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University Continuing Education: The Coming Challenge

Although the pandemic brought adult education to the fore, its evolution to address urgent student and market needs has been slow. To be an effective actor in this space, higher ed institutions will need to focus on adult education in the next five years.

The next five years in University Continuing Education (UCE) promise to be among the most exciting and challenging periods we have ever experienced. While there are many programming, extension and innovation activities that UCE units undertake for their universities, I am going to focus this article on career-focused adult learning. At a time when most university degree programs are unlikely to experience growth and may struggle to retain current enrollment numbers, developing new student markets and revenue streams will be essential. In addition to being a source of growth and viability, the importance of adult learning is increasingly emphasized by business and political leaders concerned about higher education’s lack of responsiveness to economic needs. The importance of universities giving deep consideration to how they serve adult learners has never been so pressing.

The Coming Challenge

Over the past many years, there has been lots of interest in the career-focused adult learning space. There has been increasing discussion of skill gaps, focusing attention on the hiring challenges employers experience and developing employees who possess the necessary skills required for their businesses, industries and organizations to compete and innovate. A few large and rapidly growing American universities, such as the University of Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors University, have not only innovated in online delivery but are also formulating programs to explicitly address student competency outcomes as well as offer the support adult learners require, such as easy access to knowledgeable advisors.

Many American and, to some extent, Canadian universities have been exploring online delivery models, particularly as we emerge from the pandemic that pushed almost all programming online. There has also been an active and, at times, confusing discussion of microcredentials and similar ideas. At its most compelling level, this discussion has focused on short-form programming that develops a skill or competency that is then assessed. These skills and competencies align with the employer needs and therefore serve to supply the labor market with needed talent. At their least compelling level, microcredentials tend to be little more than short portions of existing courses, often without clearly defined competency or skill outcomes. Relatively few institutions have taken steps to make microcredentials, microcertificates or other variations of this programming official university credentials. This leaves them as an informal recognition of learning that has not necessarily been approved through institutional quality assurance processes. While promising in many ways, microcredentials have been developing slowly and informally, despite their potential to address many of career-focused adult learner and employer needs.

It would be unfair to suggest that universities are making little headway in adult learning, but I believe it is reasonable to say that overall progress is slow and not reflecting the urgency required.

The Adult Learning Landscape

As career-focused adult learning grows, various types of organizations will be vying for a significant piece of the market. Traditional players such as colleges and universities will begin with solid credibility as established providers of high-quality education. These institutions have historically focused on the needs of undergraduate and graduate students. Some have developed Continuing Education operations that have utilized the university’s expertise to formulate programs for adult learners. A limited number of institutions have invested heavily in developing their internal capacity to offer adult learning or even bought private companies that appear to have this capacity.

Nontraditional adult learning providers are also entering the field. Some are purpose-built companies that see opportunities for business success serving adult learners. The best among them are sometimes acquired by traditional providers. Some companies, especially large technology companies, are also getting into the area. Many began to offer education and training to solve their own talent problems and recognized a broader demand and opportunity. For other companies and learning platforms, learning and certification has been a significant part of their business model for some time.

The competition attempting to capture parts of the adult learning market has been heating up over the past few years. While traditional providers appear to still have an advantage, they urgently need to take note of the threat nontraditional competitors present in a market. The challenge for universities is larger than it may appear, and UCE units know this only too well. Traditional providers have long dominated the higher education landscape in North America and in most other parts of the world. Like most highly successful organizations, their institutional culture and practices are well established. UCE units have learned to work within these cultures and gained many advantages as a result. But now, with rapidly escalating competition and higher stakes, universities need to also consider some of the drawbacks that being part of a large institution may present for UCE units. More specifically, serving adult learners requires deep consideration of their needs. While some progress has been made in recognizing new program objectives, structures and delivery approaches, much of the work has been an outgrowth of the traditions of degree programming and has not yet truly embraced adult learners’ needs. This is where the focus of successful UCE units and, importantly, their universities will need to be in the next five years.

Opportunities Ahead

Adult learning principles are not new and built on a foundation established many years ago by pioneers in the field of andragogy like Malcolm Knowles. We also know that adult learners are more consumer-like in their educational choices, balancing demands on their time and resources with the return on investment education provides. They have benefitted from and are attracted to online delivery and flexibility. They also do not significantly use the resources created to support undergraduate students nor are they particularly interested in the extracurriculars associated with the undergraduate experience. For these reasons, UCE units need to pursue adult education markets in ways that differ significantly from how universities have traditionally served their degree-seeking students. To be successful, UCE units must escape their university’s gravitational field while still being able to benefit from them where it is helpful.

Like most successful, established organizations, universities will find it difficult to nurture rapidly emerging forms of programming, services and approaches that will differ from their core offerings. They will nonetheless need to make space for their UCE units and allow them to take the lead in this area if they are to benefit from the growth in adult learning. While UCE units will need to be entrepreneurial in character, this is most productively thought of as intrapreneurial activity: internal entrepreneurs who work within the structures of an established company or organization. There are many benefits that UCE units will gain from partnering with their organizations such as the brand, technology certain administrative and support functions, and subject matter expertise. Their growing list of competitors will lack many of these important advantages. At the same time, UCE units can benefit from their experience serving adult learners while taking on lessons from their more business savvy competitors in areas like development and delivery capacity, marketing, business operations, analytics and service provision. With the support of their institutions, UCE units will become even more valuable in the next five years, but it will not be easy. They will need to build upon their existing leadership and talent plus develop more. Some serious challenges (like pandemics) are hard to anticipate, but the need to get serious about adult learning is obvious and will be a major influence over the coming years.

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