The Future of Continuing EducationJohn Ebersole | Former President, Excelsior College
Three macro forces are coming together to keep the need for continuing education before us for the foreseeable future. These are:
1. Global competition;
2. An accelerating pace of change; and
3. A decline in the period of knowledge relevance, especially in areas of technology.
To consider these individually, we only need to look at the morning news to see how integrated the world’s economy has become. With this have come competitive pressures to attract and retain new customers for goods and services. Those able to provide greater quality at less cost, while satisfying overall demand, are the likely “winners,” in terms of market dominance, and in an individual worker’s job security.
As we look back over the past three or four decades, we quickly see much that has changed. Additionally, most would agree that the pace of change, enhanced by various technological creations, has increased. The evolution of the internet, and its ubiquitous presence in our lives, is but one example.
With fast-paced global change and an abundance of new ways to communicate, we find ourselves drowning in a sea of information, much of it going undigested. It has been noted that those who grew to maturity in the last century were exposed to less written or broadcast information over their lifetimes than we typically see today in less than a month.
The intersection of these three forces is where future professional continuing education will reside. American workers will increasingly see that their ability to compete, both internationally and domestically, will be dependent upon their knowledge and skill base, and the frequency with which they are updated.
With acceleration in the pace of change comes a need to evolve and adapt to that which replaces the familiar. Again, new knowledge and skills are needed to just keep up in highly specialized and/or technical arenas.
Similarly, as new knowledge is created or discovered, here too will be the challenging task of staying current. The “shelf life” of much that is known grows shorter and shorter, in an increasing number of fields. For example, those savvy in cyberattack defense today can expect that half, or more, of what they know will be irrelevant in a matter of months, if not weeks.
Adult professionals seeking to maintain currency in a particular field, as well as those seeking either a new position or a promotion, will need to seriously engage in lifelong learning as a way to assure continued competency and competitiveness.
One of the challenges for continuing higher education of the future will not be whether there is demand, but rather its ability to meet complex needs which are coming quickly and demanding relevant updates.
The greatest existential threats to continuing higher education will come from provider ability to see emerging needs, to develop programs to a sufficient level of specificity and relevance, and to promote and deliver quickly, efficiently and at an attractive price.
If the existing networks of college/university providers cannot meet these challenges, (and many cannot) change will befall them in ways that will threaten their short- and long-term viability.
Extended education has long placed a premium on administrators who understand how to generate a surplus. These will need to be joined in the future by those with expertise reading industry trends (needs), assembling relevant programs (content) and making potential audiences aware of offering existence (marketing).
For those not comfortable with such a fast-paced and competitively cut-throat business, there will be other options. Learning in retirement is a fast-growing offshoot of CE. With baby-boomers returning to college in greater numbers, there are two potential markets to consider: learning as entertainment, and learning for a “phased” retirement. In the first instance, CE offerings will be popular with those seeking social interaction around topics of shared interest. The second niche will provide content helpful to those seeking part-time work as part of a “phased retirement.” Content will need to extend to topics relevant to the phased retiree with an interest in a wide variety of subject matter supportive of part-time employment. These will not be Wal-Mart greeters. Keep in mind, however, that in both cases, CE will be selling to an extremely price-conscious audience. Sponsorships by underwriters interested in this demographic may provide a way to generate greater ROI.
Finally, there is a growing need that is new to most in CE: that of credit aggregation. As individuals increasingly become aware of the learning that occurs outside of a classroom, there is greater opportunity, especially for those in the academy, to aggregate and validate such learning and to determine its place within a degree framework.
Utilizing a variety of new tools, CE units may well employ exams, competency-based education (CBE), and databases of equivalent courses to speed degree completion and reduce its attendant cost.
The future of CE looks bright for those wishing to make the investment in their own skill and knowledge updates, and to understand the complexity of what it will take to be competitive.
Author Perspective: Administrator