Continuing Professional Education

Continuing Professional EducationContinuing professional education (CPE), or continuing education, is the education of professionals in a variety of fields and practice that offers preparation for a particular career or extends the individual’s knowledge and learning within a profession. CPE helps learners keep their knowledge current, build competencies, progress through a career, achieve promotions, and even shift into a different field. CPE is increasingly important in a context characterized by a boom in knowledge and technology coupled with public demand for accountability. In turn, these trends have increased the strain on continuing-education resources.

CPE certifies professional knowledge, skills, and abilities applicable to practice, while also addressing the professional’s ongoing learning needs. It generally emphasizes the acquisition of individual competency and reflective practice. CPE assumes a continuation of prior training and that the professional has a formal body of knowledge, authority based on this specialized knowledge and expertise, and accountability to clients. Past research has suggested that four factors define quality in CPE: participant readiness to learn, relevance to practice, appropriateness of presentation, and relevance to the professional’s needs.

The History of Continuing Education

Continuing education has been practiced throughout history, beginning with apprenticeships and guild systems of the middle ages. The field was named and claimed by adult education in the 1960s. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the professions, occupations based on discrete information and competencies, began to establish professional organizations and regulatory agencies that monitored continuing-education requirements for becoming licensed, certified, or a practitioner. While required in many career fields, compulsory professional education guarantees neither professional compliance nor competence. The foundations of the field were solidified in the 1980s, with publications such as Cyril Houle’s Continuing Learning in the Professions, and are grounded in adult-education theory.

In 2001, Ronald Cervero offered an assessment of 20 years of CPE, for the period from 1981 to 2000, noting five trends: (1) the amount of continuing education offered in the workplace dwarfs that offered by any other provider; (2) CPE is increasingly offered via distance education; (3) there are increasing collaborative arrangements among providers (i.e., universities and organizations); (4) the “corporatization” of continuing education has increased dramatically; and (5) continuing education is being used more frequently to regulate professional practice.

Controversies in Continuing Education

Controversies in CPE include compulsory CPE, market-driven CPE, and competency-based CPE. Although whether or not to make continuing education compulsory remains contentious, professionals continue learning throughout their careers. Proponents of compulsory CPE argue that it should be voluntary but believe this is an unrealistic goal. Proponents also argue that compulsory education will result in more efficiency and effectiveness, ensure equal access to a range of educational opportunities, and is a better alternative than periodic examination or review of practice. Opponents of compulsory CPE insist that it violates adult learning principles and that evidence is lacking that demonstrates that compulsory education improves performance, quality control, or practical relevance. It has also been noted that educational opportunities are not readily and equally available.

Other researchers have examined whether continuing-education programs should be market driven. Opponents argue that market-driven programs perpetuate inequality by ignoring the needs of those who can’t afford to pay for the program, by meeting individual needs but not societal needs, and creating profit at the expense of educational benefit. The controversy over market-driven CPE programs rests on three issues: who the market is, whether higher education’s mission will change, and how continuing education is viewed within higher education. Some experts in the field advocate a market-driven orientation that is tempered with a socially conscious effort to balance profit with an ethical approach, while others believe that continuing-education programs should be demand driven, make a difference in the big picture, encourage learners to think critically, incorporate multiple perspectives, and change learners.

CPE’s ability to maintain and enhance competence is an issue, as are enhancing accountability and relating to the context of practice. Researchers have argued that if CPE is to be effective in the future, educators must shift from a program mentality to developing professional competence. A fallacy of CPE is that participation automatically translates into professional competence. There is increasing pressure on CPE providers to demonstrate the value and impact of their work. Laura Bierema and Michael Eraut have observed that CPE harbors dysfunctional assumptions that diminish its effectiveness, including that CPE fails to pay sufficient attention to more complex representations of personal knowledge, skills, and competencies that have emerged during the past decade. CPE also tends toward the trendy and exaggerates formal learning over the more frequent and rich informal learning that takes place in the workplace independent of CPE. CPE is also individually focused, making it less effective than substantive changes in the collective practices of colleagues, administration, organizational structure, or culture. CPE also needs to better address issues of diversity through increasing self-awareness, examining diversity issues in the CPE teaching relationship (learner and educator), and developing more inclusive research and theory.

The Future of Continuing Education

In the future, CPE must be regarded not as a program, but as a system of building professional competence. In this regard, Donna Queeney has observed that continuing education must address application of knowledge and skills within a practice context, must go beyond simply providing information and teaching technical procedures, and must help professionals build their collaborative, judgmental, reflective, and integrative capacities.

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  1. Bierema, L. L. and Eraut, M. 2004. “Workplace-focused Learning: Perspective on Continuing Professional Education and Human Resource Development.” Advances in Developing Human Resources: Boundary Spanning: Expanding Frames of References for Human Resource Development and Continuing Education 6:52-68.
  2. Cervero, R. M. 2001. “Continuing Professional Education in Transition, 1981-2000.” International Journal of Lifelong Education 20:16-30.
  3. Houle, C. O. 1980. Continuing Learning in the Professions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Queeney, D. S. 2000. “Continuing Professional Education.” Pp. 375-391 in Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, edited by A. L. Wilson and E. R. Hayes. San Francisco. CA: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Queeney, D. S. and English, J. K. 1994. “Mandatory Continuing Education: A Status Report.” Information Series No. 357. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearing House on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.