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Levin - Serving Learners: What Schools Might Learn from Continuing Education

Benjamin Levin, Canada

Dr Benjamin Levin is Deputy Minister, Manitoba Education and Training. Email

Schools and universities are often inward looking, and assume they know best what learners need to know. According to this writer, both of these institutions can learn from the outward-looking approach of continuing education units, where empowered learners are involved in the creation of a relevant curriculum which is tailored to meet their specific needs.

Schools are often urged to improve by adopting business practices from the private sector. Many educators are troubled by these calls, seeing important differences between the purposes of schools and those of profit-making enterprises.

Educational Values in a Business Setting

There is another closer-to-home source of ideas we might consider for schools. University and college continuing education and extension units (CEs) are educational organizations. Yet they also operate in a competitive environment, where generating revenue is an important consideration. At their best, CE units exemplify practices that embody educational values in a business setting.

For the last three years I've been the Dean of the Continuing Education Division at the University of Manitoba. Because my background and academic work are in K-12 education, and especially around education reform, I've found myself thinking about how what we do in CE might be applicable to schools. The central feature of everything that follows is a focus on learners.

Learners, Not Customers

Note that I speak of 'learners' not 'customers'. People who are pursuing education are not, in my view, customers. Our relationship as providers is not just to give people what they want for a price. Education means more than that (for a more extended discussion of this vital point see Levin, 1998). But learners deserve just as much consideration (albeit different consideration) as customers in a business.

The Continuing Education Division at the University of Manitoba serves some 10,000 students each year through a wide range of degree, certificate, diploma and other programs across many areas of college-level study. Our learners include students still in, as well as just out of, high school; adults who have been working and out of formal education for many years, Aboriginal people, English language students from around the world, and so on.

We provide programs in many different areas of study, and using many different modes of delivery. Almost the only thing our programs have in common is our commitment to serving learners.

Learners Inform Policy

Schools, of course, would also say that this is their commitment. So how is CE different? I identify six key aspects of Continuing Education which are different from, but at least partly relevant, to schools. To sum it up, schools are primarily driven from above, by what educators and policy-makers think is good for students. Continuing Education is primarily driven from below, by what learners tell us they need and want.

Partnership a Way of Life

In schools, 'partnership' is a buzz word. In CE, it is a way of life. Our unit does not do anything without partners. We partner with other faculties of the university, with other colleges and universities, with businesses, non-profit organizations, school districts, First Nations (Aboriginal groups), governments, professional associations - in short, with anyone who has an interest in some form of higher education.

We Ask Them

This means that CE units do not start by assuming they know what people need to learn. At the University of Manitoba, we ask them. In fact, most of the time, people don't wait to be asked; they tell us. This approach means that CE units need to be outwardly focused all of the time, looking at the world around. What is changing? Where are people working? What skills are they using? How are these changing? What we do in CE changes as the world around us changes?

Schools Inward Looking

Schools, by contrast, don't tend to be very outward-looking (Levin and Riffel, 1997). The basic shape of the curriculum hardly changes at all over decades. Richard Aldrich (1995) has pointed out that the National Curriculum introduced in England in 1988 was almost the same as the National Curriculum in 1904! The exception is the substitution of Information Technology for Latin but, as my Cambridge University colleague Mel West points out, IT is the job skill of today, in just the same way that Latin was a century ago.

Meaningful, Shared Curriculum

Schools tend to see curriculum as the preserve of educators. So do universities, generally. But in CE units, the definition of, and control over, curriculum is shared with our partners.

For example, our unit partners with the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER), a national Aboriginal centre located in Winnipeg, to offer a program in environmental education and training for Aboriginal people. This program educates Aboriginal people to manage their own resources, conduct environmental assessments, respond to requests to develop resources on their land, and so on.

What is most exciting about the CIER program is that the entire curriculum was developed jointly between university scientists and Aboriginal leaders and elders. As a result, the program includes both current scientific knowledge and traditional indigenous knowledge, with courses co-taught by scientists and native elders.

Collaboration With Learners

This is only one example. In almost every area, CE curricula are the result of collaboration with learners, employers, professional groups and others. The result is an approach to curriculum that is constantly aware both of academic perspectives and of the needs of our learners in their homes or workplaces. Jointly developed curricula are also usually more relevant curricula for students.

Teaching and Motivating Learners

An old business adage says that it is much easier to keep a customer then to find a new one. Most CE units depend on tuition revenue for their budgets, so we have a strong incentive to try to keep our learners in our programs. The most important factor in learner satisfaction, of course, is the quality of the learning experience.

Books could be, and have been, written trying to define what we mean by quality of learning experiences. I suggest that the following are key features:

  • knowledgeable, enthusiastic instructors who have practical experience in the field of study and are sensitive to students' needs and interests;
  • materials that speak to students' interests and experience;
  • classes that are highly interactive and connect to students' lives outside;
  • workloads that are demanding but not excessive;
  • autonomy for learners in how they go about doing their work, combined with extensive opportunity to work with and learn from other students; and,
  • assessment that is closely connected to the skills and knowledge that learners value.

Motivation the Key

The vital factor here is motivation. Motivated learners are more effective learners (Levin, 1994). We know quite a bit about what people find motivating, at all ages - meaningful tasks; autonomy in how the task is done; a community of support. (Readers looking for a wonderful example of these attributes in a classroom should consult Nicholls and Hazzard, 1995.)

In schools it is not so much a matter of keeping learners, since many of them are there by compulsion. It is very much a matter of increasing students' motivation, because every teacher knows that learner success is very much related to motivation.

Flexible Delivery

Most schools are organized around the scheduling of teachers and subjects, often within a framework narrowly prescribed by a district, state or province. Most courses run at standard times, and in standard ways. Those who don't fit the system may have difficulty being served.

In CE, we try to take our programs to learners in many different ways. We operate programs wherever students happen to be - in shopping malls and workplaces or in remote communities. Face-to-face classes take on many formats, including evenings, weekends, intensive week-long seminars, or one day workshops. We increasingly use courses that students study at home (or where ever else they happen to be). We provide more and more options for independent study, with many vehicles for reaching a helpful tutor or instructor when needed.

For example, our university provides a full Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Social Work in several First Nations communities. We offer a program for women in management, which runs over a series of weekends. Registered nurses can upgrade to a full Bachelor of Nursing, including clinical courses, entirely via distance education. Since so many nurses work shifts, they cannot take courses that meet on a regular basis. This way, they don't have to. They never have to set foot on our campus. We educate police, service middle managers at their workplace, and so on.

The goal of all this is simple – to make education available to people in a way that works for them.

Support for Learners

Next to high quality learning experiences, what matters to CE students is a set of excellent support services. The obvious support services, such as information about programs, registration, transcripts and the like are one part. Here, it is important to respond to learners' needs quickly and effectively.

The attitude on many 'main' university campuses, and in many schools - that we are doing students 'a favour' by responding to them - is a disaster in CE. Our staff understand that learners' needs are more important than our standard procedures.

We work hard to understand and respond to what our learners ask of us. For example, we provide multiple ways to register and pay for courses, so that students can do so as conveniently as possible.

Much more important, however, are services designed to help learners be successful, and to develop the skills for lifelong learning. There are many pieces to this puzzle. Some, such as orientations to programs for new students, are quite straightforward. The essential element, however, is the integration of curriculum, teaching and skill development to help learners, wherever they start, become steadily more capable. Many adult learners begin CE programs with rusty or weak academic skills, limited self-confidence, or both. Our job is to design and operate programs that really help people overcome these obstacles.

We have learned (Unruh and Levin, 1990) that the best way to build skills and confidence is not through separate remediation, but by building these processes into core curriculum and teaching. If people lack mathematics background but want to be nurses, we teach them the maths they need for success in nursing, while they are in the program. We can then be sure that the skills we're developing are those our learners need to achieve their goals, thus increasing their motivation and success.

Learner Feedback, Taken Seriously

To achieve all of the above, CE units require lots of feedback from learners. We need to know what they think about our programs and services, and we need to pay careful attention to what they tell us in order to improve.

CE units gather information from learners in many ways. We survey our learners, we have advisory committees to help us keep our programs relevant, we evaluate our courses and instructors, we gather information as students register, we meet with employers and professional groups regularly, and so on. As Dean, I visit 15 or 20 classes each year - not to talk with our instructors, but with our students. I ask them about our information services, our registration procedures, and most of all about the program quality. I want to hear what we do well and what they think needs to change. I leave them my phone number and e-mail so they can contact me if they have concerns. And I share the results of these visits with my staff, because they are the key to our improvement. Our learners are very positive about our programs, but they also give us many good ideas for what we could do better, whether it's cleaner washrooms, easier access to textbooks, or more diversity in course assignments.

These six strategies are the heart of what Continuing Education is all about. Do we always do them well? Of course not. Practice falls short of ideals in every organization. But these are our guiding lights.

Applicability to Schools

Many school folks will probably feel that you are already doing these things, or that they may be appropriate for motivated adults, but not for children and adolescents. Both points are partly true. Many teachers work very hard to provide high quality teaching, to motivate students and to build learning skills. Indeed, CE has much to learn from schools about such things as caring for individual students, about meeting special learning needs, and about reaching out to families. Assuredly, there are differences between adults who are choosing further education and children who are compelled to go to school. Schools cannot, and should not, look just like continuing education.

But do we not perhaps exaggerate the differences? If we began with the view that learners were truly central, would we not learn more from our students, and consequently be more successful?

Children as Co-Teachers

I like the story told me by the principal of a small elementary school who was also teaching fourth grade health. She challenged her class to be co-teachers of the class. Within a few days, she had to order extra copies of the curriculum guide as these nine and ten-year-olds decided they needed to read it. After doing so, they proceeded to tell her what parts of the course they already knew, and what parts they really need to work on. She was amazed by the way that they took ownership for the course and for their learning in it.

Schools could be more learner-oriented in many ways. We could ask students, even very young ones, much more about how they think they learn best and try to build that knowledge into our teaching. In doing so, we would also be helping students become aware of their own learning skills and preferences. We could foster independent study, and thus, independent learning skills. Perhaps every high school student should complete an independent learning activity before graduating!

Matching the Curriculum With Life

We could experiment with alternative formats and timing for organizing courses. One principal I know declared several days each term as field trip days so that teachers could organize excursions without having to do all the schedule balancing that is usually needed to take students out for a half day.

We could involve students and others in discussions about curriculum and look much more seriously at how our curriculum might more closely match what adults actually do in their lives - not just at work, but the entire range of skills and knowledge that people use. We could make partnerships an essential part of how we operate, rather than something peripheral.

None of these ideas are magical. All are already in place in some schools and classrooms. But they are not yet fundamental to what we do or to how we think about our work in schools. They are the exceptions instead of being standard practice.

Emulating Some Best Practices

Continuing Education units certainly do not do everything right. I've already suggested how learning could also flow in the other direction. But in emulating some best practices from continuing education, schools will be building on existing excellence. In putting learners at the centre, we will be better able to achieve our many ambitious goals.

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