Every year more and more baby boomers retire from leadership positions in adult and continuing higher education, and a new crop of less seasoned professionals must step up to take their places. Recently, members of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners’ advisory board reflected on how the adult learning landscape has changed over time, and how something so firmly rooted in social justice grew into the fierce competition for adult learners of today.
If you’re a younger continuing education professional, their experiences and insights could prove valuable as you step up to the plate.
Q: What has changed in how institutions approach adult and continuing education?
John F. Azzaretto: As my career progressed, higher education as a whole has become much more focused on serving adults. I remember those early days of correspondence and video courses. The emergence of technology has helped us deliver education in new, more effective ways to adult students who, for a variety of reasons, it was difficult in the past for us to serve.
At the same time, I think institutions have become better at acknowledging that adult learners come to college with many competing responsibilities and priorities.
Fred Garlett: Many of the people who are on our campuses now were not around in the early days when we had to justify the need for programs and services specifically for adult students. But in not having a clear understanding of why we set this market apart, many folks miss some opportunities to serve adults well.
For many of us who have been here from the start, I think it’s very important to create discussion around the topic of why we do what we do. Providing people with an understanding of the “whys” behind our practices can help them develop a stronger commitment to this work of adult learning and to the students we serve.
Barbara Randazzo: Often when we attempt to do something, we’re told there’s a reason for things being the way they are and people put in a lot of thought and work to make them that way. Unfortunately, I think we live in a kind of world where everyone is just work, work, work, and so the reasoning behind decisions that were made long ago can easily get brushed over.
But those discussions matter, because it’s not that we can’t change things; it’s just important to tread carefully, honoring what has happened in the past and why.
Alan Mandell: At Empire State College, there has always been a philosophical commitment to serving adults, and that has had to do with the concept of access and social justice. We are responding to people who, for a variety of reasons, are being excluded from higher education. But my sense is that some of those philosophical underpinnings and social commitments have fallen away at some institutions that turned to adults not because of any great embracing of a social justice cause, but out of a pragmatic need to increase enrollments.
For example, I recently attended an institute for faculty members who are new to prior learning assessment. Many of those who were there were told to set up PLA programs at their institutions, not because of a belief that experiential learning should be taken seriously, but as a marketing strategy to attract more adults. But it’s easier to get buy-in for PLA when faculty members understand the reasons for offering it. Then, it becomes something they are doing for meaningful reasons, rather than just because it was imposed on them.
Q: Has adult teaching and learning changed in any ways worth noting?
Garlett: Most schools are under pressure to grow their adult programs, and that means finding new instructors to teach in those programs. But too often these days, what gets put aside when budgets are slim is faculty training and development. So how can we ensure adjuncts understand how adult students are different and what they bring to the table, which are essential to ensuring they receive a quality education?
It’s important not to fall into the trap of simply providing our instructors information about our policies and procedures, but rather find ways to do something constructive and developmental so that everything that we’ve learned about adult learning doesn’t fall to the wayside.
Mandell: It can help those part-time colleagues to grapple with the questions of why we do what we do, because it’s my sense that this kind of grappling affects what goes on in the classroom and adds a dimension of thoughtfulness and welcoming for the principles of adult learning.
Azzaretto: Many of our students are transfers who have had negative experiences somewhere else. They often tell me about how they feel valued and respected in our programs. Often, they decide to stay here for graduate work even if it’s more expensive than another school because of that. I think that’s a function of our helping instructors understand what we value about adult learners.
Randazzo: Our instructors are part-time affiliated faculty members, not adjuncts, and we develop them like crazy to ensure there’s a clear focus on the needs of adult learners. For instance, we do things like hold small group meetings for instructors who teach a particular course, and we challenge them to work together to improve that course and how it’s taught.
They are really the heart of what we do because they are in the professional world every day, so not only can they relate to our students, but they can offer students the kind of practice-based instruction they want.
Garlett: Another real challenge I see for tomorrow’s professionals relates to new delivery models. We can now create programs that allow us to reach students farther than ever. But how can we make sure that faculty members are able to address the needs of students they may never see face-to-face and form the kinds of connections that so greatly enrich teaching and learning?
Mandell: We have to encourage conversations around what is valuable about face-to-face teaching and learning and how we can bring those things into our classrooms when they are online. There are multiple ways to enhance online teaching and learning and avoid feelings of isolation, but for instructors to adopt those strategies, people have to get together to share their experiences and expertise.