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Re-imagine Lifelong Learning: The Role of Continuing Higher Education

March 30, 2018 3:25 PM | ACHE Home Office (Administrator)

“Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are footsteps on the moon!”

Continuing higher education’s role in lifelong learning is what makes us realize that the sky isn’t the limit to the possibilities of the future – for ourselves or for our students.  As long as we keep learning, we keep pushing them to learn.  And together, we can surpass all the limits others might try to put in front of us.

According to the 1994 First Global Conference on Lifelong Learning cosponsored by the American Council on Education in Rome, lifelong learning is “a continuously supportive process which stimulates and empowers individuals…to acquire all the knowledge, values, skills, and understanding they will require throughout their lifetimes… and to apply these with confidence, creativity, and enjoyment in all roles, circumstances, and environments.”[1]

Underlying that definition is a philosophy that supports our work in continuing higher education.  Although it was written in 1994, it shapes the way we think today and has implications for tomorrow:

  • Continuous—This means that lifelong learning never stops.
  • Supportive—We don’t do it alone.
  • Stimulating and empowering—It is self-directed and active, not passive.
  • Knowledge, values, skills, and understanding—It’s more than what we know.
  • Lifetime—It happens from our first breath to our last.
  • Applied—Lifelong learning is not just for knowledge’s sake.
  • Confidence, creativity, and enjoyment—It is a positive fulfilling experience.
  • All roles, circumstances, and environment—It applies not only to our chosen profession, but to our entire life.[2]


Historical Role of Continuing Higher Education

As you know, Continuing Education has a long history in American higher education. The early concept goes back to the days of the land grant movement, “when Agricultural Extension was created with the vision of academic researchers working with farmers in the field to improve agricultural production.”[3]  The 20th Century brought expansion of Agricultural Extension units, and simultaneously, many Institutions of Higher Education “also created centralized ‘General Extension’ or ‘Continuing Education’ units to link other academic departments across the institution to the larger community these institutions served. Over time, these centralized Continuing Education units became expert at matching university resources to community needs.”[4] They supported innovation and delivered a wide range of Programs and services including:

  • Community needs assessments;
  • Evening and off-campus credit courses, certificate programs, and degree programs, including related student support services to adult, part-time students;
  • Noncredit workshops, professional development programs, and consulting projects;
  • Academic research and technology transfer conferences that create academic and professional communities around university research interests;
  • Summer youth camp programs; and
  • Liaison between academic units and employers and other community organizations related to responses to community development needs.[5]


Future Role of Continuing Higher Education

Interestingly enough, services have not significantly changed. However, in the 21st Century, we must re-envision, re-conceptualize, and re-imagine programming to address emerging trends and changing needs of diverse learners and communities.  How do we hold tight to the enduring truths of adult learning while loosening the reigns to allow for strategies of reaching the changing audience?

Futurist Harish Shah writes:

The future of Adult Learning is not about acquiring knowledge, skills, aptitude or other attributes or competencies to keep up or stay relevant with the times. The future of Adult Learning is about being equipped with competencies, before the necessities for them arrive, by first forecasting what competencies are likely to become necessary or relevant ahead, so that the adult is prepared, when a change demands their adaptation to it.[6]

Additionally, Learning Systems Architect Anne Knowles, said of the future of adult education:

By 2030, we should expect that adult learners will enroll in low-cost classes that align with their goals; stay engaged with an adaptive system that responds to their actions; and listen to world-class human experts - all as one seamless experience. This integration of learning science, adaptive technology, and quality content will transform the learning experience to enhance decision-making and ultimately our survival.[7]

In its report, Education to 2030, The Economist Intelligence Unit forecasted the future of education across 25 world economies, including the U.S.  Three trends emerged:

  • Shifting demographics as a result of public expenditure on education and the affordability of tertiary education, trade schools, and colleges;
  • Future of work and the skills needed to succeed, which is resulting in a rise in STEM graduates while also resulting in a rise in youth unemployment when graduates aren’t prepared for the demands of changing jobs; and
  • Use of technology, particularly the Internet in education contexts.[8]

The report advised that “all institutions involved in the provision of education … will need to work together in various combinations … to make sure that students are acquiring the skills they need” for the future economy.[9]

John Ebersole, inductee to the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame in 2015, identified three forces coming together to keep the need for Continuing Education before us for the foreseeable future:

  1. Global competition,
  2. Accelerating pace of change, and
  3. Decline in the period of knowledge relevance, especially in areas of technology.[10]

He also identified challenges and threats: “One of the challenges for continuing higher education of the future will not be whether there is demand, but rather its ability to meet complex needs which are coming quickly and demanding relevant updates…. The greatest existential threats to continuing higher education will come from provider ability to see emerging needs, to develop programs to a sufficient level of specificity and relevance, and to promote and deliver quickly, efficiently and at an attractive price.”[11]

Continuing education must remain nimble to stay relevant.


Future Clients of Continuing Higher Education

Continuing higher education’s clients (a.k.a. lifelong learners) are diverse by background, language proficiency, personality, behavior, interests, motivation, social and emotional development needs, abilities, learning styles, and much more.  I consider some of the students served by our Continuing Education unit as well as by unique programs across the nation: international students, students with a variety of disabilities, racial minorities, sex trade workers, retirees and empty-nesters, veterans and those in active military service, inmates, students in rural and remote locations, just to name a few.

We, ourselves, in our diverse membership of ACHE are among these diverse lifelong learners as we seek out continuing education for our personal and professional needs as well.  Having this frame of mind will be essential if we are to meet the needs of those with whom we work and collaborate.

This picture[12] – comparing equality, equity, and liberation – expresses key ideas for how we can meet the diverse needs of our future clients.  

In the first pane, all three people have one crate to stand on. In other words, there is “equality” because everyone has the same number of crates. While this is helpful for the middle-height person, it is not enough for the shortest and superfluous for the tallest.

In contrast, in the second pane, there is “equity.” Each person has the number of crates they need to fully enjoy the game. It is important to note that some individual students and communities may need more since we don’t all start at the same point.

The problem with the graphic in its original form, with only the first two panes, has to do with where the initial inequity is located. In the graphic, some people need more support to see over the fence because they are shorter, which is seen as an issue inherent to the people themselves. That’s fine if we’re talking about height, but if this is supposed to be a metaphor for other inequities, it becomes problematic. Some feel these first two images imply less than and therefore reflect a deficit model; consequently, the Interaction Institute for Social Change contributed the third pane, which uses the fence to represent the context around these sports fans. The fence stands as a metaphor for historical oppression.

If we want to offer lifelong learning opportunities and ensure access to all, we must remove inherent barriers that have existed for decades and centuries in our society. As such, we must work with our programs to build the capacity of our institutions to reimagine what lifelong learning means for existing and future clients. Our future depends on preparing everyone for success.


Belinda Biscoe, Ph.D.
ACHE Executive Vice President
Interim Vice President of University Outreach
The University of Oklahoma

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  1. UNESCO. (1994). Creating and sustaining learning organisations: integrating the development of human potential. First Global Conference on Lifelong Learning, Rome: November 30 - December 2, 1994.
  2. Collins, J. (2009). Education Techniques for Lifelong Learning: Lifelong Learning in the 21st Century and Beyond. RadioGraphics 2009; 29:613–622. https://pubs.rsna.org/doi/pdf/10.1148/rg.292085179
  3. Miller, G. (2015). Re-Imagining Continuing Education. http://garyemiller.blogspot.com/2015/08/re-imagining-continuing-education.html
  4. Miller, G. (2015).
  5. Miller, G. (2015).
  6. Shah, H. (2016). The Future of Adult Learning: The 10 Years Ahead. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/future-adult-learning-10-years-ahead-harish-shah
  7. Knowles, A. (2015). Adult Learning In 15 Years. eLearning Industry. https://elearningindustry.com/adult-learning-in-15-years
  8. The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2016). Yidan Prize Forecast: Education to 2030. http://www.yidanprize.org/en/tl-research-list.php
  9. The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2016).
  10. Ebersole, J. (2016). The Future of Continuing Education. Evolllution, July 19, 2016. https://evolllution.com/revenue-streams/market_opportunities/the-future-of-continuing-education/
  11. Ebersole, J. (2016).
  12. Interaction Institute for Social Change, Artist: Angus Maguire based on the original work of Craig Froehle, http://interactioninstitute.org/
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