A vital new role for continuing education

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Once upon a time, continuing education units operated on the periphery of their colleges and universities, teaching lifelong learners with little fanfare. Today, with more and more nontraditional students seeking higher education, continuing education is playing a more prominent role.

Jeffrey S. Russell
Jeffrey S. Russell: In a rapidly changing educational environment, Continuing Studies units with a history of flexible, entrepreneurial approaches will prevail.

Jeffrey S. Russell, dean of Continuing Studies and vice provost for Lifelong Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently spoke with The EvoLLLution about key developments in continuing education. He emphasizes the need for new approaches to serving students and working with campus colleagues in a quickly changing educational environment.

The EvoLLLution: As the student demographic becomes increasingly nontraditional, what role do you think continuing education leaders will play on campus?

Jeffrey S. Russell: The higher education landscape is changing faster than our terminology. We formerly referred to anyone over the age of 25 as nontraditional. Later, this label was applied to anyone enrolled outside the normal bricks-and-mortar environment. These days, students who enroll in full-time residential degree programs immediately after high school and march steadily toward their baccalaureate degree without interruption are becoming the exception.

For a long time, we’ve witnessed the swirl phenomenon, wherein students step in and out of college programs over many years, defying the linear approach. At the same time, powerful economic turbulence drives many midcareer adults back to school, where they hope to acquire new skills, renewed career momentum, or a different career trajectory altogether.

We might say that “nontraditional is the new traditional.” In such an environment, departments and divisions with a history of flexible, entrepreneurial approaches will prevail. This, I believe, presents a unique opportunity for continuing education units and the people who lead them, as their campuses look to navigate this new landscape.

Continuing education students in a class
Economic turbulence is driving many midcareer adults back to school, where they hope to acquire new skills, renewed career momentum, or a different career trajectory altogether.

Why is it so important for continuing education leaders to develop strong bonds and partnerships with other departments and colleges across the university?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that continuing education units at colleges and universities differ greatly in their structure, mission, budgets, and staffing. Some of us focus exclusively on the noncredit portfolio, while others have a mix of credit and noncredit offerings. Some units have evolved to acquire degree-granting authority of their own.

All of us, especially those housed on land-grant university campuses, share a mission rooted in outreach, access, affordability, and community engagement. As such, we serve as learning conduits for content that is often “owned” by our academic colleagues in departments and colleges across the university. As an engineer, I can tell you that conduits only work when both ends are open.

To facilitate connectivity, continuing education leaders must be trusted by people at both ends. Learners must view us as accessible brokers of high-quality, transformational learning experiences that are worthy of their time and money. On the other end of the conduit, we must earn the confidence of professional schools, liberal arts departments and other academic units.

In the context of these academic partnerships, continuing education leaders must sometimes play the role of change agent, helping colleagues think differently about teaching and learning, and how those approaches serve specific audiences. This can be a challenge, but partners on both sides of the equation can benefit greatly from a rich pedagogical analysis leading to new insights about different approaches for different audiences.

The new homepage for the Advance Your Career website
Continuing Studies is leading UW-Madison’s effort to market a growing array of online, hybrid, and accessible programs.

I should also emphasize the importance of effective collaboration with the support units throughout the academy. As we seek to be nimble and responsive to changing markets, we may seek new flexibility in areas such as purchasing, hiring, contracting, and other activities where we must also earn the trust of our administrative colleagues.

What are the roadblocks that typically stand in the way of these partnerships?

Partnerships start with relationships, a shared sense of purpose and open communication. You can’t have a relationship with somebody you never see or hear from. If all we do is sit in our offices and talk the partnership talk, we aren’t really forming the bonds that build trust. We must walk the partnership walk. In my case, that actually involves a lot of walking around this big University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, listening to partners’ ideas, explaining our lifelong learning vision, and extolling the virtues of community engagement.

For example, our continuing education office at UW-Madison is leading the effort to market the institution’s growing array of online, hybrid, and accessible programs. As we built the new learner-centric web portal and the integrated marketing campaigns to promote those opportunities, it was important that we involved the faculty and staff who manage and deliver those offerings. That required a lot of face-to-face conversation, a few personal reassurances, and several participatory ideation sessions—all leading to progress we could not have achieved through emails and memos.

How do other divisions and colleges typically benefit from strong partnerships with their colleagues in continuing education?

Four Summer Term students sit in the grass in Library Mall on a warm day
At UW-Madison, Continuing Studies plays a key role in facilitating campus initiatives that have a great impact on academic departments and colleges, such as Summer Term.

The best partnerships are mutually beneficial, and I think continuing education units have a lot to offer our fellow university divisions and schools. If nontraditional students are becoming the new normal in higher education, the same can be said about teaching modalities that have been outside the norm. Hopefully, our experience in this area, as well as our expertise in serving adult lifelong learners, positions us to be an invaluable resource for campus partners.

At UW-Madison, our continuing studies division also plays a key role in facilitating campus initiatives that have a great impact on academic departments and colleges. One such area is Summer Term, where we have built partnerships across the campus in an effort to increase summer enrollment in a manner that will benefit both our students and our campus.

Regarding Summer Term, we began by surveying current UW undergraduates, who told us they wanted more accelerated courses, more online programs, and the opportunity to focus on challenging degree requirements in a way that would lighten their load during the fall/spring semesters. By working in partnership with academic colleagues across the campus, we expanded offerings in these areas, as well as facilitating a campus-wide communication campaign to let people know about the improvements. As a result, undergraduate enrollment increased 10 percent. With these increased enrollments come new revenues—an increase of approximately $4 million in 2016. Roughly 80 percent of those funds will stay with the schools, colleges, and academic departments.

By rewarding units that respond to changing student demands, we encourage entrepreneurial activity while also better managing costs.