Young: Five critical elements of any adult education program

Rapid changes in technology and the impact of globalization are pushing higher education institutions to adapt to the needs of adult learners. How­ever, adult learners’ lives are complex and their needs are both diverse and extensive. There are five principles institutions should adhere to in order to enable adults to return to the classroom and contribute to individual and community growth.

1. Institutional Commitment

An institution’s commitment to lifelong learning is the cornerstone for adult engagement. Key aspects of demon­strating that commitment include de­fining and heightening the role of adult learning in the institution’s strategic plan, increasing the number of fac­ulty partnerships to draw on in-house expertise and current research, and developing a formal partnership with alumni relations. As an example, the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies reflects its re­spect for adult learning needs in the benefits available to UBC graduates and in award-winning programs like the summer institute in Sustainability Leadership.

2. Program Relevance and Diversity

Consideration for adult needs is fur­ther reflected in the programs offered by the school. Are they responsive to community needs? Do the options for learning include professional develop­ment and personal interest? Does the institution recognize formal education from other schools and informal learn­ing gained from workplace experi­ence? Are the courses and certificates relevant?

An outstanding example of a unique program is the Trois-Pistoles French Immersion School, which Western runs to meet the demand for bilingual­ism education in Canada. For 80 years, more than 25,000 students have en­rolled in the Québec school, where learning French con­tributes to an appreciation for one of Canada’s official languages and distinct cultures. At Western’s Continuing Stud­ies, post-degree diplomas for new graduates, certificates in professional development and personal interest courses show the diversity of goals and interests in the lives of adults.

3. Excellence in Educational Experi­ence

Standards of academic excellence are critical to an institution’s reputation and the stability and growth of an adult education provider. Adult learn­ers who enroll in programs at a college or university expect an outstanding ex­perience in the classroom and are will­ing to pay the higher associated costs. Through their professionalism and expertise in sharing their knowledge, course instructors validate the adult learner’s choice to take courses at a college or university.

4. Partnerships

Partnerships appeal to another impor­tant aspect of adult learning needs and are reflected in multiple ways, such as programs that are associated with professional organizations. Several programs at Western’s Continuing Stud­ies are recognized by national and in­ternational organizations, such as the Project Management Institute, Cana­dian Institute of Management, Human Resources Professional Association and Alternative Dispute Resolution In­stitute of Ontario.

Relationships with employers provide another example of partnerships. As a result of the practicum component in post-degree diplomas, Western has formed partnerships with hundreds of employers in the community, national­ly and internationally where students apply the learning and knowledge from courses in the workplace.

5. Accessibility

Without accessibility, all of the above factors are irrelevant. Multiple cam­puses, online delivery, customer ser­vice and financial aid all contribute to accessibility in lifelong learning. Many schools in large cities recognize how the campus location enables ac­cess and consequently, provide stu­dents with several choices to enroll in courses. For example, the University of Toronto, which is in a city of 2.6 million people, offers three campuses to serve the adult learners in its boundaries. Another way to ensure an accessible location is moving from the main cam­pus to the downtown. In a central lo­cation in downtown London, Western’s Continuing Studies not only improves accessibility in the community, but has also contributed to the downtown re­vival and economy.

Funding for students is critical to ac­cessibility. With financial aid, including educational assistance from employ­ers, government programs and bursa­ries from endowment funds, one bar­rier for adult learners to continue their learning is removed.

More than anything else, online learn­ing expands accessibility and meets the needs of adult learners, whose time and mobility are at a premium. In 2012, enrollment in Western Continu­ing Studies online learning grew by 81 per cent, which indicates adults’ readi­ness to learn in the virtual classroom. Whether it’s the registration system to enroll in courses or the Learning Man­agement System to ensure excellence in the virtual student experience, fund­ing for technology is a key investment for meeting the needs of adult learn­ers. Going beyond geographic bound­aries so that adults from around the world can enroll in online programs is the most significant development in lifelong learning since its inception.

Ensuring that your institution deliv­ers on these five elements is critical to meeting the needs of today’s adult stu­dents. From online learning to an insti­tution’s strategic plan, multiple factors not only enable adults to return to the classroom at a practical level, they pro­vide the potential to transform an indi­vidual, the community he/she lives in and our society overall.

Carolyn Young is the director of Continuing Studies at Western. This article originally appeared in EvoLLLution magazine, and appears here with the magazine’s permission.