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Collaborating with Continuing Education: Establishing a New Role Within Higher Ed’s New Normal

The EvoLLLution | Collaborating with Continuing Education: Establishing a New Role Within Higher Ed’s New Normal
Institutions are going to need to look at incorporating more online structures for future teaching methods that will last beyond this moment of crisis.

Institutions have been placed into the unfamiliar territory of remote learning. In the race to move programming to distance formats in the wake of COVID-19, staff and faculty have leaned heavily on their colleagues in non-traditional divisions. After all, workers in these units have been offering flexible online programming for decades. This is the time for institutions to be using their internal resources to better themselves as a whole. In this interview, Nelson Baker discusses how the professional education division at Georgia Tech—and school’s experience with Degrees At Scale—helped the university deliver remote learning courses, what effect remote learning has on the division itself and what it takes to have a secure working environment away from campus.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role has the Professional Education division played in helping the rest of the university adapt to remote teaching and learning?

Nelson Baker (NB): On the bi-weekly call with both the president and provost, the deans and cabinet were asked how everything was going. It was humbling to hear everybody acknowledge my team’s efforts to make this change happen in two weeks. The president said, had he been asked a month ago if it was possible to move the entire campus online in five years, his answer would have been no. To have it happen in just two weeks is nothing short of astonishing.

What we’ve done is help coordinate the movement of Georgia Tech classes to remote instruction. We’re trying to differentiate remote from online instruction because people are only relying on basic and incomplete technologies, like video conferencing, which misrepresents the true experience of online programming. The information still reaches a student not located or co-located with us, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s designed to be taught online. We’ve worked with colleges and IT groups across the entire university—meaning our campus is remote across the globe—to figure out the move online.

We had some help—and a heads-up—from our campus in China, which closed very early in this process. While the Atlanta campus wasn’t affected by the coronavirus in nearly the same way, we could lean on our colleagues’ experience to work through some of the issues.

Leveraging our 40 years of online experience plus our six years of scaled experience with online masters programs have greatly helped also. Of Georgia Tech’s 33,000 credit-bearing students, 14,000 were already online, so they haven’t missed a beat during this whole episode. Their classes have gone on as scheduled, as designed with faculty intentions and high quality.

All in all, it’s been very humbling to see these changes take place.

Evo: How did your experience with Degrees At Scale–and with the staff who run the offerings–help the rest of the university transition to remote?

NB: It’s largely been those teams at the forefront. Hiring great people is always part of any organization’s strategic and sustainability plan. The hires that we made five to seven years ago, as we were starting to build these programs, have been a huge asset in moving forward. The faculty have also played a huge role; we have close to 70 faculty teaching our at-scale programs online and they’ve been lending their expertise to their colleagues across the university.

What we’re seeing at the macroscopic level is that our scaled degree programs were scaled vertically. We were adding students in defined courses, making sure that we could have great quality, great access and great affordability. They’re scaling by adding more students to a particular class and making sure they’re well supported.

This scaling effort is a little different from what we’re doing now: horizontal scaling. We’re scaling across the entire university, so we’re starting to reflect on the difference between scaling vertically and horizontally. Having the individuals that helped us scale vertically be part of the team to scale horizontally has allowed us to take our resources and stretch them much wider.

Evo: What’s been the early feedback from the folks who are working in this space for the first time?

NB: It’s been a great testament to that cadre of individuals, faculty and staff who have been in this environment for years. They’re sharing their expertise to bring other faculty and teaching assistants into the fold. It’s not just the senior university leadership who are recognizing the work we’re doing. We’re starting to hear from faculty, staff and students as well, asking us if we can continue to do these kinds of things.

Students are also helping faculty leverage these new tools. Certainly, the traditional students are more adept with this than faculty, and they’re rolling up their sleeves suggesting ways to use it.

It’s great to see the exchange taking place between students and faculty. The feedback has been extremely positive, especially in terms of offering students better in more challenging areas, like physical labs. These seem to be taking place in one of two formats: one is by using past lab data or fabricating data and passing it on to students so they can complete the rest of the activities.  Secondly, we actually have some remote labs. We have a robotarium that is now seeing fourfold increase. Staff, faculty and students from across the globe are now using it for academic materials, where they can write software or sensors and attach them to the robots as part of their curriculum materials, which we would have never seen before.

Evo: What has the shift to remote learning meant for your courses and learners, especially those enrolled in professional education courses?

NB: For now, it’s been a lot of creative work happening very quickly. We didn’t have a lot of time to move to this environment, so it was about getting there quickly. How can we be nimble? How can we be flexible? Things continue to change quickly. Internally, one of the biggest challenges has been communication—making sure everybody understands everything that’s going on.

Now that the emergency, so to speak, is behind us, we are certainly beginning to identify. We’re reaching out to faculty and students who are not using the tools or are not using them as often as we would expect them to. We reach out through one-on-one consultations and ask how we can help, if they have any questions or know of any challenges with which we can support them.

The professional development adult learners have all been equally as concerned with their own business and personal life changes, so we’ve seen their education put on hold over the last two to four weeks, hoping that they come back as we all hit our new normal and new stride. But the economy is certainly going to play a role in some of that too.

Evo: Have you seen many cancellations in professional education courses, or are people largely comfortable moving to the remote format?

NB: Unlike others, a sizable part of my non-credit portfolio is comprised of DOD classified courses, and they’ve been canceled. They can’t run in these remote environments because of the lack of secure connections.

Other classes are a mixed bag. We’re seeing our language classes move online very adeptly. In some ways, we may see more enrollments because people are stuck at home, they’re looking for something to do, and it’s something they’ve been wanting to do anyway. We’re seeing faculty in other classes, focus on their credit-bearing activities and research. Alternate plans take precedence over their non-credit teaching portfolio. Those classes have been canceled, and we’re working with them now to get back online.

Evo: What has it taken to create a secure and compliant environment when people are working remotely and at home?

NB: This is where our past experience with online programs has helped us. All those tools were in the cloud. They’ve been vetted by our cybersecurity and data teams. We’re pushing for faculty to use those approved tools because we are concerned about data compliance. We’re also concerned about cybersecurity issues. We’ve all seen stories across the media about various software tools being corrupted over the last week. There are some pretty negative individuals across the world who are using this crisis as an opportunity for malice. Having those kinds of tool sets already in place and using VPN access for everything but video has helpful.

However, even when the tools are in the cloud, nobody planned for the bandwidth issues that we’re currently seeing. Video bandwidth is what I’m concerned about, and we’ve been having great conversations across the university around proctoring. Many proctoring tools require the use of video when a student is taking a test or some other form of assessment. Some of our students are in areas that don’t have strong internet connectivity, or they may be in a household with only one internet-enabled device that is now being shared by the family. Trying to schedule a synchronous session for a test via video is most challenging.

I was on a phone call yesterday with a group of students in an innovation course, and they were asking if they could work with us to understand the nuances of what it means to proctor assessment in these online formats and find newer ways of doing it. That’s where I think we’re going to come out of these kinds of challenges over the last couple of weeks. Things will be very different in many positive ways–not just in wanting to use more tools, but we’ll also see new innovations come out because more people are using these tools, they’re facing challenges with them, and they want to find new solutions.

Evo: How open do you think traditional faculties will be to experimenting with online and flexible learning options as we shift into a new normal?

NB: We’re going to see a lot more faculty and students wanting to do online remote instruction. It’s much more flexible and, in many ways, the students have been asking for this for a long time. But university institutions as a whole have been somewhat reluctant. This experiment that we’re all somewhat forced into at the moment is going to show us that remote learning is of much better quality than we ever dreamed it might be. There will be a lot of hybrid solutions. We’ll need to figure out how to use technology in ways that allow both environments (live and remote) to thrive. I’m extremely optimistic that we’re going to see a lot of innovations arise, and faculty, staff and students are all going to want to engage and contribute a lot more to their own education.

Evo: Reflecting on the past few weeks, what role do you think divisions that have historically focused on serving adults can start to play in helping institutions transform into hubs for lifelong learning?

NB: I’m extremely optimistic here. Georgia Tech has been playing that role for quite some time as we’ve been doing these programs at scale. There are certainly doubters across all universities on any topic. You’ll never get 100% of a university’s thinking to be 100% aligned. But by the same token, because of what’s happening, many doubters are now seeing the opportunities. The quality that wasn’t there five years ago is there now. They weren’t paying attention then, but now they have to. They’ll see that the work in the adult and online education space is germane to what they do in traditional residential education.

Along with innovation activities from students, we’re seeing new research projects spawn. Faculty are deeply engaged, and the whole higher ed ecosystem is going to respond to the crisis as the wake-up call folks have been wanting for some time.

Perhaps we haven’t been listening with the right set of ears. Now, we’re in it, we see it, and we hear it so much more clearly. The question becomes, how do we respond? Because it is our future.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 2, 2020.

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