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Generating Change and Operational Success: What You Need to Know

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked much anxiety around change, it’s important to consider these changes as opportunities for improvement in the educational framework. 

From late March until mid-May, most university and college campuses were in 24-hour, non-stop, “go mode.” The task of moving all institutional operations online in a matter of days, all while monitoring the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map and trying to keep ourselves and our families safe. Don’t forget stocking up on hand sanitizer, wipes, toilet paper (and maybe wine). The phased plans that overnight became everyone-leaving-all-at-once plans, the shift to remote work, and the closing of buildings kept us occupied, fiercely engaged on urgent tasks, and anxious. Many schools elected to provide students with a pass/fail option given that everyone was displaced–physically, intellectually, and emotionally. After the frenzy subsided, however, we had the opportunity to take a (short) breath, focus on the summer and build new schedules, develop faculty online teaching support and workshops, write temporary policies, and slow down the pace of communication for the fall and forward. 

From that moment, campuses made the shift to remote operations, and we’ve seen numerous predictions for what will happen next. Will there be a new normal? A next normal? Or will we manage to go back to the way things were before March? I’ve said more than once these last few months that I welcome the opportunity to rethink higher education, I just didn’t want to do it all at once–and with the whole university all at once. But the truth is that now, we do have this opportunity, if we choose to embrace it. Of course, embracing it is one thing–coming up with a plan or strategy is another. 

One suggestion is to look to the strategies employed by professional and continuing education units. While these units are part of a university, and often act as a front porch for it, they are typically run by staff who may not feel a part of the larger university culture, operate on a different set of budgetary guidelines, and are flat-out considered “auxiliary”(supplementary or additional) to the university. However, their success depends on a few principles that credit-bearing degree programs and institutional support systems may consider generative for change. A few of those principles include the following: 

Focus on the learner 

Continuing education units’ successes depend on their ability to attract new learners and re-enroll current or previous ones. Courses are designed to meet clearly articulated learning objectives. The courses’ goals are to ensure that each participant attains a high degree of understanding and meets those learning objectives. 

Feedback from participants that influence the next interaction 

Continuing education units take feedback from participants seriously. Most units survey participants frequently to understand what worked well and what was unsuccessful. They review the feedback with their instructors to improve the course so that interest is maintained. 

Agile format 

Continuing education units deliver content in the ways that serve their students best: on-campus or at the work site, in-person or online, live or self-paced, in small groups or with large organizations, short or day-long sessions. 

Adaptive content 

Continuing education units plan and offer content according to the participants’ needs and interests. If a session doesn’t draw sufficient interest, it’s not offered as often. Or, it’s revised until the content becomes more relevant to students.

Responsive programming

Many continuing education units not only “read the reports” about industry and community demands but they actively seek input from the community on what’s trending and what has become less relevant. They seek to match their programming to what learners need and want to learn. 

Partnerships with experts 

Continuing education content is delivered by instructors through courses, often including third parties who offer content with a cost-sharing structure. 

Infrastructure based on support

Continuing education units understand the importance of well-timed and relevant support. If no one answers the phone, takes several days to respond to an email, or can’t answer a question, that opportunity is lost. They also present a more simplified, one-stop shop approach to inquiries, registration, payments, and participation. Communication is clear and frequent with instructions on next steps. 

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that higher education institutions take on a wholly market-driven approach to curriculum design, development, and delivery.  However, as we look for “wins” in this time, we might look to these and other continuing education frameworks to decide what we might also adapt to our benefit. For example, institutions that have coupled fully online credit-bearing degree programs with continuing and professional education units already drink from the same fountain. Now that we have experienced some degree of a fully digital environment and have seen that things can in fact be done differently, perhaps tradition-bound institutions will also take up opportunities that may have seemed impossible to achieve previously. Will there be wholesale change? No, not likely, nor does there need to be. However, thinking through some of the frameworks to make even incremental changes may make a difference to many of our learners. 


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