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University's Responsibility to Meet Changing Needs

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 07 - October 6, 1994

(Editor's note: This article is the second in a series examining the role of continuing education at the university.)

Continuing education should be an essential part of higher education's responsibility if it is to serve modern-day needs, says Peggy S. Meszaros, dean of the College of Human Resources.

"As I look at trends in higher education, it seems to me that the most important trend is the group of people who have to be retrained--regrouped for their industry--those having to change jobs and needing to be redirected. Higher education needs to meet that role," she says.

But many potential students will not come to Blacksburg to get the training they need. Most are older than the traditional student, and many have spouses and children and jobs. Thus, a growing strategy is to take the education where the people are, Meszaros says.

But that, she observes, requires "a different way of thinking."

According to Meszaros, higher education typically has not been involved in that role. "We haven't looked at serving that audience in a systematic way," she says, adding that she thinks it is incumbent on higher education to determine how to deliver continuing education in an effective way.

She sees technology as one of the solutions to the delivery problem. "Why can't (continuing education) be done at the work site? At the Hotel Roanoke? The place itself is not important."

She also believes continuing education must include credit courses in its offerings. "There is a restriction here in that continuing education is non-credit. That keeps continuing education in a box that won't let it be as valuable as our work with undergraduate and graduate students. It's part of the history of this institution, but it's certainly not true around the country."

What she would like to see is both credit and non-credit courses comprising continuing-education programs. "For some, continuing education may mean a graduate degree; for others, they will care not a whit for a degree," she said.

The university itself creates a significant problem for continuing education. "What I see lacking is a university recognition for the importance of continuing education," which is reflected, she says, in the fact that faculty evaluations look more at traditional teaching.

She also believes the value of continuing education is different in the minds of many people because it lies in the realm of service. "Some members of the faculty say, `It's nice to do but I don't have time.' It's not a nice-to-do thing; it's an essential part of higher education's responsibility."

She thinks some of the problems can be overcome by getting feedback from continuing-education students similar to evaluations for regular classes, developing faculty portfolios for continuing education so professors can display their work in that area, and making continuing education more explicit in the reward system by giving it a serious place in the promotion-and-tenure process.

Another barrier faced by continuing education "is that the number of students you serve translates into the kind of resources that come to the college. You have to be sure the resources are coming for continuing education."

In her own college, Meszaros is pushing the value of continuing education. It has been made part of the college plan, and a goal has been set to increase continuing education offerings by 10 percent. Additionally, faculty members have been asked to identify their continuing-education priorities. "That's modest," she says, "but it's a way to say, `This is important.'"