This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).
As leaders of professional, continuing, and online education, we are often consumed by concern for the future. We continually look for opportunities, as well as threats and challenges, that might endanger us or our enterprises. But only by taking time to look back do we get a sense of movement and see the impact of our efforts. That is what I hope to do here. By reflecting on the quarter century that has passed since I came to continuing education and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, I hope to illustrate how far we have come as a sector of higher education.
In looking at my own path, I certainly see how online learning has come to dominate our attention, in both the credit and noncredit arenas. However, I have also come to see the rise of the post-traditional learner as the focus for innovation and as a driver of change. While I hope there is value in sharing my observations, more important is noting the value the greater academy has come to attach to the long-present expertise of those in continuing and professional education in helping to assure the future of higher education.
The Kennedy Years
Like many in our field, I did something else first. In quick succession, I retired from the Coast Guard and went to work for John F. Kennedy University, America’s first institution (established in 1964) focused solely on the needs of the adult learner.
At JFKU, I served initially as an associate dean and faculty member within the School of Management and later as the school’s dean. This introduction to higher education was followed by a string of positions in continuing and professional education, as well as international and online learning. The common denominator in this, my second career, has always been the adult student, or, as we would later come to refer to them, the post-traditional learner.
An early “aha” moment came with the understanding of the importance time plays in decisions about whether to go back to school and, if so, where. Program delivery models, marketing, and recruitment all must consider this factor if offerings are to attract students. This lesson came early in my continuing education career.
Birth of a For-Profit
Attention to time and convenience have become key factors in an institution’s ability to compete in the post-traditional market. This is largely due to one man, John Sperling. During the early 1980s, Sperling used his position as a member of the faculty at San Jose State to launch the Institute for Professional Development (IPD). The University of San Francisco and Saint Mary’s of California were IPD’s first clients. Under Sperling’s direction, these Bay Area schools launched evening degree programs to compete with those of JFKU and Golden Gate University. Higher education would never be the same as a result.
Disputes over program control between Sperling and his client schools’ regional accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), would ultimately force IPD out of California. In Arizona, with a different regional accreditor—the Higher Learning Commission (HLC)—he won recognition for his own adult-serving, for-profit institution: the University of Phoenix.
With his HLC accreditation, Sperling returned to California and surrounded San Francisco Bay with satellite, or regional, classroom sites. In keeping with his belief that convenience trumped brand, such facilities were situated near suburban office complexes and mass transit stations. In contrast, the School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, closed its MBA program in San Francisco during this same period because of faculty objections to commuting into the city in rush hour traffic.
Seeing Phoenix’s success with extended sites, JFKU followed suit. By the time I left in 1989, the School of Management had evening programs in Oakland, Walnut Creek, Pittsburgh (CA), San Ramon, and Vallejo. Unlike Phoenix, these were all in borrowed spaces, ranging from hospitals to church basements (not recommended). We even had a site at the California Maritime Academy. All locations were intended to reduce student (not faculty) drive time.
In addition to observing the rise of the University of Phoenix, I had a front row seat in another revolution that was also driven by the adult students’ concerns around time—the move to electronic delivery of instruction.
The “Electronic” University
In late 1985, JFKU president Don MacIntyre and one of his neighbors, serial entrepreneur Ron Gordon, met to discuss Gordon’s need for an MBA program that could be offered nationwide—via computer. As one of the early officers of Atari, Inc., Gordon had not only gained personal wealth but also the idea of delivering instruction electronically. With a group of investors, he created TeleLearning Systems and its delivery arm, the Electronic University Network (EUN). By the time he met MacIntyre, Gordon had commitments from forty Fortune 500 companies to pay tuition for employees who completed an MBA via EUN. While several colleges and universities, including nearby Stanford, were willing to experiment with individual courses, none were prepared to take on a full degree.
An entrepreneur at heart, MacIntyre agreed to provide the needed MBA, subject to accreditor approval. By now the dean of the School of Management, it fell to me to appear before WASC, the same accrediting body that had caused Sperling to leave California, and make the case for JFKU’s entry into the world of online learning. Despite justified skepticism, a pilot program was approved with the expectation that JFKU would file quarterly reports on progress and lessons learned.
Dubbed “Access to Learning,” the institution embraced what many, including me, thought was a crazy idea. “Who would want to study in isolation, interacting with a piece of machinery, to complete what looked like an electronic correspondence course?”
As the first ever online MBA went live with marketing and enrollments, a long list of lessons learned was developed for the WASC reports. At the top of the list was the fact that many prospective students didn’t have computers nor the modems necessary for connectivity in a pre-Internet world. In response, the university quickly identified a low-cost source for the needed equipment. However, the Korean manufacturer insisted that all shipments had to be made to a single location—the university. Re-shipment then fell to the school staff, along with texts and other course materials (at one point the school’s offices looked more like a warehouse than office space).
Shortly after the first course packages went out, word came back that employers weren’t reimbursing students for the computers and modems. Tuition and fees were their limit. As a result, new enrollments plummeted and withdrawals skyrocketed. In addition, those who remained enrolled found themselves going months between courses as TeleLearning’s programmers struggled to create modules, using inflexible templates for lesson construction.
By the summer of 1987, it was clear that neither TeleLearning nor the university had the resources to continue. Shortly thereafter, TeleLearning and the EUN brand were sold. For its part, JFKU attempted to teach our students who had persisted, but took no additional enrollments. President MacIntyre opted to leave JFKU soon after the decision was made to end the Access to Learning program. Having served as provost at the University of San Francisco during its experiment with IPD, he and John Sperling were well known to each other. Thus, there was little surprise that he was asked to be the first chancellor of University of Phoenix’s international division. The Access to Learning software, courses, and programming staff went with him to become the nucleus for Phoenix’s eventual online presence.
UC Berkeley Extension
I moved to UC Berkeley Extension, one of the nation’s oldest and largest providers of continuing education, in 1991. Unlike Kennedy, UC Berkeley Extension offered no degrees, only courses (credit and noncredit) and certificates. In a typical year, it presented hundreds of offerings—in business, various branches of engineering, environmental science, education, and the liberal arts—at multiple locations. Annual enrollments grew to over 60,000 during my years there.
At Berkeley, I had the good fortune to work for, and be mentored by, Associate Dean Gary Matkin, who had been a protégé of Milton Stern, one of continuing education’s legendary leaders of the 1970s and ’80s. (It is thanks to Gary that I joined UPCEA.) Together with Dean Mary Metz, we continued the effort to move access closer to students, opening sites in San Ramon, Fremont, Redwood City, and Oakland, as well as two large facilities in San Francisco proper.
Initially serving as chair of Continuing Education in Business and Management, I eventually became an assistant dean and director of UC Berkeley Extension’s strategic initiatives. I was also tasked with co-chairing executive education for the Haas School of Business (Berkeley’s chancellor had mandated, much to the chagrin of the Haas faculty, that all forms of continuing professional education would be administered by Extension). This provided the opportunity to work closely with traditional faculty and gain insight into factors that impeded innovation, as well as those that aid acceptance. This became the subject of later research.
The two most significant innovations embraced by Extension during my years there were Berkeley Worldwide and UC Online. In the case of the former, Extension leveraged its existing English Language Program (ELP), one of the nation’s largest at the time, to include follow-on credential programs and internships. As a result, the university was able to offer an attractive package of learning to students from around the world—language proficiency, a professional credential, and actual work experience associated with the subject area of the credential (another year spent in the United States, for practical training, came with completion of the Berkeley program as well).
Having studied the British credentialing system, and noting the popularity of their diploma in the former Crown Colonies, Berkeley Worldwide developed a series of diploma programs. Each of these required a semester of full-time study followed by an academic internship of an additional four months. Two aspects of these programs are noteworthy—the idea of issuing such a credential was supported by the campus faculty (which was not the case at University of California, Los Angeles) and it proved hugely popular. Students who would never have been admitted as matriculating degree seekers now had an avenue to a Berkeley credential. Demand for entry into these offerings (by way of ELP) became so great that Extension was forced to purchase the former Armstrong College in downtown Berkeley to accommodate growth.
Working with the International Trade Office for the state of California and the US Foreign Commercial Service of the Department of Commerce, Extensions across the entire University of California system came together and developed common marketing materials and joint recruitment operations, which, after a three-year evaluation, were estimated to have brought more than one quarter of a billion dollars annually into the California economy, independent of revenue realized from international degree-seeking students.
The First UC Online
My indoctrination into the world of online learning continued at Berkeley Extension when it received grants from the Sloan Foundation to go online as part of what was initially called the Asynchronous Learning Network (later changed to Sloan-C, and now known as the Online Learning Consortium).
The UC system’s Correspondence Course Center was housed at Berkeley under Extension’s oversight. Offering dozens of rigorous, highly regarded courses, this center was a perpetual source of deficits. By moving its courses over to an online format it was hoped that their popularity would increase. More important, in the eyes of some, this move online would take place outside of any individual campus. This was critical at a time when online education was seen in a light similar to that of for-profit education today.
Ultimately, Extension received some $2.6 million from Sloan. With this funding, the Correspondence Course Center’s inventory was transformed into a series of online offerings, delivered by AOL. Starting with high-demand business courses, but without the expertise of instructional designers, Extension proceeded to transform paper-based correspondence courses into electronic correspondence courses, with the all too familiar read-quiz-read-quiz format. The result, not surprisingly, was that completion rates didn’t change. Online study in its original format differed little from study in the nineteenth century except for the manner by which the text arrived.
The importance of marketing, attention to delivery sites and student convenience, the strength of brand, and campus resistance were all points of learning that I would take to my next stop—Colorado State University (CSU).
Colorado State University
Attracted by the opportunity to become an associate provost at a land-grant university, I moved to Fort Collins in 1997. Colorado State University’s reputation for innovation and the assurance that continuing education was one of the president’s top three strategic priorities were enticing. The late ’90s was a time when much innovation in higher education was taking place in and around Denver. Glenn Jones, founder of Jones Intercable, was one of the first to make access to education available through television. His Mind Expansion University originated in Denver with MBA courses provided by CSU and later by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The Colorado State MBA was the first online degree to enjoy accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Glenn would go on to found the for-profit Jones International University.
Other examples of innovation at work around the Mile High City were REAL Education (later eCollege) with its pioneering learning management system and services to help colleges and universities move online, and National Technological University, which used satellites (the kind in the sky) to deliver graduate engineering degrees using videotaped courses from brand-name institutions. Western Governors University was born here, operating from a former air force base when I arrived in 1997. The fact that satellite broadcasts covered the entire country from Denver, and that it provided easy access to the country’s emerging fiber optic network (placed alongside the various railroad rights of way that crossed in Denver), were among the reasons for such a concentration of education providers in one place.
Dealing with Change
In 1997, CSU saw the rise of online learning but was very comfortable with its legacy technologies—two-way interactive, cable, satellite, and pre-recorded video, plus instructors driving to the university’s Denver Center for evening and weekend courses. The beauty of these methods was that they did not require special preparation. The same yellowing notes used in classroom lectures could serve as the basis for a distance class. Moving online, on the other hand, required greater effort.
A small cadre of faculty from various schools and colleges were willing to try the online experience but were offered little central support. There were no graphic artists, programmers, or instructional designers for them to turn to. In the area of incentives, continuing education was authorized to pay $1,000 for each course produced. To say that the virtual inventory was disparate would be something of an understatement. It ranged from obviously homemade to acceptable, but with no consistency as to look or format. In most cases, the end product was little more than a variation of a video lecture, now streamed over the Internet, but accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation. While an improvement over the University of California’s text-only approach, the early CSU courses were no more interactive.
One of the most interesting findings from research on distance students at the time was that fully one-third withdrew before the third course, most often after the first. Of those who remained, nearly all would complete, and with high GPAs (distance students typically had higher average GPAs than those in the classroom). Motivation, self-discipline, and a lack of alternatives were seen as the contributing factors.
Another eye-opening finding was that the highest concentration of MBA students was in Fort Collins. Apparently, distance wasn’t their concern. It was time. John Sperling’s emphasis on convenience for working students was again validated, as locals used online access to shift time from specified on-campus class periods to ones of their choosing.
While at CSU I became active with UPCEA. Despite the fact that Colorado State had little involvement in international education, the association allowed me to meet with like-minded colleagues from around the country, sponsored workshops on going international, and printed my monograph on building international programs (The Global Option: Building and Sustaining International Partnerships, 1997). From these early efforts, the Global Associates special interest group was formed by the association.
In addition to promoting international education as part of UPCEA’s mission, I became a member of the association’s board. Additionally, thanks to encouragement from past UPCEA president Cal Stockman, then at Grand Valley State, I deepened my involvement and was fortunate to be elected vice president. At that point in UPCEA’s history, holding the office put me on a track that would rotate from vice president to president-elect, president, and immediate past president. These posts provided a unique opportunity to meet members and observe continuing education programs across the nation.
In 2000, I accepted an offer to become the dean of Metropolitan College (MET) at Boston University. In addition to the university’s adult degree programs, MET was also responsible for Summer Session, a corporate education program with multiple sites in and around Boston and a residential training facility in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It also operated centers in Israel and Belgium to support graduate diploma and degree programs. Unusual in continuing education, MET had a full-time faculty.
With support from the provost, MET was charged with building an online program for the university from scratch. With the energy and creativity of Jay Halfond (associate dean and later dean of MET) and Susan Kryczka (hired from Northeastern) this happened quickly.
Colorado State, I later learned, had been the very first customer of Embanet, the Canadian software company that eventually created the Online Program Management (OPM) business. Thus, it was not a surprise when Jeffrey Feldberg, Embanet’s founder, came to BU with the idea of assisting us in our efforts to go online, and with no BU money. Instead, we would share revenue over an agreed period of time to repay Embanet’s upfront investment and provide a healthy return on investment. From this for-profit/nonprofit partnership came an online program that today accounts for nearly 50 percent of Boston University’s graduate enrollment.
The online experience I had gained at three institutions, positive and negative, allowed for a running start at BU. Many of the necessary ingredients for a strong online presence were present—support from senior leadership, an experienced internal team, and an external partner from whom we could learn while developing internal capacity. Most important, however, were the lessons learned on how to involve and obtain buy-in from campus faculty, across the university, not just at MET.
With guidance from the provost, Metropolitan College and its various nondegree programs were reorganized. Jay Halfond became dean of MET, and he and the dean of the School of Hospitality reported to me as the new associate provost. Online learning became a part of the nondegree program portfolio as a service unit, providing support to all of the university’s schools and colleges. Revenues earned from online offerings were credited back to the academic department overseeing the offerings, not to the online unit, as were the student enrollments and credit hours taught. Faculty received “overload” compensation for creating and teaching the courses. Ownership was jointly held by the faculty developer and the university. Faculty were free to use their intellectual property as they wished, except in direct competition with BU offerings, should they later move to another institution.
In addition to online education, BU provided an opportunity to develop a range of professional education offerings—including paralegal studies, fund-raising, financial planning, professional investigation, and the always popular project management. Unfortunately, it also needed to downsize and close programs. While technology programs, credit and noncredit, did poorly during the downturn of 2002–2003, other subject areas, such as business and criminal justice, did well. The lesson learned was that a diverse portfolio of offerings is important in times of uncertainty. What sells today may not tomorrow, and today’s weak subject areas may be tomorrow’s saviors.
The arrival of new leadership at BU and an opportunity for me to lead an institution occurred nearly simultaneously in 2005. I readily accepted the offer to assume the presidency of Excelsior in July of that year. A complication was that I had also been offered a fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School for that fall. Thanks to the support of my new board, I was able to accept the fellowship, study the issue of resistance to innovation in higher education, and transition into my new post.
Over the eight years that followed, I have been successful in applying some of the lessons of the past to today’s environment. Not only has Excelsior entered the online world, it now offers more than 500 courses, in addition to noncredit programs administered by its Center for Professional Development (CPD) which are recognized for GI Bill entitlement by the VA. A source of institutional pride, Excelsior’s academic courses now see a 96 percent completion rate, and CPD offerings are experiencing a high volume of repeat customers. Some of the elements necessary for student retention (and returns) are being recognized and now included in instructional design, to good effect.
Serving the Military
Upon arrival at Excelsior, I came to know an institution that I wish had existed in the 1960s—that is, military and adult friendly, willing to accept lots of credit in transfer, as well as multiple pathways to a degree. As a refugee from a Missouri farm, I entered the Coast Guard straight from high school (in 1962). By the latter part of that decade, I had acquired a family and was no longer content with enlisted pay. However, the route to becoming an officer required either an undergraduate degree or substantial prior service, which could be reduced with academic work. My attempts at college began through correspondence courses from the US Armed Forces Institute, or USAFI, as it was more commonly known. USAFI was administered by the University of Wisconsin, under contract from Department of Defense. It was the only way then that someone could go to school while serving in a remote location such as Annette Island, Alaska.
Thanks to USAFI, and other institutions, I accumulated more than 180 semester credits from nine institutions. These came from correspondence courses, classroom instruction (at both two- and four-year institutions), attendance at the US Naval War College and military training evaluated by the American Council on Education. Yet no credential ever resulted from this work. I ultimately qualified for Officer Candidate School by fulfilling the nonacademic service requirements.
Founded in 1971, Regents College, as Excelsior was then known, established a model for adult degree completion that an increasing number of institutions embrace today. Regents, Thomas Edison (NJ), Charter Oak (CT), Granite State (NH), Empire State (NY), Governors State (IL), along with the University of Maryland University College and, more recently, Western Governors University have all come to national attention as “college completion” institutions, focused on the adult learner. These, along with others, serve the military (active and veteran) by aggregating credits, evaluating their source and relevance, and matching them to degree requirements. From this comes a completion plan that shows where there are gaps and how to fill them.
With cost and time to credential as concerns, these institutions offer options that may include more course work (classroom and/or on-line) or test taking, using the college-level subject exams of the College Board (CLEP), Educational Testing Service (DSST), and/or Excelsior (UEXCEL). With free online courses from Open Education Resources and “practice exams” from Excelsior, degree completers can prepare for these assessments at their own pace. Satisfactory completion of one of these exams typically satisfies a course requirement, at little cost ($150 on average).
With access to the Internet, learning is taking place in the air (one of the Stealth pilots involved in the bombing of Iraq in 2003 was quoted as saying that he used the long transit from his home base in Missouri to Baghdad and back to complete an online course assignment), at sea (including aboard submarines, thanks to CD ROM technology), and on land everywhere. One of Excelsior’s recent graduates, an active duty Special Forces command sergeant, completed his final course work online while on a mission in Africa. Combat, isolated locations, and sea duty are no longer barriers to the continued learning of our service men and women, thanks to a growing body of online programs. This at a time when military leaders, from former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (Excelsior’s 2013 commencement speaker) to the commandant of the Joint Special Operations University’s Enlisted Academy SGM Steve Horsley (with whom Excelsior has recently entered into an articulation agreement), have said that a well-educated military is one of our country’s strategic priorities. With the continuing, online, and adult education communities as partners, this objective can be realized.
As an adult/continuing education administrator and faculty member at five institutions (two public, three private), I have had the good fortune to observe up close the rise of online and for-profit education, the huge international demand for access to Western style learning, and the difficulty of introducing innovation when all stakeholders are not at the table.
From the consumer perspective, I have learned to pay attention to the needs of the learner—time, convenience, and unique support services must all be considered in serving the post-traditional student. From the viewpoint of a program manager, I have developed a deep appreciation for the importance of good marketing and for the application of sound business practices. I have also learned that it is important to have a diversified portfolio of offerings.
Here are the three top lessons I have learned and why we, as continuing education professionals, are well equipped to carry these lessons forward.
Technology has to be sophisticated and consumer demand has to be strong. With the number of traditional-aged students in decline, and the realization that learning really is a lifelong need, how we use technology is critical, especially if we are to maintain a competitive workforce in a rapidly changing world. As technology is increasingly used to reach new student niches, it is continuing education that is being asked to administer the creation and operation of this online learning program. At many institutions, adult degree completion also falls to continuing education, as does international outreach.
Courses need to be engaging and interactive. Over the past thirty years the field of adult education has moved from the periphery of higher education to center stage. Controversial visionaries like John Sperling, Don MacIntyre, and Glenn Jones have helped pave the road for this movement. They saw the need to serve returning adults, and to serve them well, long before established universities did. The University of Phoenix grew to its current size not because of high-quality instruction but because of a combination of smart marketing and attention to convenience. Both are worth emulating, along with high-quality instruction.
Without faculty buy-in and support, programs will not fly. The older, working, post-traditional student has ascended to become the focus of national policy and institutional programming. With this ascent has come greater respect for the role of the adult continuing and professional educator. No longer is continuing education seen as a dead end. Many former continuing education deans have risen to become president or chancellor of institutions and systems. Innovation, the inclusion of faculty in program development, and the ability to produce a financial surplus have long been highly valued concerns of continuing education. Our success, over several decades, is now recognized.
As the traditional student population continues to shrink, and as the connection between education and a competitive workforce becomes clearer, UPCEA’s member institutions will see demand for their marketing expertise. Having the world’s finest programs is of little benefit if no one knows of them.
The professionals of UPCEA will increasingly find themselves called upon to help their member institutions in an assuredly difficult future. Clayton Christensen’s “disruptive innovation” is being driven by opportunities to better serve the post-traditional learners that now make up the bulk of higher education’s enrollments. Online learning, MOOCs, adaptive learning, prior learning assessment, recognition of nontraditional learning, and competency-based education all benefit the older, more experienced twenty-five- to eighty-five-year-old student. These are our customers.
This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).