The Role of Professional, Continuing, and Online Education Units in Shaping the Future of Higher Education

The Role of Professional, Continuing and Online Education Units in Shaping the Future of Higher Education
As lifelong learning needs continue to evolve—and the imperative to serve lifelong learners increases for colleges—institutional leaders would be wise to leverage the expertise in their professional, continuing and online education divisions.

We live in constantly changing times. Higher education needs to change at the same pace, so it can meet the needs of learners and workforces of tomorrow.

While reshaping a centuries’ old education model may seem daunting, it’s not an impossible challenge. In fact, some institutions are embracing education innovation. Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, recently released its Commission on Creating the Next in Education (CNE) report, an academic roadmap that defines the nature of education of the future and envisions what a technological research university will look like in 2040, Other higher education institutions are also doing notable work as we collectively recognize the need for sweeping change and new ways to fulfill our obligations to society

One of the leading drivers of change is the shift in demographics. Traditionally, higher education institutions have served students aged 18 to 24. However, the number of 18 year olds in the United States is shrinking amid declining birth rates and fewer high school graduates are choosing to attend college.

Further, people are living longer. This means people need to work longer to afford a comfortable and distinctly longer life than our parents or grandparents. The length of time in the workforce also implies a need for the employee to develop new skills and new knowledge.

As public universities, we have the obligation to serve all our citizens—not just the 18- to 24-year-old group we have focused on in the past. As new knowledge and technologies impact the work we do, our learners will look to us to help them to move forward in their careers.

New technologies and the digitalization of business processes are disrupting all industries and professions, leading to the need for us all, including graduates of prestigious STEM degrees, to continue learning.

The evolving work environment needs universities to keep pace with the demands of the entire workforce, rather than just focus on producing entry-level workers. Today’s workplaces need agile thinkers who can keep up with technology and navigate the changes it brings to their fields. They also need to be T-shaped thinkers who have deep expertise but also social breadth in terms of understanding the impact of their work on people’s lives. Additionally, in our digital world, digital skills are essential.

Embracing change is imperative for the survival of our professions, industries, organizations and jobs. Higher education is obligated to transform, innovate and reinvent itself to meet the learning demands of a new era. Clearly, our institutions need to expand to serve adult learners throughout their lifetimes, in addition to traditional 18- to 25-year-old college students.

How do universities need to adapt to address this shift? One answer lies with professional, continuing and online (PCO) education units in universities. Having served lifetime learners for decades, PCO education units are ideally poised to steer their universities through uncharted waters and take the lead in shaping the future of higher education. Their experience with this growing learner demographic enables them to help their institutions navigate change, integrate adult learners into their communities and develop meaningful offerings to serve their needs.  However, they cannot do this alone. The entire university must embrace lifetime education.

PCO education units are ideal environments for innovation and refinement of new ideas. Since they serve a new but fast-growing learner demographic, these units are at the forefront of innovation and change. PCO education units need to keep pace with changing industry demands and learner needs to be able to develop the programs and services that adult learners and companies seek. Unlike traditional university units, PCO units operate in a fast-paced, market-focused environment, making them ideal for testing new ideas and pilot programs before deploying them across the broader institution.

PCO education units have a unique perspective because their role entails operating in an academic environment while also having a direct connection with industry and access to the business environment and its workers. This position presents them with an opportunity to serve as a bridge between their universities and industry, enabling them to draw valuable insights about the needs of the labour market.

Meaningful student services enhance the learner experience, serve community needs and enable higher education institutions to stand out in a complex competitive environment. Learning of the future is about more than degrees for a defined period of time. Instead, it’s about delivering in-demand programs as well as innovative student services to meet the needs of learners throughout their lifetimes. Blockchain, AI, alternative credentials and career advising are some examples of student services that forward-thinking institutions are considering for the near future. PCO education units are ideally positioned to identify, test and develop these student services while also enabling their institutions to expand their offerings and provide a much-needed community service.

For example, many choices and pathways exist for people of all ages who want or need to keep learning. They need expert advice to navigate their options and make the right decisions about their education. The duty of a public university, as a trusted member of society, is to offer this kind of service to its community and fulfill a social responsibility. PCO education units, with their strong connections to industry, are well suited to take the lead in their universities to provide advising and coaching for life to their community of learners.

These are examples of some ways, among many others, that PCO education units can not only add value to their institutions but take the lead in guiding them to re-envision higher education and shape the future of learning.

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