Incubating Innovation: The Growing Role of Continuing Education on University Campuses

The EvoLLLution | Incubating Innovation: The Growing Role of Continuing Education on University Campuses
Sitting at the nexus of employees, learners and the main campus, Continuing or Extended Education divisions offer unique opportunities for academic units to bring their programming to a wider audience, while opening the door to market-responsive program collaborations.
Though Continuing or Extended Education is still viewed with suspicion by some faculties as the “personal interest” division of a university, CE offers many opportunities for their academic counterparts—including, in some cases, chances to make up budgetary shortfalls and offer industry-relevant programming. In this interview, Kim McNutt discusses the evolving role of Extended Education, and points to how CE units can bridge the gap between employers and educators by fostering innovation.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do CE divisions broaden and improve access to programming that’s offered by faculties across the rest of the institution?

Kim McNutt (KM): As the College of Extended & International Education (CEIE) at CSUDH, our job is to extend access to education into the community we serve. One of the ways we do that is by providing courses off-cycle—that is, not during the traditional fall and spring semesters. We also offer online, night and weekend courses, which extends our programming beyond the 9-to-5 schedule. Simply by providing courses on an alternative schedule, we are meeting our mandate of extending education.

Another way we broaden and improve access to education is by offering short-term training and certificates. We also partner with companies to offer customized on-site training, where we develop a purpose-built program that fits their needs.

We also have satellite locations, which allow students outside the main campus region to access our programming. As you know, CE units often operate satellite campuses at many universities. We have a small presence in the Beach Cities area of the South Bay, because even eight or 10 miles for some students is too far to go because of LA traffic. We take education to them.

One of CE’s major benefits is that we can offer just-in-time programming. Traditional academic curricula on campuses are pretty fixed: approval processes for developing new programs can take months or years, and when a student is looking for a course that will allow them to get ahead in their job, they can’t afford to wait. In CE, we can stay abreast of what job seekers and employers need, and develop responsive programming to suit those needs.

A good example of this is blockchain programming. Blockchain is all the rage right now, so we’re gearing up to begin offering short courses and training in that area. We’ll be offering that programming much sooner than the traditional campus, because we can react to this opportunity quicker.

What I like about CE is that we’re often the first entry point for learners. They may come and take a class with us and then choose to enroll in a degree program because they had a positive experience. With our myriad programming options and credit/non-credit offerings, we can really extend the university’s reach.

Evo: How do you draw the line between broadening access to programming and ideas that already exist in the university, and pushing the university to create new programming that responds to community needs?

KM: Extended Education often acts as a test kitchen for the university. We can go behind the scenes and mix different ingredients together, then package the result as a program. Because we are entrepreneurial, we can afford to be innovative. In some cases, we can even afford to fail—if we offer a short-term certificate program that doesn’t catch fire with prospective students, it doesn’t hurt the main campus in the same way it would if it were offered through a traditional college. We can be more responsive, and move quicker to offer just-in-time programming.

Extended Education is viewed as a strategic campus partner much more than it has been in the past. For a long time, we were looked upon, quite frankly, as the place where people took basket-weaving courses and exclusively community education programs. Now, other academic departments and administrators are looking to Extended Ed as a strategic partner because we develop programs that are outside the box.

We’re also an incubator for the university. When a new program takes off, we can divest it from Extended Ed and let the main campus take over. Much like a start-up company, I can develop the program then hand it over to the main campus and say, “We’ve started it, now it’s yours to take on.”

Evo: Over the course of the last decade, how has the role of CE changedand how has the recognition of its role by main campus faculties and central administration changed?

KM: In my experience, some faculty can be a little hesitant to work with Extended Ed divisions. Most CE departments are self-supported, meaning we don’t receive any allocation from our state governments or from our university systems. We are a pay-as-you-go enterprise, and some instructors may view that as a bit suspicious.

At CSUDH, we’ve overcome that problem by building relationships across the campus. We meet with different faculties to introduce them to partnership opportunities. The benefit of these partnerships is twofold: we can provide access to education that learners might not otherwise be able to access, and give faculty members a chance to earn more pay than they normally would with their regular teaching load, because these courses take place during their down-time.

When I approach academic faculties, I tell them, “You provide the academic integrity, rigor and education, and we’ll offer the marketing, registration, customer and support services, and online program management system.” We focus on what we do best, and they focus on what they do best, which is teaching.

Those strategies have helped to remove barriers and enhance the perception of Extended Ed on campus. Whenever a new senior leader comes aboard, I invite him or her to my college to give them an overview of what we do and how much we give back to campus, financially and otherwise. By taking that immediate step, you can start building that sense of trust. I like to say that progress moves at the speed of trust, so the quicker a campus stakeholder trusts Extended Ed, the more likely they are to work with us.

Evo: Do you see the role of CE as being almost a service provider to colleagues across campus, where faculties focus on the teaching and Extended Education focuses on the more managerial aspects of making a program or offering successful?

KM: Absolutely. We do a lot of what I would call the back-office administrative duties: registration, student support, marketing, LMS access, and faculty training to help our instructors become better online educators. We leave the academic piece to the professionals, which are the faculties themselves. I think that bodes well for the trust factor, too, because we aren’t stepping on their toes. As you said, we’re supporting them, because if they’re not successful, then we’re not successful.

Another point in our favor is that we can help colleges roll out programs that they might not otherwise be able to afford. Say the College of Arts and Humanities knows it is not going to get a full allocation this year and won’t be able to invest in new programming. I can tell them, “Change your program from a face-to-face to an online modality, and we can create a partnership that benefits us both.” I can create MOUs between our colleges and say, “This is what my college can do, this is what your part of the deal is, and here is how we can split the costs.” When dealing with the net revenue, a portion will go back to the university for services that they provide (vis à vis payroll, HR and custodial expenses). If there’s any money left over, we split the profits between the colleges.

Evo: You paint a vision of Extended Education at the center of a triangle that brings together employers, learners and the main campus. To your mind, how does the work of CE divisions help improve connections between those three sets of stakeholders?

KM:  We connect industry and employers to the university and to learners. I have several advisory panels for our certificate programs that are comprised of practitioners in a given field. We’ll convene once a semester to talk about what we’re doing right, where they see opportunities, what they’re hearing in their industries, and what types of training they need us to provide so we can be an entry point for learners into jobs. I can then take that information from employers to help academic colleges build out programs that will have a real impact in the community.

Frankly, some industry leaders still don’t realize we’re here. They are surprised to learn that we offer occupational training and certificate programs. Once they get to know us, though, we can work with them to co-develop programs that are to the benefit of the industry and the university. These programs are sought after because they have that real-world flavor from an employer partner, as well as the cachet of being offered at a university. Our research indicates programs have an added level of validation if they’re coming from a university. These programs are real. They’ve got meat. They’re not being offered by some independent contractor or for-profit vendor.

A lot of people that come to our courses are working professionals. Their goal may not be to earn an undergraduate degree that will help them view the wider world—they come here for short-term needs like a job promotion or a pay raise, or to switch industries. We can provide those linkages not just to employers, but to people wanting to change industries. In the process, we help them become more productive members of society.

Evo: The traditional learners that we’re seeing today are Generation Z, who tend to behave as consumers and expect a certain level of customization in their educational experience. This means that a lot of the characteristics of incoming traditional students are those that we used to define as the needs of a non-traditional demographic. For a main campus leader who’s trying to adapt to that shift, what kinds of lessons can they learn from their CE colleagues when it comes to delivering a responsive, customer-centric student experience?

KM: I’ve been saying for years that the non-traditional student has become the new normal, and universities need to reflect that in their academic programming. Online programs are more palatable for these learners because they can fit them into busy schedules. For students that don’t feel comfortable with the online modality, we still offer evening and weekend courses.

We’re evolving to meet Millennial and Gen Z learners. They’re digital natives; they’ve grown up with computers and cellphones and gamification. If you look at our website, it’s mobile friendly. We’re on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We’re working with Parchment to issue digital badges, because we can use gamification models to incentivize students to learn. Gen Z students like scoring points and collecting badges while acquiring the knowledge that will help them over the long term.

Several years ago, a colleague of mine was talking about trying to create a degree program that you could access entirely on your smartphone. Not on a laptop—a smartphone. He wanted to call it Mobile U. It sounded very out there at the time, but as we move into the future, it doesn’t seem so implausible. Pretty soon, someone will be able to acquire an online degree entirely on their mobile phone.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the growing role of CE at colleges and universities today, and how you see that role evolving in the future?

KM: My department owns and operates 11 classrooms and an auditorium. Some days, I’ll walk down the hall and listen in on a class. It might be a group of adult learners taking a project management course. I’ll go a little further down the hall to the next class, where there’s the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute audience of people 55 and older taking a personal enrichment course. I’ll move on to our computer lab, where we’re running a summer video game development camp for kids.

In just that short walk, I’m experiencing lifelong learning. People from kindergarten to 90 years old, all learning at the same college. Learning is a continuum. It’s not a “one and done.” That’s where the future of Extended Education lies. We need to be able to offer continuous education programs throughout the course of one’s entire life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Partnering with CE units to offer innovative and accessible courses enables traditional departments to overcome budgetary constraints that might otherwise preclude the rollout of new programming—and, in some cases, even make a profit.
  • While CE units are regarded with suspicion by many academic divisions, highlighting the benefits of partnerships can go a long way toward building trust.
  • By providing an incubator environment to trial just-in-time programming, CE offers a low-risk way for the university to innovate and meet students’ needs.