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Catalyzing Lifelong Learning and Engagement

The way forward in higher education is catering to a wide variety of traditional and nontraditional learners while collaborating across the institution to limit administrative burden.  

Investing in adult learners is key to moving the institution forward, and it starts with delivering programming and support services that meet their needs. But it’s no small feat to produce these offerings, and it requires a lot of collaboration to do so effectively. In this interview, Ken Udas, Nicole Remy and Jed Breinholt discuss their digital learning efforts, launching a Continuing Education unit and the lessons they learned from the process.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the objectives and scope of the Digital Learning Initiative efforts at the University of Idaho?

Ken Udas (KU): It’s something new that we just launched. Digital Learning became a thing about two and a half years ago out of recognition that the university needed guidance. It specifically needed leadership in investment in digital learning. We had a bit of funding to invest in this initiative that the university finds valuable. We work within academic groups and host virtual learning activities to support learning in different environments.

We also invest in research and new program development. If an academic unit is interested in launching a program with particular qualities, we review it and help invest. We also do compliance work to ensure we’re reporting correctly. We have a broader relationship with Online Idaho, which is a statewide initiative where we coordinate with external groups.

Evo: What are some key factors that led to the launch of the Continuing Education unit?

KU: It was entirely instigated by academic leaders on campus. We had two deans, a vice provost and myself talking about their frustrations with launching nonacademic programs. That’s where it started, and we took responsibility of working with their colleagues.

We got interest from other departments, and there was a lot going on in a decentralized way. There was a lot of focus on educational outreach efforts. We traditionally didn’t serve a lot of nontraditional or adult students, so our systems weren’t designed around their unique needs. They were initially designed for the more traditional residential student.

Everyone wants a better prospective learner experience for nontraditional students and programming, while reducing complexity for those running the programs. Those two principles are functional drivers. As a land-grant institution and flagship public institution in the state, we have a responsibility to serve all residents, no matter their age.

Nicole Remy (NR): Some programming across the university has been running and operating in nontraditional ways, but there hasn’t been that cohesive support for that would allow it to reach those administrative goals while facilitating the learner experience. We wanted to find a way to help funnel and support these outcomes in a central way that makes it easier and more attractive to faculty and students.

Evo: What are some operational factors required to manage and scale this type of unit?

KU: A challenge is that we don’t have a Continuing Professional Education that would naturally take ownership and lead it. This initiative comes out of the provost’s office more generally. We’re looking at this in a decentralized way. So, we’re providing context and support while moving toward and managing a consortium of providers.

The general arc isn’t about launching infrastructure technology to support it but rethinking our business processes and workflows to meet more nontraditional needs. We don’t have access to state appropriations, so what’s the incentive system and financial model allows this to be. In three years, we’re looking to be a self-sustaining unit.

Jed Brienholt (JB): My background is in ed tech, and the way I see it is we have a platform. You come with your thing, and we’ll support it the best we can as long as it’s compatible. So, from a decentralized approach, we work with their requirements as customers and not mandate policies.

This is a more egalitarian approach to get people what they need. Our hope is to compile best practices and not make people institute a weird process in five to ten years. We’re taking an operational approach, and it will allow us to be successful in a place where traditionally you have to centralize.

Evo: What are some early lessons you’ve learned from launching the unit?

KU: We’ve learned that we’re better off—when we look at what we promise—being flexible rather than focused on performance. At the end of the day, our colleagues and partners put a lot of trust in us to deliver what’s going to be best for their students and college.

We’re engaged in a significant change process from a business perspective, particularly through the registrar’s office, admissions and other areas of the programs that were typically bundled together with academic programs.

There are people throughout the university running systems and doing a good job. It’s just not the job we need for these students. So, it’s important to remember that the decisions that got us to a particular point, the workflows that exist, were made by knowledgeable professionals who did the best they could at that time.

NR: The scope of this project wasn’t designed to be huge, so we’re starting by taking on some solid professional development and extension programming that already exists. We’re trying to help funnel it into a more productive, useful and user-friendly platform. There’s complexity to continually looking at the scope of what we’re doing. As we’re navigating institutional practices and policies, we’re defining and refining the way CAPE will work alongside institutional practices that work well.

As we continue, it’s going to require good partnerships across campus—not only with academic units but also administrative functions and operations. We’re not trying to operate far away from them. We’re just figuring out how to integrate a system into a newer system. It’s critical that we continue to learn lessons in partnerships and check in with ourselves. Humility is the name of the game. We must take a step back and ask questions to ensure we’re doing our due diligence to set ourselves up for future success.

Evo: How do you envision CAPE over the next five years?

KU: CAPE is an entry point for a larger dialogue around lifelong learning and engagement. We want to concentrate on offering educational experiences that can be adapted in an agile fashion. CAPE needs to be that aircraft carrier the university can refer to. I envision it evolving into the university’s strategy and how it meets the fundamental mission.

I expect significant growth, new programs and to see CAPE be a source of creativity for those who are deeply connected to their community. I see this becoming a self-sustaining process that’s widely distributed. A collaborative form of decision-making will also have an impact. In that, I’m hoping we see a new model for how the university manages decision-making and stakeholder input.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.