Education units moving their universities into the vanguard of higher education innovation and differentiation.

Now, watch the image morph. The crystal ball is telling us something vaguely familiar but excitingly new. Ah! I see: It’s the reemergence of the extension campus. More than an homage to the past, it seems that over the next five years, Continuing Education units will define for their universities a modern version of extended learning that recalls through a digital lens the ways in which countless nontraditional students transformed their lives in an earlier age of analog. This vision of 2028 reveals how Continuing Education units are reconfigured within their universities’ governance and organizational structures to function (in many cases unencumbered) as affiliated extension campuses to expand continuing and professional education beyond current parochial models. We know, of course, that nowhere within the university has learning been more agile than through extended learning. The crystal ball shows earlier success of holistic lifelong learning that integrated traditional and progressive teaching methods into accessible programs on extension campuses everywhere in the world, now transformed into multimodal learning uniquely oriented toward developing human potential in nontraditional contexts and environments. Focus here. See how in this near-future, Continuing Education units are the engine behind dramatically expanded access to nontraditional students and learners seeking degrees, credentials, certificates and personal humanistic learning experiences beyond residential full-time study. Look how through this reimagined vehicle of the extension campus, Continuing Education units are expeditiously developing innovative market-sensitive educational opportunities, swiftly improving and promptly diversifying revenues to create sustainable support, innovation and reinvestment!

What’s this?! The vision fogs. Hmmm, I see the most relevant and perhaps urgent unrealized opportunity within higher education over the next five years. Yes, there it is: alternative academic credentials and micro-credentialing designed and delivered by Continuing Education units within traditional and progressive universities. The vision illustrates how learning’s currency has changed dramatically—a transformation that Continuing Education units have been shaping and informing for nearly a decade. Watch how universities look more to their Continuing Education units to engage employers who are increasingly less reliant on a college degree. Yes, that’s correct: Continuing Education units are best positioned to involve industry in defining competencies and educational needs. As the modern workforce changes and new forms of jobs are created, higher education will need to produce and deliver nimble, agile and market-reflexive learning opportunities to help people upskill and reskill throughout their lives. Look closer now. There, watch how over the next five years traditional degree programs are dwarfed by alternative credentials and credentialing that include (but are not limited to) professional boot camps, on-demand learning programs, microlearning programs, digital badges, verified certificates and micro-degrees. Most telling, the vision shows how Continuing Education units serve to connect alternative credentials among the schools and colleges within their universities. By 2028, Continuing Education units are ushering the valuable and scarce capability and capacity to adapt and cultivate alternative credentials to meet the needs of labor and industry—credentials that leverage the disciplinary expertise of faculties across their universities, building new currencies of learning.

Alas, the crystal ball is dimming. Shake it a bit; it’s a dated model and the budget office has yet to approve an upgrade. No, it looks like you’ll have to wait until the next fiscal year to peer further into the future of Continuing Education. Now about that fee…

Author’s Note: While no conjurer can truly know the future, those of us who dwell within the domain of Continuing Education recognize that higher education must embrace the nontraditional if it is to remain relevant. This is the space in which we are most adept; responsive to economic and demographic exigencies; deliverers of exceptional support and services to diverse student populations; innovators of market-sensitive professional degrees, non-credit programs and alternative credentials; and connectors and catalysts for excellence within their universities.

Author Perspective: