This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).
I chose the title for this essay after considerable thought. My concern was where the field of continuing education/lifelong learning began and where it is today at this, the centennial anniversary of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. Our roots are in a set of traditions which I frankly fear have been abandoned in recent years because of the extraordinary financial imperatives and market shifts affecting the world of continuing education. In abandoning these traditions we are also, I will assert in this essay, in danger of being more a part of the problems facing American society today than a part of the solution to those problems.
It is important to remind ourselves that our field of educational practice emerged from a set of social dynamics a hundred years ago that are not that dissimilar from many of the social dynamics today even though we live in a world of globalization and advanced technology. Those imperatives included the commitment to providing agricultural, industrial, business, health, and teaching professionals access to education and training essential to effective practice lifelong. They included technical assistance and support to business and enterprises in local communities in order to contribute to the general economic well-being of communities. Those imperatives grew out of a society that was continuously absorbing new immigrants and integrating new citizens into the civic life of their communities. They grew out of a westward migration that led to the need and the desire to create educational and cultural resources in developing communities both small and large across America. Those imperatives were also driven by a fundamental understanding that in a democratic society built on free enterprise it was essential that all citizens have access to the tools and knowledge they needed to successfully navigate the economy as well as contribute in meaningful ways to civil society. The Wisconsin idea, the early achievements of campuses such as the University of California at Berkeley in dispatching university professors to enhance the skills of high-school English teachers across the state, the ways in which industries as diverse as aeronautics in Oklahoma, mining in Montana, and wine in the Napa Valley of California were enhanced by the connections between practitioners in those industries and the education and research resources of the campuses in their regions cannot be overstated. Continuing education and lifelong learning for many also represented a second chance, an opportunity for adults to return to school for credentialing or to acquire new workplace skills for employment. In this it has also been a force for economic growth and a vibrant civil society. These are the traditions from which we have come. My question in this essay is: Are these the values and purposes we still honor, or have we instead become captive of specific technologies and narrower educational purposes which may have unintentional negative consequences for the society we serve?
What Is the Twenty-First-Century Value of Continuing Education?
At the heart of the question of what is the value and the purpose of continuing education in the twenty-first century is an issue that has concerned me throughout my professional life as a sociologist. That is the extent to which private problems and private good can be balanced with public issues and the public good. The role of higher education in the post–Civil War era, thanks to the Morrill Act of 1862 and the Hatch Act, were animated by a clear sense of public benefits, of economic and social returns to local communities and the nation as a whole. This was realized through research, teaching, and technical assistance enabled by the expansion of land-grant universities across America. This comprehensive view of the value of universities to society is arguably the distinguishing characteristic of American universities. In most other nations, it is unusual to find a higher education establishment that defines its role as deeply and broadly as the architects of America’s great public research universities did at the turn of the previous century and throughout most of the twentieth century.
Significant research on the role of universities in regional economies in recent years has underscored the extent to which the public benefits of universities continue to accrue to regional economies in the nation as a whole. A collection of essays recently published by Stanford University Press, edited by Martin Kenney at the University of California, Davis, and David Mowery at the University of California, Berkeley, reveal from both historical and empirical documentation the critical contributions made by campuses of the University of California to the wine industry in Napa Valley, the semiconductor industry in the Silicon Valley, the medical device industry across Southern California, and the biotech revolution in both Silicon Valley and San Diego as well as the growth of possibly the largest wireless cluster in North America in San Diego.1 The synergies and complementarities that exist between the curriculum, the research agenda, and the forms of public outreach and lifelong talent development that characterized each of these campuses has been critical to the growth and continued prosperity of unique clusters of economic activity across the state of California.
In my own book, Knowledge without Boundaries, published more than twenty years ago, I pointed out many of the critical array of contributions made by various campuses: the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, representing the home of the World Affairs Council in that city; the University of California, San Diego, as the home for the important CONNECT organization, which over a thirty-year period has helped incubate more than 1,500 companies across a variety of technology sectors, transforming San Diego’s regional economy into one of the most dynamic innovation regions in the Americas; and the role of the University of Tennessee’s Public Policy Institute in helping clarify vexing issues faced by the state legislature and informing decision making at the county and state level with data generated by university faculty, shared through forums that educate and network policy makers.2 These examples were each animated by the values that underlie the land-grant university tradition and the values not only of agricultural extension but of urban extension schools and schools of continuing education across America. All have clearly been centers of adult education through courses, conferences, workshops, part-time degree programs, and certificate programs. However, most throughout the latter part of the twentieth century also provided program content, formats, and connections to communities that address public and social goods as well as individual achievements and credentialing.
However, with the growth of the Internet—and with that the expansion of online learning as a technique, a methodology of delivering valuable education and training to diverse cohorts of young adults and working professionals—the field of continuing education has increasingly been absorbed by issues that connect more directly to private benefits than to the sorts of public and social benefits that have traditionally animated our work. There has always been within our field an interest in what we used to call distance learning—providing education and training in flexible formats, leveraging communication technologies that would assure access to education, credentialing, and lifelong learning to people who could not easily participate because of social or geographic barriers to traditional classroom learning. In the early days of UPCEA, there was a large group of professionals in the field who ran correspondence studies programs, and eventually many of them used television broadcast to remote settings, as ways of delivering education and training. This was one of many foci within our professional association at that time; continuing and professional education associations and publications, while addressing distance learning and the special pedagogical and administrative challenges in education at a distance, were equally engaged in adult continuing and professional education through flexible degree programs, certificate programs, innovative partnerships with industry, learning needs assessments, and customized programming. Additionally, we had a major focus on conferences and institutes through which advanced knowledge and forms of practice were discussed or introduced to key stakeholders in the economy, regionally and often nationally. Ours was a very mixed portfolio of content and delivery mechanisms, and as an association we encouraged and stimulated a broad range of conversations about the uses and value of knowledge in society and the economy and the role of lifelong learning and education as a catalyst and an energizer within our universities for those sorts of services and benefits to the community.
Such discussions have virtually ceased as we move into the twenty-first century, and the association, as well as the field, increasingly has been dominated by the promise and value of new technologies, in particular online learning as a method of delivering content to individual students seeking professional continuing education, degrees, and other forms of credentialing. The focus increasingly is on activities and technologies which can provide enormous personal benefits, but we are paying a price for this frenzied attention to online and distance learning. We have lost touch with the profoundly important social and economic challenges the communities in which our universities reside are facing and with which we as a nation are grappling. We are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the important conversations between the academy and the larger society about the value of knowledge and the diversity of knowledge needs our home universities are being called upon to meet. And in many cases our campuses are complicit in this drift from social and public value to exclusively private benefits, because they too are seeking increased numbers of students and growth in revenues while simultaneously attempting to control costs and achieve efficiencies.
Now that I am a wise old woman in the field I find myself extremely worried that my fellow practitioners are drifting into a primarily market-focused, delivery-focused view of what continuing education and lifelong learning represent. I worry about who on our various campuses will be the keepers of the flame of the continuing value of public service and the importance of intermediary institutions and offices that can connect new knowledge to practitioners and society as a whole. My concern stems from the content of recent national professional meetings as well as the nature of the formal and informal conversations today among deans and practitioners. Increasingly they are focused on techniques and strategies for delivering technology-enabled learning to larger numbers of students rather than meaningful discourse on the community and public service value of what we do.
This growing emphasis on the private benefits of continuing education/lifelong learning is especially manifest in the daily e-mails from associations such as UPCEA, which focus on online education techniques, enrollment strategies, marketing strategies, etc. A stream of webinars, conferences, and reports on online learning dominate the discourse among the associations of continuing higher education today. The content of the national meetings is also more and more about these issues as well. It is clear that there is a large appetite for this kind of information, based on membership numbers and the general response to these various events and programs. My concern, as we look at our one-hundred-year history, is not so much that the innovative and effective ways in which practitioners in our world are adopting and using new technologies to reach important constituencies with education and learning is a bad thing. It is a good thing. My concern is the nearly exclusive focus on these technologies and methodologies and the drift away from serious discussions about the content and competencies practitioners and citizens need in order to adapt to the seismic changes affecting all of our lives as a result of globalization and rapid advances in technologies, all of which are continuously changing the content of work and everyday life.
Is continuing education becoming a field of toolmakers and innovative mechanics, or does it represent a community of ideas, a cadre of knowledge workers who are keeping a pace with substantive changes in the content of work and the trends shaping communities? With emerging technologies that are affecting everything from how we produce goods to how we educate young children, deliver healthcare, and engage in discourse about public issues, it is easy to become technocrats. Our increasing lack of attention to the substantive issues affecting the everyday lives of adult learners across America is what concerns me. We’ve lost our balance.
Rebalancing the Continuing Education Portfolio
What are the risks of being unbalanced? More than twenty years ago, in Knowledge without Boundaries, I made the case that knowledge, not data or raw information, is what reshapes the world and the daily content of all of our lives. When we speak of knowledge, we are referring to more than simply data, facts, and information. Knowledge involves analytical, interpretive, and synthesizing skills. Knowledge takes information from disparate places and organizes it in a manner that honors the context from which it comes and the purposes for which it will be used. Such knowledge can potentially be delivered to people in lecture formats, face-to-face conversations, and roundtable discussions, with online learning tools, and through reading, interactive assessments, testing, and rankings. But all of these are simply methods for delivering and engaging knowledge. They are not about the knowledge per se that can change practice: the areas of knowledge that require integration, the diverse ways in which such knowledge can be validated and effectively integrated into practice. The pressing issue at this moment in time across America is the extent to which companies, social organizations, and political issues can be elucidated and understood through access to this new knowledge and to communities of conversation. Shared values are essential to renewing the prosperity of local communities and to engaging the challenges represented by globalization, worldwide immigration, and environmental hazards. Much is needed to stimulate and empower individuals to be effective members of local school boards, state legislatures, and the United States Congress. The fact that continuing education is disengaged from most of these larger conversations about social change and the role of knowledge, and in particular the role of the university in the development and dissemination of knowledge critical to these challenges, disturbs me as a septuagenarian who has worked in this field for more than forty years.
My motivation four decades ago to leave traditional academic work and to engage in the lifelong learning arena was animated by these sorts of values. However, I find myself without a community of discourse at the end of my career. At the beginning many of my colleagues were activists, engaged intellectuals working in the netherworld of making knowledge accessible and useful to large and diverse publics. Today, rather than focusing on knowledge, we are focusing on courses, credentialing, and certifications for individuals. These are important, but they are not what differentiates us from a growing number of for-profit and not-for-profit entities seeking to serve customers in markets with knowledge needs. In the decades ahead, my hope is that this field of practice will rediscover its unique role in harvesting and integrating knowledge from multiple places and funneling it into important spheres of education and training so that the added value of who we are and what we represent is as educators rather than as toolmakers.
What Needs to Happen for That to Occur?
In order for universities, in particular university-based continuing education and lifelong learning enterprises, to reclaim their legitimate seat at the academic table, there needs to be a renewed focus on three fundamental areas of human activity to which knowledge is increasingly essential:
- Talent and workforce development
- Local and regional economic development
- Civic affairs.
The conversations that need to occur and the initiatives evolving from those conversations cover a wide gamut of substantive arenas, only a few of which I will cite in this essay in order to make the case.
With regard to the substance of the talent development in which we engage, the continuing knowledge needs in our communities run the gamut from K-12 education to learning in retirement. In other contexts I have discussed the importance of more clearly articulating the dimensions of our talent development mission.3 Clearly, helping develop the pipeline of qualified young adults for college programs and/or apprenticeships and related workforce development programs is on the minds of leaders across America. Expanding the numbers of students attending four-year universities is also important, but even more important is accelerating their time to graduation and assuring that these college grads are ready to put their knowledge to work in practice settings. On both these fronts university continuing education programs have a great deal to contribute because of the outreach capabilities they have and their links to employers and industries from whom practical knowledge requirements can be harvested in a manner that articulates with traditional academic programs, and in helping recent graduates bridge to employment. This is one of the many reasons certificate programs offered through university continuing education and extension programs have become so valuable. Certificate programs for young adults entering the job market, mid-career adults making job transitions, and individuals moving into more complicated positions, as well as supporting mature adults as they transition into retirement and/or volunteer roles, are all critical realities with which we should be engaged.
Across this spectrum the substance of our programs include everything from updating professionals, such as neurosurgeons, bridge builders, and teachers of American history in classrooms, to cross-training professionals, such as history teachers who are now being asked to teach math or electrical engineers who are moving into marketing and management, and retooling professionals because of the ways in which advances in technology have changed the fundamental content of practice, such as laparoscopic surgery or CAD-CAM. All represent education and training for which communities across the United States need some form of further education and certification. These represent the sorts of realms we should be discussing and about which we should be sharing best practices. Also, in a globalizing, technology-based economy there are new and emerging fields of professional practice for which local industries require people not currently certified. One thinks of arenas such as clinical research in the pharmaceutical industry, the explosion of clinical trials management around the world, and the many dimensions of alternative energy, including, in my region, green algae manufacturing practices. And of course there are executive education and leadership programs that require the engagement with assets of the university as well as access to the most up-to-date ideas in the world of professional practice, for example, again in my context, executive programs for scientists and engineers, executive education for museum administrators, focused managing and leading sustainable not-for-profits and arts and cultural organizations in light of changing demographics and increasing fiscal challenges.
On the economic development front, there is clearly a role for our capabilities. However, we cannot deploy them without participating in conversations among ourselves and in our communities about what is needed. Increasingly across America, global competencies as well as scientific and technological literacy are essential to the practice of economic development, to the work of city councils, in county government growth and sustainability, so that individuals can make informed decisions vis-à-vis public policies and strategic investments related to economic development in a twenty-first-century context. In addition, there is significant value in demonstrating to influential groups, professionals, and the lay public many of the valuable social and individual benefits of basic research, for example, a high-level series of lectures on research developments in cancer and the implications of such things as genomics, proteomics, and computational biology for drug discovery, successful therapies, and lives saved drew hundreds. Today, the building blocks of most economies are anchored in research and development, and in particular, innovation and entrepreneurship. As university continuing education and lifelong learning centers on our campuses we have a responsibility to address these issues as part of our portfolio through innovative forms of community engagement and outreach.
Small business development, technology commercialization, and the dynamics of regional business cycles are additionally important substantive issues we can address with education and, in some instances, provide technical assistance. Ninety percent of all new jobs in this country are created by small and high-growth businesses, and ninety percent of those businesses are being driven by either breakthroughs or incremental changes in technology platforms and organizational practices. This means that there is an important role for education in this sector, and one which we can appropriately address. Business and regional economic development professionals should not be the only focus of these sorts of conversations and educational initiatives. However, as the age of suburban living and large shopping malls wanes there are emerging trends in urban planning, inner city redevelopment, design, and community renewal that are knowledge- and data-based. We can provide important information and tools for people grappling with these sorts of issues, whether it is government, not-for-profits, or for-profit organizations. There are also daring and exciting new financing models for building enterprises, assuring the transportation and communication infrastructure a community needs, or launching a health center that serves returning veterans. All of these kinds of initiatives at the community level cry out for access to knowledge and tools to improve practice and maximize opportunity. Why are such issues no longer a part of our central conversations?
The final arena in which we need conversations and programs has to do with civic affairs. More than ever in our democracy there is a need for platforms as well as information that can facilitate civil discourse around major issues shaping regional futures: the shrinking of the middle class, global patterns of immigration, the increasing impacts of environmental change and natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and droughts, and the implications of global conflicts such as that between Israel and Palestine for local communities. All of these topics involve significant components of knowledge and expertise and benefit from forums and conversations that help citizens not only understand the facts but explore the implications for their local communities and personal lives. Lecture series focused on World Affairs Councils, public policy, and international affairs can add enormous value to public understanding of complex issues. Structured and even certification programs that enhance competencies of people to run for office or become an effective volunteer, either in their own communities or in rural communities in places such as Africa, represent additional substantive educational needs and opportunities we could and should be addressing.
The Future of Continuing Education
In sum, the need for knowledge lifelong abounds in our communities. We have a history of being linked to those needs and of creating the mechanisms through which many of those needs are served. The creation of innovative education, training, and learning communities is more important today than in our past for many reasons. Nonetheless, as a field, we have become preoccupied with the technology of the moment and less and less connected to these issues, to these communities, and to the important intellectual and substantive issues that should shape curriculum and methodologies for teaching and learning. Have we become servants of private interests rather than the public good? I hope not.
As I reflect on one hundred years of continuing education and lifelong learning, I find myself wanting to say to my colleagues that it is time to sit back and reflect on the priorities we are pursuing at this particular moment in time and ask if they are adequate to the wide range of knowledge needs we could potentially serve. Others may not agree, but from where I sit as a lifelong professional in this field, a professor of sociology, and an individual who continues to do research in communities across America, I perceive enormous knowledge needs that are going unmet by the campuses of which we are a part. A large number of those knowledge needs could appropriately be addressed by schools, colleges, and programs of continuing education and lifelong learning. My hope is that we will re-engage with these traditional issues and challenges in a twenty-first-century way. If we do not, we may, like the typewriter, face extinction.
- Martin Kenney and David C. Mowery, eds., Public Universities and Regional Growth: Insights from the University of California (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).
- M. L. Walshok, Knowledge without Boundaries: What America’s Research Universities Can Do for the Economy, the Workplace, and the Community (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995).
- Walshok, Knowledge without Boundaries; and M. L. Walshok, T. Munroe, and H. Devries, Closing America’s Job Gap (El Monte, CA: WBusiness Books, 2011).
This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).