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‘Conversations With CAEL’: Amy Belcastro, Ph.D. of Southern Oregon University

Amy Belcastro, Ph.D., is a professor with Southern Oregon University (SOU). Recently, CAEL chatted with her about some of the strides SOU is taking to serve adult learners.

Amy has dedicated her career to issues around access to education. To our great fortune, that includes being an active member of CAEL. She is passionate about meeting students where they are. Jobs that formerly paid living wages for just a high school diploma have vanished. In SOU’s communities, they were often found in logging. These careers may be dwindling, but the rural milieu that framed them remains.

Amy stresses the outsized influence location has on educational outcomes. Accessing postsecondary education in the traditional way is simply impossible for many, especially in rural areas. Yet access it they must. Securing a quality job requires skills, either through a degree or a certificate. In this installment of “Conversations With CAEL,” we look at how a holistic approach is serving adult learners while meeting broader workforce and community needs.

Satellite Teaching Program

Despite the nationwide shortage, SOU knew there were potential teachers, even in rural areas that desperately need them. In fact, they were right in these communities’ back yards. They might be employed in other areas but interested in a teaching career. An adult learning pathway to a teaching degree was the missing link.

In response, SOU launched the rural teachers satellite program. What a tangible example of meeting students where they are! Amy praises the commitment of rural learners. They want to acquire new skills locally so they can give back to their communities. Mindful of this, the satellite program offers a hybrid approach to help high-need rural towns develop teachers from the ranks of their own residents. Students complete coursework online and in person – in their hometowns.

The program extends as far as 200 miles from the SOU campus. To maintain a local presence, it partners with local high schools for classroom space. It also includes two community college partners. This creates dual enrollment opportunities. For example, students can earn an associate degree that stacks into SOU’s bachelor’s in education studies and a teaching license. Perhaps best of all, they can complete all required student teaching in their own communities. Students in the satellite program also come to SOU’s main campus for one weekend a month. Their housing costs are covered. Amy explains that this allows them to experience a sense of place and educational resources they may not be familiar with.

Today, demand for the satellite program is outpacing supply. Indeed, Amy notes that it is a growth opportunity amid stagnant traditional enrollment.

Although that’s a clear benefit to SOU, the overarching purpose of the program is one of quality, not quantity. Amy reminds us what happens when schools scramble to fill teaching roles. Standards suffer. So do students. This creates consequences far upstream of these “local” K-12 problems. By making a strong commitment to quality early in the educational pipeline, we improve the bigger picture. That benefits postsecondary institutions and, to bring things full circle, adult learners.

Online Master of Science in Education, Adult Education Concentration

Last June, SOU introduced a master of science in education program with three areas of concentration. The program offers a 100-percent-online model and is designed primarily for adult learners. In addition to the program core, Amy teaches the M.S.Ed.’s concentration in adult education.

Her students come from many backgrounds. Some pursue the degree to support traditional academic careers in a postsecondary institutional setting. But many join the program so they can apply best practices in adult learning outside of the classroom.

This should encourage all of us in the CAEL community. It’s a sign that awareness and support for lifelong learning are growing. Amy’s students – themselves adult learners – are also workers. They include learners in higher education such student affair, financial aid, advising, and coaching staff. Others are corporate trainers, HR professionals, and educational servicers in the private and public sectors such as environmental educators and art docents.

Whether they’re focused on professional development, industry-specific instructional design, or helping ESL students hurdle language barriers, they share a common motivation for pursuing their master’s. They are seeking to hone the skills that will make them more effective in guiding adult learners on their own upskill paths.

Because students come from diverse backgrounds, flexibility is a key element of the program’s design. That goes well beyond the convenience of online accessibility. There are five start dates per year. Thanks to an accelerated pace, students can complete in as few as 16 months.

That efficiency does not come at the cost of a generic experience. On the contrary, Amy explains, curricula are highly personalized. They develop core adult learning skills while targeting industry- or corporate-specific priorities. As Amy explains, personalization keeps adult learners front and center. That lead-by-example strategy encourages students to carry that perspective forward in their own roles as adult learning champions.

Most program students also work. That makes time a scarcity, as it is for most adult learners. Many haven’t been in school for a long time. To help, the program features a supportive platform for reentry and persistence. Academic coaches work in tandem with faculty members. They tailor program content, maintain focus on individual goals, and keep students on track for completion.

To lessen another common obstacle to access, the program does not require a GRE or teaching license for admittance. Amy recalls the extensive research, including benchmarking outcomes at other institutions, SOU completed. It found that GRE results weren’t the best predictor of educational outcomes for adult learners.

Although the program does list a GPA of 3.0 or higher as a requirement, students who fall short of that are not excluded out of hand. In a SOU conducts a holistic PLA-like assessment. This can include portfolio reviews, consideration of life and professional experiences, and even the aforementioned GRE scores if appropriate.  

Learn more about Southern Oregon University's Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Adult Education online program.

Holistic Engagement to Support Adult Learners

Amy stresses that the new M.S.Ed. and satellite programs are part of SOU’s broader commitment of being the university of choice for adult learners and their employers. That means being more agile than a legacy postsecondary model. As she points out, in that framework, by the time a program is up and going, industry has often moved on to the next technology or required skill. Such is the pace of change in the modern workforce.

Amy sees the focus on adult learners as a way to weave SOU within the fabric of the community. For example, many classes pair an industry expert with the professor. In this coteaching model, practice joins theory, complementing pedagogical expertise with timely, “real world” knowhow. Although this model is in its early stages, Amy says it’s already practiced across several programs, including education, business, psychology, and communications.

On a more strategic level, SOU has joined forces with three other public postsecondary institutions in southern Oregon to form the Southern Oregon Educational Consortium. Amy notes that all face similar challenges and opportunities. That includes complementing traditional credentials with certificates and badges to connect adult learners to rewarding career opportunities.

A vocational focus has led SOU to work more closely with the businesses that employ its current and future students. As an example, Amy cites the dialogue between university leadership and Medford, Oregon-based Lithia Motors. The engagement explores ways SOU can stay in synch with the latest educational needs of the automotive company’s workforce and its talent pipeline.

Amy sees this as integral to the evolution of the educational model. As she describes it, we are moving well beyond the one-and-done, K-12 framework to a persisting, cradle-through-career dynamic. She cites CAEL and the Strada Education Network it is a part of as wonderful places for adult learning advocates to learn how to do this. In particular, she looks to CAEL for opportunities to coalesce communities of practice where institutions, businesses, and other stakeholders can rally around common challenges and opportunities. As we roll out improved membership collaboration platforms this year, one thing will be very clear. CAEL will be fortunate to count Amy Belcastro among our members.



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