How to Navigate the New Norms for Adult Education

by Ron Pirtle, Dean – Belhaven Chattanooga/Dalton

I had the privilege of attending the 2018 Christian Adult Higher Education Association (CAHEA) conference recently. While there were a number of really good sessions, one particularly stood out to me as it related to what we have all seen as the potential new norms for adult education. Dr. Claudia Dempsey reminded us of the traditional attitude toward professors, which is the “Sage on the Stage” and was the standard until the beginning of what we know as the “Computer Age.” Dempsey feels that once the internet became accessible for all, “higher education became a fluid, real-time, globally-accessible, inquiry-based exchange” and if we give careful thought to that statement, I believe we would all have to agree that it is rooted in fact.

Some statistics that Dempsey shared concerning, what she referred to as, the “Brave New World,” are:

  • Distance education has now surpassed six million students
  • The student demographics in higher education are now 73% non-traditional
  • We know have consumer students – meaning that higher education is evolving into a customer service industry. (“How can I serve you” vs. “Come meet our standards”)

While the last statement is difficult for most of us to swallow, I believe many of us would concede that this is the attitude we see displayed by more than one of our students. Dempsey actually refers to this generation as the “Starbucks Generation.” She expounded on this designation by pointing out that our students, generally speaking, are no longer just a coffee generation, but a venti, non-fat, salted caramel mocha frappuccino generation. When we shift our thinking to understand that description is representative of students that we are going to be teaching soon, our attitude towards how we present information to our students must be adjusted. The traditional “lecture” format is not what our students are looking for as they participate in their education.

Dempsey addresses this attitude by referring to what Mats Alvesson calls “The Triumph of Emptiness.” She reveals that Alvesson believes that our pursuit of marketability, superficial shine and branding is allowing us to succeed at the triumph of emptiness. Because of this emptiness, Dempsey fears education might experience the assembly-line mass production that has been avoided for years. Should that happen, she feels it could result in several things for professors:

  • Loss of job security
  • Loss of voice
  • Increased academic work/demands
  • Isolation – smaller/long-distance teams
  • Perpetual upgrades in learning systems, which result in bugs/glitches
  • The need for supplemental income

If we just accepted that this might become the reality experienced in higher education, the pursuit of pouring into our students’ lives would be futile. I, for one, am very thankful that we work at an institution where we do not pursue an assembly-line mass production of graduates.

While the attitude presented by Alvesson could become a reality, students that sit in our classes do not experience the triumph of emptiness. I believe that is based on our pursuit of integrating the Christian worldview into all of our classes, along with what Dempsey referred to as cultivating a climate of C.A.R.E: Compassion/Affirmation/Respect/Encouragement. It is my joy to work with instructors who are committed to investing in the creativity, productivity, and resilience of our students, all while enabling them to deepen their understanding of Christ and his place in their daily life.  So, for those of you who have picked up the mantle of teaching, never underestimate your ability to overcome and help our students overcome the triumph of emptiness!

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