As UPCEA enters its second century, the Association faces a professional, continuing, and online ecosystem in disequilibrium. The limits of time and place in formal learning have been overcome and institutional restraints “unbound,” yet the purpose and value of postsecondary education is under microscopic scrutiny. Whether within government at all levels or among the “chattering class” in popular culture and the social media, the democratic ethos of education as a means to social mobility is met with cynical disbelief and deaf ears.
This opinion piece will argue that we as members of the academic community ourselves share the blame for our current state of uncertainty and insecurity. In professional, continuing, and online learning, thought leaders focus on sophisticated means to promote learning including a near obsession with technology while neglecting to ask: what is the essential worth of an educated and employable citizenry in a democratic republic? At its root, higher education has two fundamental purposes. The first is intellectual and posits that people pursue knowledge for its intrinsic worth and extrinsic value as a means to understand one’s environment (Brubacher, 1977). A second principle accentuated in the American context emphasizes knowledge applied to the wants and needs of society in general, as exemplified by John Dewey (Dewey, 1916).
Both the intellectual and political legacy are evident in the public service function of higher education as expressed in the “Wisconsin Idea” and UPCEA’s foundation. The former, which directs the efforts of the University of Wisconsin system, “is the principle that the university should improve people’s lives” (University of Wisconsin-Madison, n.d.). Teaching, research, outreach, and public service are represented under the unifying concept. Thus, both the intellectual and political ideals of higher education are complementary and reinforcing. UPCEA celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1990 with a monograph, Expanding Access to Knowledge, to encapsulate its legacy from 1915.
Knowledge “unbound” to promote self-knowledge or to serve society writ large is not value neutral. As A. Touraine reminded us nearly four decades ago, questions of education and power should not be separated (Tourain, 1974). Yet we as continuing educators have lost sight of education’s role in social justice or more modestly as an engine of reform. Instead, we congratulate ourselves for being in the mainstream of higher education and proudly share our heritage as innovators and change agents. Self-satisfied with modifications in curriculum and program design and at times fetishistic in our fascination with technology and its sophisticated tools, we have become uncomfortable with the question: education, for whom and to what end? At what cost has validation by the academy—an institution inherently hierarchical and based on the economic principle of scarcity value—been achieved?
We have lost our way because of three fundamental choices we have made or in fairness may have been made for us at turns in the road of our evolution as continuing educators in traditional higher education. First, is the purpose of education, in the words of Paulo Freire, to educate or domesticate? Early efforts were designed to provide adults with a means to self-awareness through knowledge. For example, the Fund for Adult Education in 1951 led to the founding of the Center for the Study of Liberal Adult Education, with an emphasis on learning through discussion and group study, essential to one’s role in a democracy. Over time, however, the focus in adult education became more on professionalism and credentialing than voluntarism. In turn, adult and continuing education became professionalized to mirror the norms and expectations of professions in general. Continuing educators focused on becoming accepted colleagues in the academic tribe. Issues of education for liberation became the province of other social organizations while associations like ours became sensitive to credentialing and institutional acceptance.
A second turn came with marketplace capitalism and a self-supporting financial model. Market responsivity and fiscal accountability have enabled us to be creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial—all characteristics admired as decidedly American. By contrast, early endeavors in university extension or outreach sought to reach a broad audience reflective of the general population, with the primary goal of serving the mission of adult education rather than generating revenue. For example, programs like Cooperative Extension, Head Start educator training, and education for public servants (police, government officials, fire and emergency medical service personnel) were priced in line with the purchasing power of the intended audience. Educating them was seen as both an individual and social good. Accordingly, participation cut across social and economic sectors. Increasing pressures for financial profitability beginning with the decline of higher education’s “golden age” in the mid-1970s required us to become more profit than mission driven. Consistent with the rule of rising expectations, university central administrators and governing boards looked for greater profits. With nominal financial aid available for adult and post-traditional students, those without third-party support from an employer became more dependent on self-payment. So, participation rates in continuing and professional education have become increasingly correlated to income and occupational status. Hyper-competition for market share and return on investment have become the means to secure and maintain our place in the academic market.
We need to consider who is being better served with timely learning and who might be in danger of being left behind? Census data for 2013 report widespread ownership of computers (83.8%) and use of the Internet (73.4%). Technology is ubiquitous and has altered the development and delivery of knowledge. Just as continuing educators did in the previous century with radio and television as teaching tools, we have embraced the personal computer and the Internet. Yet that census data also shows that utilization rates correlate positively with ethnicity (Caucasian and Asian Americans), age (younger), income level (higher) and place of residence (metropolitan area). A notable counter to that trend is the use of handheld devices. A renewed focus on technology as a tool for personal empowerment is necessary.
Continuing educators historically have confronted the challenge of being a corporate enterprise with a human and social development mission. The former has trumped the latter as the financial imperative becomes an end in itself, and technology is celebrated for what it is rather than what it can do. Two trends with established legacies have bubbled up to the top of the contemporary agenda – alternative credentialing and prior learning assessment (PLA). Both have moved to the center of discussion as to how can higher education serve more people with fewer resources and return to its mission as an engine of social and economic mobility for the individual and the community.
Fundamental to alternative credentialing and prior learning assessment is the supposition that learning should not be equated with schooling and one can acquire knowledge, develop values, and master skills in settings other than colleges and universities. This supposition reflects the core values of adult and continuing education as reflected in Dewey’s notion of the integration of society and education and the “deschooling” movement proposed in the radical reformist critique of formal education in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both approaches promote broader access and free the learner from the rigidity of the educational establishment. They are alternatives to the Carnegie-based credit hour system with “seat time” as a metric and “grading” as a criterion to assess learning. In alternative credentialing and PLA, time is variable while the competencies or outcomes are fixed. As recognized institutions like the University of Wisconsin, Purdue, and the American Council on Education legitimize these alternatives, the credibility and rate of adaption will increase. In fact, education has been a “first mover” in this realm, with the corporate sector lagging behind.
My concern is that we will once again become occupied with “best practices,” methods, and techniques to make operational alternative credentialing and PLA while losing sight of motivating philosophy. Early efforts at adult and continuing education acknowledged its liberating worth for the individual and role in community and economic development. Talk of “reinventing” higher education rings hollow unless its impact is distributed across class and ethnicity. Continuing education needs to redress an ever-increasing bimodal distribution of wealth, status, and power in the nation. Rather than being fascinated with the tools and techniques we have mastered, this author modestly suggests an answer to the questions “education, for whom and for what?” Continuing education must reflect its heritage in UPCEA’s beginning and the model from Wisconsin; continuing educators should recommit to reaching more deeply into society and contributing to social reform and justice. Empowering the individual to reach his or her fullest potential creates economic and social capital. A more noble purpose cannot inform our working lives.
Brubacher, J. S. (1977). On The Philosophy of Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Tourain, A. (1974). The Academic System in American Society. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
University of Wisconsin-Madison. (n.d.). “The Wisconsin Idea.” Retrieved from https://wisconsinidea.wisc.edu/.
James Broomall is Associate Vice Provost for Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Delaware, where he has been since 1988. He holds a faculty appointment in the School of Education. Broomall served as the President of the University Continuing Education Association from 2004-2005. He has served on accrediting teams for the Middle States Association and has been a consultant for the College Board and the American Council on Education. Broomall earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Delaware, and he completed his doctorate degree at Penn State University.