Why Faculty/Staff Professional Development Matters for Effectively Serving Adult Learners
I joined CAEL in August of 2022 after spending 15 years working in postsecondary education at two large state institutions. My roles included co-curricular programming in student affairs for both undergraduate and graduate/professional students, leadership development, student organization oversight, and an adjunct faculty position. I considered myself pretty competent at my roles, moving up over the years, infusing new ideas into my departments, serving on division and university-wide committees, and starting initiatives that increased student engagement across campus. I presented at regional and national conferences, received recognition, and mentored undergraduate students who would go on to careers of their own in postsecondary education. And through all this experience and self-assurance that I had contributed to inclusion and created a sense of belonging for all students, I rarely, if ever, thought about adult learners. In recent discussions with some former colleagues, neither have they.
CAEL's new framework for supporting institutional change, Building Adult Learner Leaders for Institutional Effectiveness - ALLIES, focuses on a series of ten planning and operational domains through which institutions can more effectively support today's adult learners. One of those domains, and the one that has resonated with me the most as a former postsecondary education professional and instructor, is Faculty/Staff Professional Development.
As stated in domain 5 of ALLIES, "an institution that effectively serves adults ensures that all faculty and staff are prepared to provide adult learners with flexible formats, support services, opportunities to connect their life experiences to what they are learning, and assignments that are predictable and potentially adjustable." Further, "when all faculty and staff are trained to serve adults well, that strengthens the overall capacity of the institution and its ability to sustain a long-term focus on adults." Yet, based on my experiences in postsecondary education, I wonder how often institutions think about development for faculty and staff, in the adult learner context, for those who don't appear to have a direct line to adult learner education. My guess is not very often, and only until recently did I truly understand why that can be so detrimental to an adult learner's ability to feel supported.
My last few months at my previous institution afforded me the opportunity to connect with the university's director of adult learner experience. She had just started in her role and had reached out to my department to explore how we might collaborate. I am so thankful she did. Our conversations gave me a greater understanding of the world of adult learners and their unique needs, and those insights helped my staff rethink co-curricular programming to serve adult learners. It also made me realize that I could, and should, do more for adults. This was my brief professional development crash course, if you will, on how to better serve adult learners, but it should not rest on the shoulders of one staff member to educate an entire institution's faculty and staff.
To be adult learner-focused, an institution must be intentional and invest in developing its faculty and staff on how to be inclusive in teaching, services, and practice to meet adult learners where they are and create a sense of belonging for them. Surveying faculty and staff is an easy starting point for institutional leadership to better understand where they are at in terms of information, resources, and capacity and to what extent, if any, they understand the unique needs of adult learners. Equally important in identifying gaps are what professional development resources can be made available to faculty and staff. As CAEL notes in the research findings, commonly requested professional development topics include: “better understanding the barriers facing adult learners and strategies to remove them; curricula and instructional strategy redesign to engage adult learners; understanding individual and departmental roles in implementing Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) programming; and strategies to connect adult learners to academic and non-academic support."
While it can be easy to only focus on developing faculty and staff with direct, academic adult learner touchpoints, it would be a misstep to think that the institutional reach of your adult learner population ends there. Like all students, though maybe at varying frequency, adult learners receive support from all corners of the institution (on-campus and virtually), and they are best served when all faculty and staff are developed to support them and can share in the mission of their success. Take it from me, your former student affairs programmer turned CAEL professional: don't let your faculty and staff go 15-plus years before opening their eyes to the rewarding work of serving, supporting, and championing adult learners.