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As the importance of life-long learrning grows, not only are more people desiring to study beyond basic formal education, but education providers also have to provide high quality courses that are made as accessible as possible. This issue of CDTL Brief examines some of the issues surrounding Continuing Education/Distance Learning.

March 2002, Vol. 5 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Distance and Distributed Learning in Continuing Education: Notes from the Front Lines
Professor Thomas P. Keenan, I.S.P.
Dean, Faculty of Continuing Education
University of Calgary
Alberta, Canada

Many of the principles for using technology to enhance education have been well covered elsewhere, including in CDTL Brief *. I would therefore like to focus my discussion on some of the factors that make the Continuing Education audience somewhat unique. The following are some general principles that I believe are generally true about Adult Learners:

Adults are Action-oriented

You can easily tell a youngster to study Grade 3 math so he or she can progress to Grade 4. For adults, particularly voluntary learners, it is vital that they see the purpose of their learning, and its applicability to their own work and/or personal lives. So for example in our Master of Continuing Education programme, we structure all the assignments, and particularly the final project, to relate directly to issues in the student’s own workplace. This not only makes the learning deeper, it also helps the student to justify the support (e.g. in time off, tuition subsidy) that they often receive from an employer while enrolled in the programme.

Adults Want to Have Their Experience Valued

With our typical learners falling into the 30–50 age bracket, there is every reason to believe that they have important real world experiences that can fruitfully be brought to bear in the learning situation. Again, in our MCE programme, we encourage students to answer most discussion questions (which are posed online) not from a theoretical viewpoint, but from the concrete experience of their own careers.

Adults Want to Be Respected

While no institution of higher learning would admit to consciously mistreating its undergraduate or graduate students, it is certainly common practice to take them for granted. After all, the student needs to take course so-and-so to get a degree, so they probably do not have any choice. By contrast, the Continuing Education world is one of almost infinite choice. In our own city, there are easily fifty places that will teach you how to use Microsoft Word and Excel. How does the learner choose? Partly on price, partly on reputation. But in the long term, it is the satisfying learning experience that brings people back again and again to take Continuing Education courses from the same provider.

Adults are Time-starved

While everyone is feeling the pressure of too much to do, at least full-time students are supposed to devote most of their energies to learning. For the Continuing Education learner, a professional or personal development course is often ‘one more thing’ to fit in to a busy work and family life. I believe this accounts for the attractiveness of ‘fast track’ programmes such as the one we offer in Object Oriented Software Technology. Students entering that programme want to learn the maximum amount in the minimum time. At present, we only deliver this programme in a face-to-face environment. If we can find a way to preserve the high quality of learning, which is our paramount goal, we would certainly take this to a distance/distributed format to further meet the needs of adult learners.

Adults Like to Learn in a Collaborative Environment

There are very definite social aspects to Continuing Education. Adults generally enjoy meeting others with similar interests, and sharing their expertise. Even in a technology-mediated environment, we have found significant social bonding occurs among adult learners. One way to enhance this, as we have demonstrated in our MCE programme, is to begin the programme with a face-to-face session then follow up in an electronic environment. This format combines the advantages of ‘high touch’ with the accessibility and convenience of online education.

Adults Vote with Their Time and Money

As a Continuing Education provider, we are certainly not the lowest priced vendor in Calgary. However, we attract well over 20,000 students per year because they have an assurance that their time will be well spent. In fact our marketing theme for this year is, “It’s Your Time…Invest it Wisely.” (See for details.) This has great appeal to learners who, as noted above, are on a limited time budget. Other Continuing Education providers have also had great success with ‘fast track’ and ‘the least you need to know’ courses that parallel the wildly successful For Dummies book series.

Implications of Introducing Technology into the Process

A decade ago, it was all pretty simple. Aside from a few bold experiments, Continuing Education meant you went somewhere (e.g. a university, a public school, a hotel room) for a face-to-face lecture from an expert. Now there are whole new ways to teach and learn, and the University of Calgary is proud to be at the forefront of using many of them. (For some recent success stories, see One thing we have learned is that adults need reliable, consistent technological tools. Anything that involves complicated installation, or even downloading, is likely to cause problems for some learners. To cope with this, we usually provide relevant software tools on CD-ROM to our learners.

One of our favourite technologies for distance and distributed (because some of our learners are really not very distant) Continuing Education is Centra Symposium which “allows instructors to engage students in a live virtual classroom atmosphere where collaborative learning is experienced in a rich audio-graphic environment through the home or office PC.” (See In other words, teachers and learners can talk with each other and share objects such as PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets in a low-bandwidth, Internet-based environment. We have found full-motion video is not usually necessary for the type of courses we want to teach, and staying with the audio-graphic solution opens the course to many people who do not have fast computers or high-speed Internet connections. Another advantage of Centra Symposium is that we can record each class and provide it to students, in a compressed format, on a CD-ROM. This makes ‘missing a class’ a thing of the past.

What the Future May Hold

Our province (Alberta) has made a commitment to bring high-speed Internet access to every community by 2003. This will enable more media-rich communication, and we are certainly exploring the possibilities. Wireless networks and handheld devices are also becoming common, and they will almost certainly play a role as the e-Learning delivery vehicles of the future. On a broader front, we are looking at whole new collaborative learning models such as the adventurous one pioneered by the exciting but short-lived question exchange website (see the news story in

One thing is certain, e-Learning will be a strong contender in the Continuing Education market for the foreseeable future, and the technology is only going to get better and more user friendly. Our challenge will be to apply it intelligently to meet the unique needs of Adult Learners.


* C.M Wang & K.K Ang. 'Any Time, Any Place Learning: Redefining the Classroom for EG1104'. CDTL Brief, Vol. 4, No. 3, August 2001. pp. 3-4. (

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Inside this issue
Distance and Distributed Learning in Continuing Education: Notes from the Front Lines
Continuing Education through the Online Graduate Programme at the University of Calgary
Life-long Learning: What Does It Mean for Us?
Continuous Education/Distance Learning: GSMS Graduate Diploma Programmes
Continuing Education in Dentistry
Learning to Go the Distance: A Decade of Expanding Opportunities for Distance Learning in Thailand