Over the past few years, our public colleges and universities have made great strides in adopting online technology to extend undergraduate and graduate degree programs to working adults away from campus. This has allowed adults to gain the skills and credentials that they need to adapt to the new working requirements of a maturing global information society. It has also created new revenue streams for universities to support innovation. Now, it is time for public colleges and universities to explore how they can use the same technologies to revitalize their traditional service missions and to foster true lifelong learning. This posting will explore some opportunities for online-based lifelong learning as part of the public university’s social engagement mission.
First, a Look Back
Our public colleges and universities have their roots in the Industrial Revolution. They were invented to facilitate the changes that were needed as the country shifted from a rural economy to an industrial economy. Industrialization stimulated two big events. The first was urbanization. Most factories were either started in cities or created cities around themselves, attracting families from farms to move closer. The second was immigration; people came from all over Europe and Asia to find a future in the new economy. They flooded into the cities. This caused several problems. One was a concern that our agricultural system was not robust enough to feed the growing urban population. A second was the need to educate the children of immigrants, to make them full citizens in the process. State and federal government responded by creating new institutions—normal schools—to train the many teachers needed to educate the new urban children and by creating the Agricultural Extension Service—housed in the new land grant universities. And there were other issues, of course. Some of these gave rise to new academic disciplines, things like sociology and social psychology, which found places in the new universities, along with engineering, business, and applied sciences, needed to keep the revolution moving ahead. These are the foundations of the system of state colleges and universities that has dominated education in many of the United States for the past century and more.
For the past several decades, these assumptions about higher education have been challenged as the Information Revolution gained force, bringing with it powerful social changes. In 2001, the Kellogg Foundation released reports from a commission that it had charged to explore the role of higher education in this new environment. The Commission on the Future of State and Land Grant Universities looked at five dimensions of quality: the student experience, student access, social engagement, a learning society, and the campus culture. The Commission argued that “our institutions must play an essential role in making lifelong learning a reality in the United States.” Noting that technology was now able to make lifelong learning a reality, the Commission noted, “We are convinced that public research universities must be leaders in a new era of not simply increased demand for education, but rather of a change so fundamental and far-reaching that the establishment of a true ‘learning society’ lies within our grasp.” The Commission described several characteristics of a learning society:
· It fosters the habits of lifelong learning and “ensures that there are responsive and flexible learning programs and learning networks available to address all students’ needs.”
· “It is socially inclusive and ensures that all of its members are part of its learning communities.”
· It recognizes that lifelong learning begins with early childhood development and organizes “ways of enhancing the development of all children.”
· It uses information technology as tools for “tailoring instruction to societal, organizational, and individual needs.”
· “It stimulates the creation of new knowledge through research and other means of discovery.”
· “It values regional and global interconnections and cultural links.”
· "It fosters public policy to support equitable access and recognizes that investments in learning contribute to overall competitiveness and the economic and social well-being of the nation.”
In the years since the report, Returning to Our Root, was published, higher education has, for the most part, focused its use of information technology on extending undergraduate and graduate degree programs to students away from campus. There have been some efforts in the noncredit arena—development of MOOCs as noncredit courses and sharing of Open Educational Resources (OERs) – but the greatest innovations, affecting the most institutions, has been in credit-based programs. Meanwhile, traditional noncredit programs at many institutions have struggled.
The challenge for the coming decade will be to explore how information technology can be used to fulfill the social engagement and lifelong learning challenges articulated by Returning to Our Roots and, in the process, to re-imagine the role of public higher education in sustaining a learning society in an era marked by cultural and economic globalization. The rest of this piece will suggest a few starting points.
Re-Imagining Undergraduate Education
While many of the ideas to follow deal with noncredit and informal learning—the traditional venue of continuing education units in our universities—I’d like first to describe a key step in creating a true lifelong learning system: redefining undergraduate education as a launching point for lifelong learning. In the industrial period, society gradually expanded primary and secondary education; high school moved from being a pricey option to a publically funded expectation. We need a similar expansion to prepare students to succeed—as citizens and professionals—in the new environment. Elements might include:
· A K-14 curriculum that makes the first two years of higher education—combining traditional “general” education and introductory professional/vocational education—free to the student.
· A Year of Service that would take place between the twelfth and thirteenth years, so that young adults begin their higher education with a better understanding of the working world and the needs of the community in which they live and work. This might include work in state/national parks, hospitals, libraries and other community organizations with the service helping to offset the cost of the next two years of instruction), or it might include a practicum with a local employer or service in the military, Peace Corps, or other societal contribution.
· Periodic internships or practica in the student’s chosen vocation/profession as part of the undergraduate experience, so that students become familiar with the expectations of the field in which they are studying.
· Involvement of alumni to help students prepare for their careers.
· As students complete their undergraduate programs and move into their careers, the institution should help them make the transition by providing noncredit seminars and access to an online learning community for transitioning professionals. The learning community would give the new professional access to faculty, alumni, and other transitioning students to help solve problems and to learn about new developments in the field.
Noncredit Lifelong Learning in the Online Learning Era
Sadly, many of the less formal kinds of lifelong learning that defined “continuing education” for much of the 20th century have faded in recent years, due in no small part to the new emphasis on delivery of credit programs to off-campus adults. However, if our public universities are to fulfill their public mission, we need to take a fresh look at how our institutions, our research centers, and our faculty engage key constituencies and ensure that citizens can continue to benefit from learning throughout their lives. In recent years, this function has taken a back seat to innovations around online degree programs. However, these noncredit and sometimes nonformal learning opportunities are key to the vision of the public university in a learning society. New kinds of extension services can use information technology in ways that complement delivery of online credit programs. Here are some examples of how institutions can re-invigorate and expand noncredit engagement for lifelong learning in the new era:
· Career Maintenance While alumni may eventually return for a graduate certificate or degree, the university should also maintain contact with them by offering short noncredit courses and resources to keep them informed about new knowledge and skills in their professions. This is the traditional role of continuing professional education and could involve traditional mechanisms, such as workplace learning events and conferences. In the new environment, it might also include an online learning community that gives recent graduates access to noncredit webinars, TED-type video lectures, Open Educational Resources, and less formal engagement with faculty, alumni, and other recent grads.
· Learning Communities In an earlier posting, I described how a combination of online technologies could be combined to create ongoing learning communities. These could be organized around professions or disciplines to help alumni and others in a field to maintain their knowledge, to learn about new research and technology applications in their field, and to find solutions to problems by sharing experiences with colleagues and faculty in an online environment. Learning communities can become a meeting ground where faculty and practitioners learn from each other through webinars, videos and other OERs, and messaging.:
· Open Educational Resources for Schools Throughout the industrial age and early in the Information Revolution, land grant universities used distance education to extend learning opportunities to high schools. The University of Nebraska was a leader in developing high school level correspondence courses—which were often adopted and used by other land grants—to ensure that high school students had access to key courses. From the 1960s through the 1980s, universities used television to deliver learning resources that high school teachers could use in their classrooms. Today, information technology allows us to create libraries of Open Educational Resources that teachers can incorporate into classes at all levels. Development of OER collections (perhaps, initially, taken from an institution’s online credit courses) and collaborations among institutions to share their libraries with local schools is an easy way to extend new learning opportunities to students while building relationships with K-12 schools. Such a service must be accompanied by professional development programs that help teachers learn how best to incorporate OERs into their own curricula—another application of the Learning Community model.
· Open Educational Resources for Industries and Professions Universities can also build stronger relationships with the industries and professions that they serve by creating OER collections that provide nonformal professional development and research transfer opportunities for companies, professional associations, government agencies, and community organizations.
· Preparing for the Third Act Americans are living longer today than in the past. Increasingly, as a result, one of the challenges of lifelong learning is to help older adults prepare for retirement and what follows. That might be a second or third career or a commitment to community volunteerism or turning a hobby into a vocation. This may be accomplished through noncredit short courses like those sponsored at more than 100 universities by the Osher Foundation’s Lifelong Learning Institutes.
· Social and Cultural Engagement A Learning Society is not just interested in work. Other kinds of participation in the community—through the arts and other cultural and avocational activities—are important to building sustainable communities. Public Broadcasting—now perhaps better described as Public Media—has been a leader in this function for many decades. Today, public media is not limited to a single broadcast channel. Many stations have multiple cable channels as well as online resources. In short, there are many ways to engage lifelong learners in the arts and to help them develop their own creative and avocational skills.
Our public colleges and universities have a long history of helping learners develop many aspects of their lives. Experience shows that a commitment to lifelong learning and a learning society is not a one-way street. Engagement at this level also helps faculty identify unmet needs, which leads to new research, new teaching, and, ultimately, fresh engagements.