This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).


American colleges and universities, despite distinctive academic cultures, universally share a commitment to the education of adults. This commitment may be more central to mission in some universities than others, but regardless of centrality to mission, we find someplace in the academic landscape a part of the institution dedicated to the education of adults.

Despite the diversity of higher education institutions and the variability of their program activity in continuing education, who we are and the values that animate our work today grow essentially from several nineteenth-century movements: the British worker education movement, the American Chautauqua movement, and finally, the establishment of the service ethic as a consequence of the creation of the land grant universities with the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862.

The modern movement of adult education in the West begins with changes that occurred in Britain nearly two hundred years ago. While adult education was widespread in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—generally in the form of literary, philosophical, and scientific societies and royal institutes for the middle class and autodidacts among the working class—there was no collective or organized effort to provide adult education for the working class until the Industrial Revolution. Predictably, with the rise of industry came attendant new ideas, attitudes, and needs that drove the organization of adult education from a largely laissez-faire enterprise to one that engaged government, universities, and industry in a collective effort to educate the working classes.

B. J. Hake, in his effort to find a narrative structure for the history of adult education, draws attention to several forms of the movement to educate adults in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the English-speaking world. This period of seventy or so years he argues

witnessed a significant expansion of independent working class forms of [adult education] provision such as working-men’s associations, worker’s houses, worker’s book clubs, worker’s travel associations…and a diverse range of educational initiatives associated with the Second Communist International. On the other hand [and on balance], there was a range of educational responses to this challenge by conservative and liberal parties. (Hake 2010, 98)

Hake observes that from this expansion many new forms emerged, among them “university extension, university settlements, the arts and craft movement, [and] public libraries” (ibid.).

Roger Fieldhouse, in his History of Modern British Adult Education, focuses on the several forces at work in this same period that irretrievably changed the patterns or forms of adult education. First and fundamental was the need for a more skilled workforce “exhibiting a wholly different range of working practices and skills” (Fieldhouse 1996, 2). While employer’s needs changed, so did the motivations of workers who saw the acquisition of new skills as increasing employability and mobility. In addition there was a societal need and sense of urgency to acquire new knowledge about the scientific and technological innovations that were driving the industrial machine. These motivations resonate with contemporary needs and interests of adult learners. Out of this mutual interest in continuing education emerged “efforts to bring employers and workers together in continuing education, learning in the workplace, and putative forms of vocational education and training” (Hake 2010, 98).

On the other hand, the radical working class movements, for example, the Owenites and Chartists, in their pursuit of social and political change, defined “really useful knowledge” not in terms of technical skills but as a combination of political knowledge, social science (the principles of social explanation), and labor economics or political economy (i.e., explanations of economic exploitation and why laborers remained poor in the midst of the production of so much wealth). It can be argued that in this atmosphere of free inquiry and the pursuit of socially purposive knowledge, the character of this education greatly influenced “the tradition and even the form of later voluntary, purposive liberal adult education” (Fieldhouse 1996, 17). One can see in this instance the social and civic purposes of adult education.

In the same period, the 1830s onward, the universities of Britain were under pressure to become more relevant to contemporary educational needs and to extend their limited educational provision to those whose circumstances prevented them from being able to attend the university—a plea for access that is not unfamiliar to current British and American institutions of higher education. Their response to this pressure for engagement was the organization by Cambridge of lecture courses in a limited number of centers away from the university, followed by Oxford almost a decade later. In the words of one historian, university extension had arrived.

In the face of an increasing provision of adult education for vocational ends, it has been observed that in this period

universities clearly stated the concept of liberal study. In doing so they did not neglect vocational needs of the students, but they insisted that even studies directed to vocational ends should be undertaken in a broad humane spirit, and that the fundamental values and purposes of a human life should be kept steadily in view. (Coles 2010, 9)

More broadly, with the emergence of university extension came a number of different forms intended to “provide educational solutions to the social question(s) of the emergent working class, …promoting reformist solutions to widespread concerns with urban housing, family life, working conditions, sanitation and health” (Hake 2010, 98). One can see, for example, the antecedents of the midcentury community development and community service activities in the modern American extension movement.

In America, responding to civic and social needs, a dominant form of continuing education was the lyceum, an organization providing lectures, discussion, and entertainment. The lyceum system, for example, as reported in the American Review of Reviews in 1891,

was of great service in educating the adult population of New England and the North in general to an intelligent understanding of the great political and educational issues of the antebellum period. Both the abolition and the temperance movements were strongly promoted by lyceums. (Adams 1891, 599)

In lyceums and institutes for teachers and mechanics, and with the emergence of the university as a provider of public adult education, the characteristic method of engaging student and instructor was the lecture.

Lectures were enormously popular. At the University of Chicago,

during the first ten years of the [lecture] department’s existence the average yearly attendance was 27,296 series ticket holders. The total number of single admissions during that ten-year period was 1,637,802. From San Diego, California, to Tonawanda, New York, there were never more than thirty-four lecturers working during any one year. (Heycke 1989, 7)

In this same period, the late nineteenth century, a distinctly American educational institution found form in the Chautauqua movement. Starting as a church camp for Sunday school teachers in the middle of the nineteenth century, the movement evolved into a nationwide, year-round program of lectures and readings, drawing on the strong impulse of the public to learn. “The Chautauqua experience was critical in stimulating [public] thought and discussion on important political, social, and cultural issues of the day” (Rohfield 1990, 3). It gave life to the notion that learning should be lifelong, that education for adults was both a right and a duty.

It has been observed more than once that the Chautauqua movement was the beginning of the Americanization of university extension, its influence principally being felt through the migration of its leadership to higher education. Most notable among these was William Rainey Harper, the founding president of the University of Chicago. Harper and others brought to higher education the animating values that “adults can learn; education should be extended beyond formal schooling; life is a school; agencies should cooperate in promoting lifelong learning; and education should bring adults into contact with current thought on scientific and social issues” (Stubblefield 1981, 199).

Harper had been a leader of the movement for fourteen years before coming to Chicago, where he imbedded the notion of extension in his educational plans, making it one of the three core activities of the university. The first class taught was an evening class, and when the university opened its doors, it did so with a correspondence study department already in place, contributing the unique notion that correspondence courses should be organized so as to mirror the courses on campus and that credit awarded for courses completed, in a defined number, could be used to meet the requirements for the baccalaureate degree. Incidentally, the award of credit for both correspondence and extension courses distinguished the University of Chicago, and other institutions that followed, as a clear variant from the English system—the first of many divergences from English university extension.

The Chautauqua movement celebrated enlightenment, self-discovery, and liberal learning. By contrast, at the same time, new American universities were being established incorporating an explicit mission of service, focusing on the teaching of agriculture and mechanical arts, “in order to promote…the practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life” (Stubblefield 1981, 203).

This service movement was a consequence of the Morrill Act of 1862 by the Congress of the United States. The Morrill Act established in each state that existed at the time universities that would be known as land-grant universities. Thus began the more than 150-year service tradition of balancing practical education, liberal education, and research. Charles van Hise, the first president of the University of Wisconsin, which was one of the original land-grant universities and remains today among the most prominent, characterized the land-grant university in his remark that “in a broad sense, the idea of culture, the idea of vocation, and the idea of research are held and developed in order that the [land-grant] institution may perform service, and thus the idea of service may be said to be the ultimate purpose of culture, vocation, and research” (Rohfield 1990, 20). It was not until 1914 that an agricultural counterpoint to general extension was established with the Smith-Lever Act, which created the Cooperative Extension Service with the purpose of helping people not enrolled in school to understand and utilize effective practices in farming, marketing, family living, and community development.

These then are three principle roots of modern American extension: the worker education movement and the peculiar expression of that movement in university extension; the Chautauqua movement, demonstrating the need and efficacy of liberal education for a broad public; and the land-grant university’s contribution to higher education in the introduction of the concept of service and extension of the university through the application of the intellectual resources of the university to problems and issues of its surrounding community through practical education.

We are, today, the beneficiaries of an important and diverse historical engagement of adults in learning, as expressed through the missions and values of America’s colleges and universities.


Transitions to a New Century

From this foundation emerge arcs of activity spanning the twentieth century and beyond, further defining the values, missions, and structures of university adult education and illustrating its nature and impact on America’s colleges and universities and the communities they serve. This context is often described in terms of the “social organization of…learning in which adults were either organized by others or organized themselves for the purposes of disseminating and acquiring knowledge, skills, and sensitivities” (Hake 2010, 97). The practical purpose of this organized activity was to make knowledge more accessible, while pursuing an “idealistic vision [of] strengthening democracy by helping…citizens and government agencies to be better informed and better able to analyze and express ideas in civic discourse” covering relevant social, economic, environmental, and cultural issues of its time (University of Washington 2012, n.p.).

Tracing the arc of activities of American college and university continuing education reveals the presence of a persistent set of attributes or values that have given shape and direction to its programmatic activities and structure as well as defining the fundamental nature of continuing education. Prominent among these are social inclusiveness; a commitment to liberal learning; responsiveness, innovation, agility, flexibility, and adaptability regarding the needs of learners and society, especially in constantly changing environments; pragmatism; and a commitment to assuring the academic value and rigor of its programs. The very nature of these values makes it possible, if not an imperative, to engage in subtle but continuous reinvention.


Arcs of Activity

To appreciate the richness, continuity, and impact of activity associated with American continuing education, what follows are descriptions of several aspects of our work as separate arcs of activity: civic or community engagement, continuing education’s international footprint, and distance education and technology. This is not intended as a complete inventory of the programs and services provided by continuing education organizations but rather to illustrate the nature of our enterprise, focusing attention on several of the more important trends and challenges in contemporary continuing education.

While in reality these several arcs of activity are intertwined—much like a weaving, with threads of the warp and woof passing over and under each other, at times disappearing, only to reemerge, creating a new image—through a curated approach to tracing the activities and accomplishments of aspects of continuing education one gets a sense of its growth and changing nature over time. Principally, for generations, continuing education has had a positive impact on the university, the lives of our students, and the civic, social, and economic communities we serve.


Community Engagement: The Social/Civic Agenda

We come naturally to civic or community engagement in the course of our work with the various social, economic, and political communities we traditionally serve. The nature of this engagement is usefully described by David Watson of the University of London, in his Managing Civic and Community Engagement, as

a collection of practices loosely grouped under a policy framework designed to connect…a university with its naturally constituent community civic engagement presenting a challenge to universities to be of and not just in the community. Not simply to engage in “knowledge” transfer but to establish a dialogue across the boundaries between the university and its community, which is open-ended, fluid, and experimental. (Watson 2007, 3)

This relationship of community and university, in addition to assuring an economic future, makes a “wider contribution. It makes ours a civilized society, develops the spiritual side of lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their communities” (ibid., 6).

In the past one hundred years UPCEA and its member institutions have played an active, if not lead, role in creating structures and programs at our colleges and universities that encourage the linking of community and citizen needs and interests with those of government and business in the pursuit of overarching social, economic, and civic goals. In the Progressive Era, a time of many political reforms—the establishment of direct primaries, the initiative and referendum process, the direct election of US senators, and women’s right to vote—the University of Washington created the Bureau of Debate and Discussion to support civic education directed to the achievement of “a more complete and intelligent understanding of public affairs on the part of the average citizen” (University of Washington 2012, 3). Support came in the form of printed materials, including bibliographies, questions for debates, and outlines for debaters as well as program outlines for high schools, women’s clubs, civic betterment associations, and other organizations. In the same period, across the country, state universities were establishing bureaus of municipal and legislative research, harnessing the research capacities of the university to support collection, cataloging, and dissemination of data to support policy development by community leaders as well as government professionals.

In the same spirit a half century later, universities, including the University of Washington, marshaled their financial and economic resources in support of citizens engaged in the identification and solution of civic and social problems confronting the community. The approach of community development to civic, economic, and social problem-solving assumed that education for citizenship, for social good, would best be accomplished by engaging the resident/citizen in the identification of community problems and, with university assistance, research alternative solutions as the foundation for the community decision making—learning by doing. These efforts at community engagement in many universities ultimately foundered as institutional budgets fell prey to legislative mandates for budget reductions.

The civic engagement agenda for continuing education, however, has persisted and may be seen in the annual meeting of UPCEA. For example CONNECT, founded by Extension at the University of California-San Diego in the mid-eighties, has demonstrated the efficacy of engaging individuals, organizations, and the university in the creation of new industry sectors, enterprises, and public policy. Through CONNECT Public Policy its membership achieves a voice in local, state, and federal policy making that drives the innovation economy. UPCEA itself provides a venue for the education of its membership in civic engagement through its Outreach, Engagement, and Economic Development Network. While there exists a strong commitment to and focus on supporting the economic development of our communities through the intellectual resources of the university, we should not forget that continuing education is as well an effective instrument for the building of a strong civic life and an assurance of a civil society.


International Footprint

Many UPCEA institutions have a history with international programs that are decades old, with portfolios predominantly taking the form of English as a Second Language (ESL), study abroad, and international students in campus-based programs. Most of these institutions experienced a decline in numbers a decade or more ago, leading in some instances to the closure of ESL programs. But this setback notwithstanding, international programming has experienced a measurable growth in a variety of initiatives. The original set of activities remain—that is, ESL, study abroad, and traditional international students for on-campus courses—but the diversity of new initiatives or programs is now broader.

One could argue that this reflects the changing international agendas of our mother institutions. And there is much truth in that. In the case of the University of Chicago there are now physical centers supporting faculty and academic programs in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, New Delhi, Paris, and London. These centers support student and faculty research, study abroad, lectures, symposia, and, importantly, joint programs with in-country universities, all reflecting the institutional interests in a diverse set of international educational and research programs. But continuing education programs have played an important role in furthering their international goals by aligning with the institutional strategy for internationalization. Programmatic opportunities are increasingly available that demand a flexibility in the architecture of our programs.

The opportunities and challenges of engaging in international programming have been diverse. The structures and policies of most of our institutions challenge the ability to meet the expectations of international partners, grounded as we are in its institutional “quality” DNA. This reality has tested, often successfully, the adherence to our values of flexibility, innovation, and academic quality. What has emerged, and is often shared at UPCEA annual meetings over the past twenty-five years, are inventive approaches to partnerships that benefit student, international partner, and home institution. Illustrative are Brown’s partnership with IE Business School in Madrid, utilizing blended learning to award an executive MBA; Chicago’s partnership with CEU San Pablo Madrid’s School of Pharmacy to imbed Chicago’s certificate in clinical trials in their undergraduate degree in pharmacy; and Boston University’s Metropolitan College collaboration with CEU San Pablo to offer intensive business modules in Spain, with the cohort completing their work for a Boston University certificate on the BU campus.


Distance Education and Technology                                                     

Teaching students at a distance has, as already noted, been a remit of continuing education from the final decade of the nineteenth century in the form of correspondence study. With the leadership of the University of Chicago, it distinguished itself from the commercial correspondence schools by attending to the award of credit and accepting a portion of those credits in meeting the requirements of a bachelor of arts. In this competitive environment it was a principal task of the Correspondence Department “to disassociate itself from the odor of chicanery which surrounded the commercial correspondence schools and to prove to a skeptical faculty and to all serious students that the method of study by correspondence was adequate to university subject matter” (Heycke 1989, 56). A testament to its efficacy in reaching and engaging the distant learner is the persistent presence of correspondence study today in the catalog of modes of instructional delivery at many American universities.

In the intervening decades the story of education at a distance has been about the adaptation of emerging technologies to the task of connecting a student to the distant intellectual resources of the university, particularly in support of instruction. Technology not only overcame distance, but also, in many instances, addressed the problem of time: telephone-supported audio networks in a mode much like a conference call with students at fixed site and time; video-conferencing similarly constrained by locale and time; telecourses employing lectures delivered by television with correspondence study support; cable television utilizing courses developed for open broadcast television; instructional television fixed service (ITFS) employing audio and television for interactivity between the university and students at distant fixed locations; and compressed video utilizing data for high-resolution interactivity audio and video through the web with students at fixed sites.

Even a casual reading of media reporting on higher education today or UPCEA’s annual meeting conference program makes apparent the substantial impact technology is having on teaching and learning in American colleges and universities. It is equally notable that there is no consensus among higher education providers regarding the forms, goals, or outcomes of the current nascent efforts at employing technology to support teaching and learning.

The landscape of distance learning that has emerged in the past twenty-five years is similarly as varied as the technologies employed: lecture capture video; audio only podcasts; screencasting; online open course- ware; asynchronous and synchronous courses, as well as the channels used, for example, web-only courses, iTunes, online social networks, and TED. This diversity highlights both the challenge of creating a coherent, planned approach to the deployment of technology for teaching and learning and the risks associated with deciding upon a single approach. MIT’s decision to adopt an open courseware approach contrasts with the University of Pennsylvania’s decentralized, ‘nimble’ approach to online education with courses on iTunes, Knowledge @ Wharton, and the College of Liberal and Professional Studies offering, at the moment, fourteen full-credit online courses during the summer semester.

These two cases illustrate, as well, divergent approaches to the scale of content creation, where MIT is comprehensive in its offerings, making every course in its curriculum available online, whether in print or video, while the University of Pennsylvania is highly curated, selectively offering courses and mediated works.

Imbedded in these institutional approaches to distance education are notions of the structure of content that align with traditional ideas of the organization of the learning experiences, for example, courses, certificates, and degrees that stand, if successfully completed, as testaments of acquired knowledge. This is a core issue in the current debate regarding the structure of competency-based education. How knowledge is measured in a digital environment is challenging MIT in its MITx program, for example, where authentication and testing are immediate challenges, and in the MacArthur Foundation–funded competition for the design and testing of digital badges and badge systems that can be used instead of traditional structures to prove a candidate’s experience and knowledge.

On the other hand, while much of our attention has been focused on the disruptive nature of technology when applied to teaching and learning, we need to recollect that it has in the past twenty-five years had a substantial positive impact on the infrastructure of continuing education. Registration and student information systems, enrollment management, admissions and student communication, and alumni relations all depend upon social media, specialized software, and the web. These technology-based capacities enhance our ability to meet the particular needs of the adult student who does not fit the usual university profile thus eliminating the need for a software workaround to satisfy the needs of the continuing education student. The demand for technology on campus, on the other hand, is almost universal. So continuing education often finds itself competing for resources with other academic technology users on campus, whose interests are more aligned with the research mission of the university, for example, computation in various disciplines and maintenance of data sets in economics, business, social sciences, complex science, and engineering.

The fiscal reality of the competition for technology resources within the college or university and the urgency associated with the adoption of technology for both instruction and infrastructure has resulted in the creation of a new economy of supporting partnerships between colleges or universities and private technology vendors. The partnerships usually involve shared risk but most often frontload the cost of development, leaving the university partner waiting for a substantial period of time for the project to realize a net contribution to continuing education’s bottom line. This business model does address the problem of competing with on-campus technology users.



These three arcs of programmatic innovation and responsiveness—community engagement, international relations, and disruptive technology—illustrate as a field and an association how we are challenged to represent the interests of the adult learner and to provide strategic leadership at our institutions in the provision of timely and innovative responses to their educational needs. The form of our response to opportunity and need has varied over time, variously driven by the changing nature and needs of the labor market, shifts in the state and federal policy environment, the needs for social and civic transformation, and alignment with university priorities. Regardless of the source or nature of the demand or opportunity for adult learning, however, university continuing education, with the support of its professional association, will continue to meet the challenge of playing a central role in designing the form and nature of professional and continuing education in America.




Adams, Herbert B. 1891. “‘University Extension’ and Its Leaders.” American Review of Reviews 3 (July).

Coles, Janet. 2010. University Adult Education: The First Century in University Continuing Education 1981–2006. Leicester, England: National Institute of Adult Education.

Fieldhouse, R. 1996. A History of Modern British Adult Education. Leicester, England: National Institute of Adult Education.

Hake, B. J. 2010. Rewriting the History of Adult Education: The Search for Narrative Structures. Amsterdam: Elseviere.

Heycke, Betty Fackler. 1989. A History of the Origins of Adult Education at the University of Chicago and of Sixty-Two Years at the Downtown Center. Chicago: Office of Continuing Education.

“History of UW-Extension.” n.d. UW-Extension. Accessed at /about/uw-extension-history.html.

Rohfield, R. W. 1990. Expanding Access to Knowledge: Continuing Higher Education. Washington, DC: National University Continuing Education Association.

Shannon, Daniel W. 2009. “Continuing Higher Education in America: A Profile.” International Journal of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning 1(2): 19–39.

Stubblefield, H. W. 1981. “The Idea of Lifelong Learning in the Chautauqua Movement.” Adult Education Quarterly 31(4): 199–208.

University of Washington. 2012. Origins of the University of Washington Extension Program. Accessed at

Watson, David. 2007. Managing Civic and Community Engagement. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.


This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).