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.
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.
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.