Noncredit adult education in California traces its origins back to 1856, when the first adult school opened in San Francisco and offered courses in basic numeracy, literacy, and vocational education to immigrants (West, 2012). Supporting a population influx fueled by the gold rush, California’s new statehood status, and the marketing promises of the West, noncredit adult education provided a foundation for what would soon be the community college system and adult educational opportunities in California.
Nearly 175 years later, the core mission of noncredit adult education remains the same: to provide learners with basic skills, workforce preparation, college preparation, short-term training, and other skills they need to succeed in college, life, and work. While its mission remains unchanged, its scope has expanded to include K-12 students in early college preparation and career readiness through dual enrollment.
In 2022-23, nearly a quarter of a million students enrolled in one or more free noncredit classes at one of 108 community colleges offering noncredit across California (California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, n.d.). Through the convergence of state restrictions on pre-transfer and an increasing demand for workforce training and upskilling opportunities, colleges are increasingly tapping into the potential and flexibility of noncredit programming.
As institutions build noncredit programs, they will see an increased need for qualified instructors to teach the courses. While significant discussion has taken place on standards for minimum preparation for faculty, more formal discussion is warrented regarding what constitutes highly prepared and effective instructors.
The Uniqueness of Noncredit Students
The needs of noncredit students require that their instructors be the best of the best. Before seeking to enroll in adult education programs, many noncredit students have yet to be successful in their educational pursuits for a myriad of reasons (Skjoldhorne, et.al., 2023). They may have
- had to drop out of school to provide for their families.
- immigrated from a new country and need to build their language skills and sometimes repeat programs and degrees in the U.S. for which they have foreign credentials.
- undiagnosed or untreated disabilities, which may create frustration with the learning process and a feeling of otherness.
- been ridiculed and ostracized for not conforming to gender norms or those of the dominant culture.
- been justice-involved and are returning to a formalized educational setting with limited recent socialization.
- given up on their educational goals because they experienced trauma in the classroom: a disrespectful teacher, microaggressions, embarrassment, lack of support, and a plethora of other reasons. Similarly, they may have experienced trauma outside of the classroom, such as the loss of a loved one, a life-changing accident, or loss of permanent housing.
Conversely, some noncredit students are naturally curious to learn and want to try something new. They have had very positive learning experiences and want to continue learning throughout their lifespans. Other students find value in building relationships and making connections through community engagement.
The state of California establishes minimum qualifications for the employment of all community college faculty. However, the minimum qualifications are exactly that, a bottom line, and colleges may wish to consider other desirable qualifications in their hiring decisions. Noncredit students deserve and need instructors who are community-centered, skilled in pedagogy, and innovative in design, as well as being flexible and adaptable in their approach and being practitioners of radical care and cultural humility. Consideration of these characteristics and skill sets in hiring criteria along with the minimum qualifications will enhance the effectiveness of noncredit instruction.
Attributes and Characteristics of an Effective Noncredit Instructor
Community-centered: Noncredit education bridges the community, college, and classrooms. It is a kaleidoscope for California's community colleges, providing a unique learning forum for students from a range of generations, educational attainment, cultures, and languages. Many noncredit students begin their college journey through a college-community partnership or a satellite center. Noncredit faculty must understand and recognize the essence of the communities they serve, from urban neighborhoods to rural service areas.
Skilled in the art and science of teaching: Different life stages require different strategies for teaching and learning. Effective noncredit instructors should be prepared to teach minors, adults, and older adults using a variety of instructional methodologies grounded in pedagogy, andragogy or adult learning theory, and geragogy or older adult learning theory (University of Illinois, Springfield, n.d.). A successful noncredit instructor should have a foundation in pedagogy, andragogy, arguably geragogy, and strategies to support students with disabilities. The one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning does a disservice to students. Multiple instructional methodologies will likely be needed to teach an objective based on the given needs of the student population. Instructors must be willing to try and fail and try something else to help their students achieve the desired learning outcomes; therefore, they must have an innovative mindset.
Innovative in instructional design and practice: Innovation, the iterative process of generating and implementing new ideas, is essential for the most effective noncredit instructors (Muzumdar, 2019). Faculty must be willing to experiment with various instructional approaches to meet the individual needs of each student. Each population has its own needs that converge within a single course. Student abilities vary widely, from those with an elementary school education to those with professional degrees. Yet, all students work toward the same goal, in the same space, with the same instructor. These demands require patience and flexibility.
Patient: A patient instructor recognizes that students learn at their own pace and that several iterations of the presentation of content using multiple methodologies may be necessary for students to obtain mastery. Such instructors also recognize that learning is a process, mastery takes time, and making mistakes is an integral part of the learning process. These notions apply to both the student and the instructor, for faculty must also be patient with themselves.
Flexible and adaptable: Noncredit learners have competing demands on their time, including family, work, and other commitments. Effective teachers of noncredit learners must be flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of their students. Examples include moving away from punitive participation models and making space for unexpected life scenarios. Noncredit faculty must be prepared to build a cushion of flexibility into each course that does not punish students when something beyond their control occurs, knowing and understanding that students may have families to care for, variable work schedules, unreliable transportation, and other stresses and need the educational content to change their circumstances.
Practice radical care: Dr. Rosa L. Rivera-McCutchen (2021) introduces radical care as a framework based on five intentional actions: addressing anti-racism, building relationships on trust, setting excellence as an expectation for both faculty and students, leveraging power, and seeking to believe the best is possible regardless of how circumstances may appear. This holistic approach is critical to supporting the psychological, social, and emotional needs of students, especially in class settings that strive to achieve anti-racist and inclusive learning environments (Howard,2021), which are necessary for creating the sense of safety and belonging needed to achieve success. A noncredit faculty member must be comfortable with being an advocate and strong voice for students who experience challenges and have been traditionally excluded, in many instances, from essential support and opportunities. Cultural humility is a crucial ingredient to practicing radical care.
Practice cultural humility: Cultural humility requires instructors to be self-reflective and aware of personal biases and beliefs about racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, for these beliefs could hinder their ability to provide effective instruction and serve all of their students (University of Oregon, n.d.). Cultural humility also requires instructors to be aware of their positionality and the power dynamics within the classroom and commit to removing those barriers to create an environment conducive to learning.
From Qualified to Exceptional
As institutions continue to develop and update noncredit programming, considerable thought should be given to the competencies and qualities of noncredit instructors. The state of California establishes minimum qualifications for hiring faculty, but, given the increasingly vulnerable populations and unique backgrounds of the students noncredit regularly serves, colleges would do well to consider additional desirable charateristics. The most effective faculty will have foundations in adult learning theory and equity-mindedness. The reemergence of noncredit is rooted in a reimagination of teaching and learning practices at California's community colleges.
California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. (n.d.). Data Mart Student Headcount.
Howard, T. (2021, March 3). Educators need to provide radical care for students. UCLA School of Education & Information Studies.
Muzumdar, S. (2019, March 20). Integrating innovative learning in everyday instructional design practice. eLearning Industry.
Rivera-McCutchen, R. L. (2021). Radical care: Leading for justice in urban schools. Teachers College Press.
University of Illinois Springfield. (n.d.). Pedagogy, andragogy, & heutagogy.
University of Oregon. (n.d.). What is cultural humility? The basics.
West, L. L. (2012). A brief history of adult education in California community colleges. Capital Adult Education Regional Consortium.
Skjoldhorne, S., Barrat, V., & Toso, B. (2023). Adult education transitions to postsecondary education and adult learners in the workforce: An analysis of the California Adult Education Data System (CAEDS). WestEd.