The Evolving Space of Continuing Education

As the lifelong learner evolves and information is more accessible than ever, Rice University in Houston discovers ways to anticipate the future of work, remove educational access barriers and design continuing education programs for careers that span beyond 60 years.

October 6, 2019

A lifelong learner used to conjure images of passive learning and hobbyists pursuing crafts rather than a professional gaining skills to excel in a career. Yet the current workforce is changing jobs far more often than previous generations and must respond to rapidly evolving technologies. So, how should traditional universities adapt and respond?

Robert Bruce, dean of Rice University’s Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, has more than 25 years of experience as a higher education leader opening university doors and serving post-traditional students. Since joining Rice in 2017, he has helped further the university’s commitment to educational outreach by providing lifelong personal and professional development opportunities.

“It’s certainly important to address the current needs of your audience and surrounding community,” Bruce said. “But to really accelerate career needs and embrace a metropolitan city, you have to get to the point where you’re launching new programs that anticipate what your audiences need in the next two to three years, because the jobs you’re preparing them for don’t exist yet.”

The 60-Year Curriculum

The traditional view of higher education sees a primary purpose of providing for a four-year learning experience. Today, however, many continuing studies units across the nation are responding to what has been coined the “60-year curriculum.” This vision sees universities not as a one-time provider, but a lifelong partner with learners at all stages of their career, providing knowledge and skills throughout the evolution of one’s entire life. “Essentially, this idea focuses on the future of work,” Bruce said. “We’re constantly evaluating how we position ourselves for students along a 60-year continuum. A typical student graduates at age 22 and needs to work and learn for the next 60 years. What are lifelong students going to need to succeed professionally and personally?”

Students in this contemporary curriculum might look like an English degree holder who needs digital analytics skills, or an engineer who after five to 10 years in the workforce decides they need a master’s in liberal studies to better understand cultural context and communicate their work. “It’s fascinating to see interdisciplinary academics at work and play,” Bruce said. “Liberal arts degree holders who are interested in how to best represent data for a nonprofit organization, and not the opposite but analogous, students with a business degree who seek to learn more about the birth of stars and planets.”

Reinventing Continuing Education

Historically, higher education institutions who offered continuing education classes would have community students enroll at a centralized campus or distance students use correspondence courses. Today, as their careers evolve and technology changes, these professional students need their ongoing education to be flexible and adaptive, through technology, access and approach. 

“Institutions have to be flexible to meet the needs of lifelong learners,” Bruce said. “People are looking to enroll immediately in a course or program, not on a semester calendar. Programs need to be flexible, allowing the course to be taught face-to-face at times, digitally when needed or meeting occasionally as a cohort.”

Most lifelong learners work throughout their 60-year curriculum and therefore traditional institutions have to adapt practices and design programs for their audience’s needs. “In order to serve an expansive city like Houston, we offer courses at the main Rice campus, at satellite locations throughout the metropolitan area, and we offer courses online,” Bruce said. “I don’t think the term ‘online education’ will be in our future lexicon. It will just be education, and of course, some of it will be digital, but there won’t be a distinction. To students, it’ll just be a reflection of who they are and how the world works.”

Maintaining Your Institution’s Ethos

How do traditional institutions maintain their core educational standards as they cater to a changing audience? “There aren’t a lot of subjects or classes we provide that can’t be found for free somewhere through a variety of platforms,” Bruce said. “Our students are looking for the balance between immediacy and the reputable quality brought by research faculty and professors of the practice.”

Leveraging a traditional institutions’ strengths can set it apart from lifelong learner competition. “Students are figuring out that they need the community, reputation and quality of a traditional university that lets an employer know that their knowledge is dependable,” Bruce said. “There’s an incredible amount of value in a reputable institution, so when we’re developing programs, we have to preserve the high-level faculty-to-student interaction that we are known for with agile program development.”

Anticipating Future Needs

A key element to remain competitive in the continuing education space is anticipating future needs. “How do we build ourselves to anticipate the future of work?” Bruce said. “We have to always be a year or two ahead of where our students will be as their careers change and skill needs evolve.”

Through market and field research, Bruce and his team identify skill gaps and barriers to education in the community, which ultimately drives the types of programs they offer.

“We’ve launched three data analytics offerings in the past year that are all customized in content and delivery,” Bruce said. “Our Data Analytics Bootcamp is an intensive, 24-week, face-to-face program on campus that takes a deep dive into Python, Javascript, Tableau and more. Our Data Science for Business program is a six-week online course that is accessible anywhere in the world. And our Advanced Data Analytics Certificate is a weekend intensive that uses a combination of face-to-face and interactive video.”

Removing Barriers

Classrooms at Rice’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies are outfitted with screens and cameras to accommodate all students. “You can either show up online or in person and you will have the same experience,” Bruce said. This technology allows lifelong learners to access classes anywhere and removes the barriers of traffic, transportation and time. “This eliminates many of our community’s hesitations and practical limitations to continuing education,” Bruce said. “Driving to Rice is not just an inconvenience. When considering the diversity of our students and the needs in our community, this truly becomes an issue of educational equity.”

“The barriers are real,” Bruce said. “We’re always asking ourselves: Are we providing an excellent program and are we providing access? You have to do both.”



Back to Top