Educational changes make it easier than ever to be a lifelong learner

Education is changing radically due to advances in technology. The traditional model many of us knew is outmoded, and our kids and grandkids will be learning in ways we’d never have imagined.

Jeffrey S. Russell
Dean of Continuing Studies Jeffrey S. Russell: ‘With Badger Ready, a student’s prior grade point average will not close the door to a promising future.’

We all bring our own experiences to the subject of education, which is a social process. In 1940s Ohio, for example, my father needed to master the Pythagorean Theorem as someone who would one day enter the construction business.

In mathematics, the Pythagorean theorem, also known as Pythagoras’ theorem, is a fundamental relation in Euclidean geometry among the three sides of a right triangle. It states that the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

What were my father’s options for learning this information? He pretty much had two. He could sit in class and listen to the teacher lecture about geometry. Or he could walk to the library and find a thick book that covered the Pythagorean Theorem.

Flash forward to the 1980s, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati. I needed to master the Pythagorean Theorem myself, as a budding civil engineer, and the educational model hadn’t changed all that much. Like my dad, I could sit in class and listen to the teacher lecture, or I could walk to Langsam Library for one of those thick books.

There were, however, hints of changes to come. Computational devices were beginning to appear on the University of Cincinnati campus, though not for personal use. Instead, we signed up to use the university’s equipment. I remember standing in line at 1 a.m. with a stack of Fortran punch cards, trying hard not to drop them and mess up the order. One missing comma required a complete do-over!

Students aren’t carrying around punch cards anymore. Instead, they’re carrying around their own laptops, tablets, and cellphones—those increasingly powerful machines that have turned the old educational model upside down. Today’s students don’t have to rely on listening to the teacher while they doodle in the back of the room. They don’t have to walk to the library for a book. They can take an entire course about the Pythagorean Theorem online, from anywhere and at any time.

With this new technology, information is better organized than ever before. It’s easier to access, and it’s often free. These developments have led to profound changes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, among other educational institutions.

The rise of lifelong learners

As the dean of Continuing Studies, and also the vice provost for Lifelong Learning, it’s my job to keep UW-Madison on the cutting-edge for reaching nontraditional students. These are adult learners, as opposed to the classic residential students in their teens and early twenties. They’re typically community members seeking personal enrichment or working professionals seeking new skills to advance their careers or change jobs.

Community members learn how to polish and publish their work at the UW Writers' Institute.
Community members learn how to polish and publish their work at the UW Writers’ Institute.

Continuing Studies’ outreach to these lifelong learners is an extension of UW-Madison’s celebrated Wisconsin Idea. This is the century-old notion that the borders of the university are the borders of the state. Another way to put it is that UW-Madison uses its resources to help the community.

At Continuing Studies, that involves offering personal enrichment in music, dance, languages, and other subjects, as well as professional development in such areas as behavioral health and management. Along with courses, we present conferences like the Writers’ Institute and the Conference on Child Sexual Abuse.

Another part of our mission is providing free educational and career planning services for community members. They include career-change workshops, job-search workshops, and one-on-one counseling sessions. Just this summer, our career counselors have helped local Oscar Mayer workers plan their next steps in anticipation of the plant closing.

In everything we do, Continuing Studies is changing with the times to meet the needs of Wisconsin’s lifelong learners. The university has recently seen a boom in this population of older nonresidential students. More and more, they seek continuing education to stay mentally engaged, even in retirement. And more and more, they need new skills to stay afloat in our rapidly changing economy.

The Farm and Industry Short Course allows people interested in agriculture to study on campus for 15 weeks during the Midwest’s non-growing season.
The Farm and Industry Short Course allows people interested in agriculture to study on campus for 15 weeks during the Midwest’s non-growing season.

Wisconsin places a high priority on workforce development, and Continuing Studies is doing its part. Our year-old web portal, Professional Degrees and Certificates, showcases the university’s growing menu of flexible and accelerated programs geared toward people already in the workforce. It includes advanced degrees in nursing, engineering, education, and other subjects, along with noncredit certificates in such areas as business, laser welding, and farming. Our Farm and Industry Short Course, for example, has been offered for over 130 years, and allows people interested in agriculture to study on campus for 15 weeks during the Midwest’s non-growing season, November through March. They can tailor the curriculum to their needs, choosing from dozens of classes in soils, crops, dairy, and other topics.

In the past 10 years, enrollment in these flexible programs has increased from about 200 to 1,700, and we expect the upward trend to continue.

So many ways to learn

So let’s say you’re one of the people I’ve been talking about: a lifelong learner interested in personal enrichment or professional development. How can Continuing Studies meet your particular needs?

Rest assured that we still offer classes the old-fashioned way—face-to-face with an instructor. Even in our advanced technological age, it makes sense to be in the same room with your fellow singers in a music class or your fellow dancers in a dance class. And there’s still value in sitting next to someone in professional development classes, for the purpose of networking or sharing insights. We try to schedule these in-person classes at convenient times during weekends or evenings, so working people can fit them into their schedules.

As a leader in the field of educational innovation, however, UW-Madison is also delivering courses in newfangled ways. Any one of these new approaches might make it easier for people to find their way back into the educational system.

The blended approach of the Professional Life Coaching Certificate Program meant Alejandra Rivera could participate from Australia.
The blended approach of the Professional Life Coaching Certificate Program meant Alejandra Rivera could participate from Australia.

For example, we offer courses that combine online and face-to-face experiences—so-called blended courses. Take our Professional Life Coaching Certificate program, which trains people in the up-and-coming field of life coaching. The program offers a mix of teleconferences and workshops, so that people can do coursework at home while also meeting their instructors and fellow students in person. This approach was perfect for a working mother from Madison named Ndidi Yaucher, who learned life coaching while holding down a job in the pharmaceuticals industry. It was also perfect for an Australian woman named Alejandra Rivera, who could complete the certificate with only a couple of required visits to Madison.

Another kind of blended course combines working online with attending a conference. Last month, students who registered for Fundamentals of Online Teaching began their work at home, via teleconferences. A few days ago, they met their instructor and fellow students for a workshop at our Distance Teaching and Learning Conference. The course will continue with teleconferences through September, by which time the students will have mastered online teaching through this blended approach.

Another new way to learn is working one-on-one with an instructor via email. This is actually an updated version of a very old way learning—the master teacher tutoring a pupil in medieval times. At Continuing Studies, we offer such opportunities to writers seeking expert advice. They email us their novels, poems, or screenplays, and one of the published authors on our writing staff emails back constructive criticism. Many of these students go on to publish their manuscripts as a result of UW-Madison mentoring.

More and more, we’re offering courses completely online. This approach offers maximum flexibility for students, who can study from anywhere and work at their own pace. The instructor assigns readings, provides videos, and moderates discussion forums. It might not sound very fun to take an entire course by sitting at your computer, but our instructional designers are hard at work devising better and better ways to engage students in this format.

A look toward the future

Recently, we had extraordinary success with massive open online courses, which anyone can take for free from anywhere in the world. There’s no limit on the number of people who can sign up—hence the word “massive.” For our first round of MOOCs in 2013, we followed the model that other universities have used, with UW instructors providing videos and readings and leading discussion forums. The courses in human evolution and financial markets reached about 135,000 learners from 141 countries and all 50 states.

Those were great results, but for our second round of MOOCs in 2015, we decided to break the mold. We designed courses of particular interest to Wisconsin learners and planned face-to-face events to go along with them. As a result, people who registered for a MOOC on conservation could attend a hunting and cooking demonstration at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo. People who registered for a MOOC on climate change could participate in discussion sessions at libraries throughout the state. Along with the free courses, these face-to-face experiences welcomed hundreds of Wisconsin residents who might not otherwise feel connected to UW-Madison.

UW-Madison sponsored a hunting event in Baraboo in conjunction with a massive open online course.
UW-Madison sponsored a hunting event in Baraboo in conjunction with a massive open online course.

So between MOOCs and podcasts and blended courses, is your head spinning yet? Well, fasten your seatbelts, because educational changes will only accelerate from here. At the recent Distance Teaching and Learning Conference, more than 800 educators from around the world converged in Madison to make sense of the latest technology and to look toward the future.

The conference’s speakers delved into dynamic new ways of reaching students, including augmented and virtual reality, holograms, robotics, affective computing, games, simulations, adaptive learning, and social media. They offered ideas for personalizing online courses for each student, much in the way Amazon.com customizes the user experience based on your individual preferences. They explored strategies for using freely licensed educational materials, so that students and faculty can continually improve course materials without worrying about copyright barriers. And they discussed the potential of learning analytics for optimizing the teaching environment.

The conference’s program reflected the move from rigid to flexible structures, and from passive to active learning. In the future, students will no longer simply consume education, but will co-create content themselves.

photo_dtl 2015 discussion groups_cropped
The Distance Teaching & Learning Conference explored dynamic new ways of reaching students.

The program also addressed the problems inherent in teaching online. No revolution can go off without a hitch, and an educational revolution is no exception. How do you keep students motivated when there’s no instructor standing in front of them? How do you keep them from only superficially engaging with an online course? How do you define educational quality in this new environment?

The conference’s speakers floated many interesting ideas, but the clear takeaway was that 21st century education is a work in progress. For UW-Madison, the challenge will be to change with the times while remaining true to our traditional standards. That will require being nimble without sacrificing the high-quality instruction and research that recently led to our ranking as the 25th best university in the world, along with the 18th best nationally.

Transformative experiences

I challenge you to jump in and become part of this thrilling moment in education. With even a small investment of time, you can learn something new.

On the easiest end of the spectrum, check out one of those free Science Narratives podcasts. In a mere five minutes, you’ll have a better understanding of how robots are changing our world.

With just a little more effort, but still no expenditure of cash, you can register for a massive open online course, watch an educational program on Wisconsin Public Television, or attend one of our Eloquence and Eminence lectures at the Pyle Center.

Science Narratives offers a peek behind the scenes at UW-Madison's robotics research.
Science Narratives offers a peek behind the scenes at UW-Madison’s robotics research.

Then there are the noncredit classes for enrichment or professional development. Sign up for a five-session certificate in project management, an 11-week French class, or an online fiction-writing class with no set deadlines. Learn to play the guitar or to tap dance—something fun that you can share with your child or grandchild.

Those are the relatively simple options. What if you’re not happy with your current job, or you’re looking for work? Make a free appointment with one of our career counselors or take one of their free workshops.

Perhaps you’d like to advance your career by continuing your education. Visit Professional Degrees and Certificates and find a convenient degree or noncredit program that will help you master new workplace skills while keeping your current job.

At Continuing Studies, we like to say we’re in the business of transformative learning experiences. That’s our contribution to the Wisconsin Idea: opening UW-Madison’s doors to a wide range of lifelong learners who can then use their knowledge to make positive changes in our world.