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Programs Not Always in Colleges

(Editor's note: This article is the third in a series on continuing education at the university.)

By Clara B. Cox

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 09 - October 20, 1994

Usage of continuing-education programs to disseminate knowledge and upgrade skills extends beyond the university's nine colleges, although the colleges still provide much of the knowledge base needed to assure the success of such programs. A principal non-college-housed user is Public Service Programs, which, like the Division of Continuing Education, is part of University Outreach and International Programs.

Says Doug McAlister, executive director of Public Service Programs, "One of the objectives of this organization is the transfer of scholarly knowledge, regardless of whether that knowledge comes from an individual faculty member or material stored in our University Libraries, from the research of our own faculty or from reports emanating from a school across the country."

McAlister's organization carries the university's resources in economic development, governmental assistance, and community-resource development to communities, governmental agencies, business and industry, and other organizations. About 85 percent of its clients are elected or appointed officials in local, state, and regional governments. Such clients, McAlister says, "realize that the complexity and speed with which problems move require continuous updating. That keeps us on our toes as we serve as the bridge between community problems and the faculty resources of Virginia Tech."

Additionally, the unit works closely on a number of continuing-education programs with federal and state agencies. For example, Public Service Programs and the Virginia Department of Economic Development (DED) formed the Virginia Institute for Economic Development (VIED), a continuing-education program that provides training in the economic-development process and outlines how this process is used to benefit localities in furthering economic growth. Participants from across the state meet initially in a basic course for three days, go home with assignments in four textbooks and seven weekly graded lessons, then return to campus for three more days. Successful completion of the basic course allows the professional economic developers to attend the advanced course, which is offered on a quarterly basis. Both courses have been successfully offered for the past 13 years.

The unit also works closely with DED to develop other continuing education seminars and workshops, which--like the VIED--are designed ultimately to develop the economy of Virginia: global marketing and the basics of ISO 9000, for example. The unit also has begun working closely with DED's Division of Tourism and is planning a much-needed training course in tourism development.

"We believe it is essential for the well-being of Virginia that higher education work hand-in-hand with other state agencies," McAlister says. "Whether it's a joint effort with a state agency or a small community in Southwest Virginia, though, we must share the university's knowledge to effect positive change for this great commonwealth."

His unit also has developed continuing-education programs to train such local government officials as planning commissioners, boards of zoning appeals, chairs of boards of supervisors, and mayors of towns and cities. Other continuing-education programs developed by the unit's faculty help localities plan their futures. Several of the community-resource-development programs have won state and national awards.

Leadership development and youth entrepreneurship are additional focus areas, which often involve working cooperatively with local and regional organizations and schools, although national organizations are also working partners on occasion. In many cases, the organizations approach Public Service Programs for help, and the unit's faculty members design continuing-education programs to provide the assistance needed.

McAlister says the continuing-education programs are continuously evaluated. "We use an instrument similar to the student evaluations in campus classrooms. In fact, we took the instrument used in the classroom and adapted it to our programs." The evaluations are used to improve content. "We always strive for improvement," he adds. That might explain why his unit's programs are well attended.

The quality of the programs and the dedication of the staff have helped Public Service Programs develop a national reputation. "States are asking how we do our programs. They come to monitor them. We're looked to as a leader in our economic development, governmental assistance, and community planning programs," he says.

Such successes, he says, are due in large measure to the quality of the employees in Public Service Programs. "We have recruited a faculty and staff second to none, small in numbers but outstanding in quality."

But he also recognizes the role continuing education has played in that success. "We couldn't ask for a better working relationship than we have with Linda Leffel (director of program development for Continuing Education Programs) and her staff. It is a professional partnership that has enhanced our programs and added value to the commonwealth."