Continuing education is an all encompassing term within a broad spectrum of post-secondary learning activities and programs. Recognized forms of post-secondary learning activities within the domain include: degree credit courses by non-traditional students, non-degree career training, workforce training, formal personal enrichment courses (both on-campus and online) self-directed learning (such as through Internet interest groups, clubs or personal research activities) and experiential learning as applied to problem solving.
General continuing education is similar to adult education, at least in being intended for adult learners, especially those beyond traditional undergraduate college or university age. However, it is not normally considered to include basic instruction such as literacy, English language skills, or programs such as vocational training or GED preparation. Instead, as the term suggests, it is assumed that the student already has an education and is simply continuing it.
Frequently, in the United States, continuing education involves enrollment in college/university credit-granting courses, often by students enrolled part-time, and often offered through a division or school of continuing education of a college/university known sometimes as the university extension or extension school. Also frequently in the US, it can mean enrollment in non-credit-granting courses, often taken for personal, non-vocational enrichment (although many non-credit courses can also have a vocational function). Also, in the US, many such non-credit courses are offered by community colleges.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 1904, was the first academic institution in the US to offer what today would be considered an identifiable continuing education program. In 1969, Empire State College, a unit of the State University of New York, was the first institution in the US to exclusively focus on providing higher education to adult learners.
Ten contact hours equals 1 Continuing Education Unit.
The method of delivery of continuing education can include traditional types of classroom lectures and laboratories. However, much continuing education makes heavy use of distance learning, which not only includes independent study, but which can include videotaped/CD-ROM material, broadcast programming,online/Internet delivery and online Interactive Courses.
In addition to independent study, the use of conference-type group study, which can include study networks (which can, in many instances, meet together online) as well as different types of seminars/workshops, can be used to facilitate learning. A combination of traditional, distance, and conference-type study, or two of these three types, may be used for a particular continuing education course or program.