The Importance of Lifelong Learning for Sustainability and Other Professionals

by |October 22, 2018

There is no question that economic life is continuing to change. Here in America, over 80% of the Gross Domestic Product is in the service economy. The type of services offered, the definition of quality, as well as the technology and knowledge needed to deliver services is constantly changing. Much of the change is incremental, but some of it is rapid and disruptive. On-the-job training is now a way of life, as is the need for constant retooling via a wide variety of formal and informal types of education. At one time most of us assumed that you went to school when you were young, studied full time for a number of years, and then stopped school when you started work. That assumption no longer holds. Before long, everyone either formally or informally goes “back to school.” Inevitably, you find yourself needing to devote yourself to the study of some subject, software, history, technique or methodology that your formal education omitted. As a professor, my entire career is devoted to lifelong learning, because I need to learn constantly to stay relevant as an educator-researcher and as a practitioner. But most people are not as lucky as I am and do not have learning hard wired into their job description. Most people must anticipate their learning needs and meet them however they can. Uncertainty about the changing world of work coupled with rising income inequality are key sources of the unease and lack of confidence we see in some parts of American society.

Many of our most prestigious centers of learning, including the one I work at, are built around the education of full-time students who tend to be young. Over the past several decades Columbia’s professional schools have begun to offer part-time, distance, and hybrid (in person and on-line) educational programs designed around part-time study. Community colleges have been at this for a long time, and have learned how to value and educate older students. Many of us strongly believe that premier institutions have a moral and civic responsibility to translate our research into practical knowledge that makes the world a better place. Columbia President Lee Bollinger has made this a priority with the establishment of Columbia World Projects. This is an effort to move Columbia research directly into informing real-world problem solving. I believe this responsibility extends to our educational mission, and we need to adapt some of our offerings to reach lifelong learners. Top research universities are struggling to provide lifelong learning opportunities while maintaining their traditions of quality. Some faculty believe that part-time study is inherently inferior to full-time, fully dedicated study. Others have not given the changing nature of education much thought. They may enjoy teaching, but their academic rewards are often more tied to research productivity than their skill as educators. But I am confident that many of my colleagues would find great meaning and purpose in the mission of educating lifelong learners.

I became interested in educating working professionals in the late 1990s when I helped to build the Executive Master of Public Administration program at Columbia, and renewed my interest when I worked with Earth Institute colleagues to develop a Master of Science in Sustainability Management in what is now called Columbia’s School of Professional Studies. As in all Columbia programs, we carefully recruited a full-time academic and practitioner adjunct faculty. We designed a curriculum rooted in our full-time program, but adapted to the needs of mid-career professionals. With a program in place, we then selectively recruited a student body. About 70% of the students in the Sustainability Management program work full time and do their course work in the evening. While we built the program for mid-career students, we managed to attract a large number of full-time students as well. Even though most of our classes are offered between Monday and Thursday from 6 to 8 PM, full-time students have still been willing to accommodate themselves to the schedule of offerings. Had we not developed a flexible, evening curriculum, we would never have attracted the number and quality of students we have been fortunate to teach.

I say fortunate because these students have been engaged, mission driven, bright and hard working. The part-time students do not have the hours that full-time students can devote to their studies, but they bring other assets into our classroom. It is true that our curriculum has been adjusted to reflect their busy lives away from the university, but the learning I have seen is impressive. Mid-career students have encouraged us to be more efficient in our use of classroom time. The demands on faculty are different and the educational process is distinct from full-time learning. I learn from the experiences of mid-career students and they have challenged me to develop courses and course materials that help them address the immediate challenges they face as sustainability professionals. Full time, pre-professional students are not yet part of that world, but when they sit in classes with the part time students they learn from each other and everyone benefits from the heterogeneity. This is not to argue against full-time study―it remains critical, and provides learning opportunities that part-time study can’t―but for some people full-time study is not feasible and I believe we need to adapt our programs to meet the needs of lifelong learners.

The issue of quality for these largely part-time, lifelong learning programs is paramount and includes three key dimensions:

  • First, recruiting regular, senior faculty from throughout the university to the mission of educating mid-career professionals and empowering senior faculty to assure that these programs maintain rigorous standards of quality. This includes a balance of conceptual, technical and practical professional teaching and learning. It is important that the university’s senior faculty influence and ultimately buy into part-time, mid-career education.
  • Second, recruiting high quality practitioner faculty to provide lessons from the profession. The definition of quality includes knowledge of best practices, but since the curriculum is being offered by a university the definition of quality must be controlled by the university’s academic faculty.
  • Third, provide sufficient resources to pay high quality faculty and staff and maintain a community of students, faculty and alums. Too often, the schools that provide lifelong learning are seen as cash cows designed to subsidize other parts of the university. While every university requires that high demand professional education subsidize lower demand, but essential, humanities, arts and sciences, the issue is not one of kind but of degree. The financial demands of schools of professional studies and continuing education must not be permitted to impair educational quality.

In the field of environmental sustainability, the world’s ecological conditions, the analysis of those conditions, the models projecting impacts, and methods of remediating impacts are constantly changing. The need for education is constant and in no way will be limited to credit-bearing formal degree programs. Everything from massive on line courses to carefully tailored on-the-job training programs will be needed. The great universities of the world should engage in this process and bring their traditions of quality to bear on this new need. The alternative can be scam artists like Trump University and other fly-by-night schemes that take advantage of the sense of insecurity that many people feel about the future of work.

While automation and other trends make people uncertain about their future employment prospects, I am less concerned. The grandchildren of people who used to work in factories and farms are now working in offices, delivery service warehouses, and in professions like web designer and events manager that did not exist a half century ago. But we cannot simply discard workers when the nature of work changes. We must provide them with the chance to keep pace with changing technologies.

I keep thinking about the scene in the movie Hidden Figures where a group of very talented African American women were doing hand calculations to ensure that our spacecrafts didn’t escape earth’s gravity. In a pivotal scene in the movie, a new IBM mainframe computer arrives, and it turns out the only person who could figure out how to work it was Dorothy Vaughn, the head of the group doing the hand calculations. She knew that there would be just as much work programming the computer as doing hand calculations, but now she could obtain far more accurate results. It would just require a little on-the-job training for her staff (“leave your calculators behind”). Watch some lifelong learning right here. Automation and artificial intelligence could make humans useless blobs, or could free us to realize even more creative and ambitious dreams than those we now have. The key is to develop a culture of learning, achieving, and dreaming―and to not limit that learning and dreaming to young people.

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