Continuing Education, professional development and lifelong learning are all terms used to describe an educational or training process that is a key component for successful organizations. The term Continuing Education often elicits several definitions, however one of the most comprehensive and applicable is Liveright and Haygood's 1969 version, "a process whereby persons who no longer attend school on a regular full-time basis … undertake sequential and organized activities with the conscious intention of bringing about changes in information, knowledge undertaking, skill appreciation and attitudes or for the purpose of identifying or solving personal or community problems" (Courtenay, 1990).
Continuing Education and the adult education movement began with the twentieth century. As the world moved to an industrialized economy the need for continued education and improved access for adults challenged traditional educational venues and created opportunities for both professional and personal skill enhancement and enrichment. Several environmental factors are driving the demand for lifelong learning in the twenty-first century: abundant access to information, rapid technology changes, increased global interactions, industry shifts, as well as increasing entry level credentials and skill requirements.
Employers depend on continuing education as a tool for ensuring a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce. Individuals use continuing education for upward career mobility, job enhancement and personal enrichment.
The Continuing education activity can take place at virtually any time or any place. The format for the continuing education learning should be driven by the content and learning goals. Internet and satellite technology allow employees to engage in educational coursework on the job or at home, which results in a tremendous savings of travel costs and time. Continuing Education courses are offered for academic or university level credit, as well as non-credit courses. Universities, community colleges, k-12 school districts, private consultants and corporations all participate in offering continuing education content and courses. Many organizations take advantage of "off-the shelf" or commission for customized content that is offered through their own employee training group.
Throughout the last decade the concept of life-long learning has continued to gain popularity. Organizations in the twenty-first century are challenged to quickly adapt to industry changes and rapidly identify solutions for obstacles or barriers that the organization encounters. Through the lifelong learning process, individuals develop the capacity for addressing this organizational need. Key characteristics of lifelong learning include duration, learner-centered perspective, multi-level and multi-subject learning, and open access.
The core concept of lifelong learning is that individuals learn from cradle to grave and that each individual progresses from one learning level to the next throughout their lifetime. Each learning event is a continuous progression to the next learning event and never isolated or a means to an end in itself.
Lifelong learning also focuses on the learner rather than an instructor or trainer. The learning process often involves a facilitator but the facilitator should be skilled at providing an educational environment that allows the individual to enhance and engage in his or her own learning objectives. The learning format and content should be designed with the learner in mind. Lifelong learners require choices and educational experiences that fit within their lifestyle. The educational activity should balance the needs and convenience of the organization with individual learner's need in order to maximize the learning outcome. Lifelong learning activities are also designed for multiple learning styles. Experiential and applied learning as well as tutorials and self-directed content are often embraced by lifelong learners.
Lifelong learning encompasses all levels of educational acquisition and in an infinite number of subjects. It includes skill training, credential requirements, as well as social interests. This education may be in the form of formal education or training that is offered both as credit and non-credit in a variety of venues. It also occurs through non-formal means such as libraries, museums, manuals and mentors.
Lifelong learning should be accessible to all individuals regardless of age, race, ability, prior qualifications, workplace role or sociodemographics. Innovative delivery formats help to ensure that the learning activities are accessible to anyone that is interested in participating.
Many industry boards, accreditation agencies and associations have established mandatory continuing professional education (CPE) requirements for licensure or certification. For example, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) has established mandatory continuing professional education (CPE) for all members. Most state boards of accountancy have also phased in mandatory CPE as prerequisites for licensure of accounting and auditing practice units. Research has supported this trend. In an empirical study of the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy, researchers found evidence of an association between results of an employee's quality review and levels of continuing professional education in the profession (Thomas, Davis, and Seaman, 1998). Other organizations have established a certification process for their respective field such as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which has partnered with educational institutions to deliver the Professional Human Resource Management (PHRM) content and certification test nationally. Non-credit continuing education courses often carry state-board or association Continuing Education Units (CEU). Participants generally receive a certificate of completion and should maintain personal records of the units earned.
Post-secondary higher education also falls within the sphere of Continuing Education. As entry-level requirements continue to increase such as the 150 hour accounting program and demand for graduate level credentials, employers and employees search for flexible degree programs. Many employers offer a tuition reimbursement program for employees enrolled in college level degree programs when applicable to the workplace. Colleges and Universities recognize the growing demand from adult learners for academic degree programs, and many offer academic courses off campus, on-line or at the workplace in accelerated and non-traditional formats.
The corporate university is generally some blend of higher education and organizational training and development. "The first corporate colleges appeared almost 80 years ago, but their ranks have grown, relatively speaking by leaps and bounds" (Wilcox, 1987). Corporate colleges or universities are characterized as institutions that may grant degrees, academic credit or non-credit training and are chartered by a parent company whose primary mission is not education. Some corporate universities have evolved from a mission to serve the corporation's training and development needs to a full-service private higher education institution. Northrop University began in 1942 as a training division of Northrop Aircraft and evolved to an institution offering undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Kettering Institution (an independent university) grew out of General Motors. Many corporations identify a university or college partner to customize training and academic degree programs specifically to the corporation's business practices. Corporations are using these customized programs as a source for developing future corporate leaders and a means to focus on content areas that are critical to the company's strategic business plans. Multinational companies are developing corporate universities that allow employees around the world to participate in training and educational programs with cost effective delivery methods. The American Council on Education (ACE) consistently evaluates corporate college or university credits that are offered independent of a regionally accredited institution. ACE establishes recommendations for transfer credit to regionally accredited universities and colleges. Most of the individuals participating in corporate college or university programs are employed full-time which requires that the educational programs are offered in flexible formats. Generally, employees do not have the luxury of attending academic programs on a full-time basis or in a traditional fifteen to eighteen week semester format. Accelerated formats as well as weekend and distance education designs address the needs of working adult learners.
Distance Education is an all-encompassing phrase for education and training that occurs away from the traditional classroom. Distance Education may occur in synchronous (real) or asynchronous time which allows both employers and learners to determine the best time for participation.
Distance Education began with correspondence study and has grown significantly as technology advancements create new opportunities for learning and content delivery. As computer technology became prevalent in business, the print based correspondence courses progressed to computer based training, which included simulations and ultimately interactive course content that provided participant feedback and enhanced learning. At the end of the twentieth century, educators and employers invested in telecommunication equipment that distributed educational or training activities from one video conferencing site to another. These interactive television programs allow companies to synchronously connect employee groups regardless of their physical distance. The tremendous growth of internet technology has created the most recent version of distance learning which is online or eLearning.
The internet is an information rich resource. Because the internet contains more information than any individual could ever process, it is important that individuals and organizations develop knowledge management strategies to sort, categorize and maximize the benefits the internet's wealth of information. Online learning is one component of knowledge management within the information technology environment.
Online learning content ranges from one-hour courses to complete bachelor, master or doctorate degree programs. Internet delivered courses have the benefits of serving multiple groups at multiple locations without the expense of equipment infrastructure at each location, and the course material can be delivered either synchronously or asynchronously which affords multinational operations the opportunity to connect individuals regardless of time zone or geographical location.
The online training and education market is very competitive offering many choices for organizations and learners. Colleges and Universities throughout the world are offering online courses as well as thousands of training and consulting groups. Organizations either select educational programs and courses ala carte or build a portfolio of eLearning options. Many large organizations have integrated eLearning into their corporate university entity. These groups generally have a planned web presence that includes a portal and learning management system (LMS) or course management system (CMS).
Online learning has created many new products and support options. In addition to the organization's web presence, portal and LMS, the organization also needs to assess the technology infrastructure that supports the eLearning initiative. The fundamental needs in this area are servers that provide redundancy and acceptable uptime. This is often referred to as hosting in the eLearning environment as well as technology support in the form of a help desk. Organizations interested in growing their own portfolio of online learning options should first develop a vision for their eLearning initiative prior to making any financial investments in equipment or software. Once the vision is established the organization should assess their existing technology capabilities and determine if there is capacity to support the eLearning initiative, or is it more cost effective to outsource all or some of the technology infrastructure. When the technology infrastructure has been addressed the organization should determine how content will be developed for the eLearning environment. Quality online courses are developed so that the technology optimizes the content. Many vendors offer digitized content and others specialize in specific areas of content development such as simulations or multimedia graphics and enhancements. Having a clear vision for the course content and understanding the learning needs will help to ensure that courses are developed efficiently and effectively.
Blended learning refers to online learning that is integrated with traditional classroom or training instruction. This blend provides the benefits of reduced travel costs and time with the positive relational aspects of face-to-face learning. Once an organization or an individual has established a clear vision for their educational needs they should consider all of the available online resources as tools to ensure that the "best fit" is created.
The global economy has increased the need for organizations around the world to understand the culture and business practices of their peers, competitors and partners. Both foreign and domestic organizations abroad are implementing continuing education experiences in an effort to enhance cultural understanding and address skill and knowledge gaps. U.S. universities are partnering with both U.S. and foreign companies around the world to deliver educational courses and programs that are critical to organizational competitiveness. A central ministry of education in collaboration with a ministry of commerce generally drives these programs. For instance, China has placed a high priority on the field of Human Resource Development and Entrepreneurship as well as encouraging Chinese organizations to partner with foreign organizations in an effort to implement vocational and applied skill training. India has created a new industry as an outsource venue for customer service which creates customer service training opportunities in India. Korean manufacturers have a solid history of identifying corporate and educational partners that satisfy their organizational educational needs. Continuing Education helps global companies to connect the workforce with the organizational vision.
The abundant access of information, rapid technology changes, increased global interactions, industry shifts as well as increasing entry level credentials and skill requirements ensures that Continuing Education will remain a valuable resource for managers in the future.
Managers will continue to depend on continuing education as a tool for ensuring a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce. Individuals will engage in lifelong learning as a means for upward career mobility, job enhancements and enriched quality of life.
The increased interest in lifelong learning coupled with rapid technology advancements and demands on individual personal time will guarantee that educational options will continue to be flexible and fit within the constraints of personal time and organizational priorities. The growing global economy will continue to drive the development of learning activities that span geographical regions and time zones allowing individuals around the world to collaborate and learn together.
Organizations around the world will depend on continuing education to maintain competitive positions and adopt current innovations. Managers will depend on lifelong learning to produce a workforce with the knowledge and solution based skill-set that is required for organizational growth.
Dawn Malone Gaymer
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