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How to Deliver: What Continuing Ed Leaders Need to Know About Scaling

Changes to Continuing Education were underway, but the pandemic sped up progress and fostered the need for more alignment with industry.
Changes to Continuing Education were underway, but the pandemic sped up progress and fostered the need for more alignment with industry.

Continuing Ed is in a particularly unique spot; students come from so many industries and walks of life that there is not a set way to teach all of them. Scaling education to ensure each type of student gets the best education possible can transform an institution and the community it serves.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can Continuing Ed divisions work to scale enrollments while delivering learners a high-quality experience?

Angie Kamath (AK): The first thing we have to take off the table is the notion that Continuing Ed is the cash cow revenue-generation silver bullet for higher ed institutions. If we suspend reality and just put that aside, scale, quality and quantity can coexist. In the U.S., one in five learners does not complete their college degree. Continuing Education must be something we can do at scale. And again, if we’re going to be tying work to labor market information, industry trends, open jobs and employer needs, the notion of quality and quantity is about focus.

Continuing Ed can balance quality and quantity, but it requires a lot of focus to resist running through and managing a catalog of 600 possible offerings. We need to really listen to the labor market and make sure we can find 100 or even 50 offerings that address skills gaps, job hiring needs and industry demands. And that’s the way you can balance the two. When we fixate on being a cash cow and having a huge catalog of offerings, it is impossible to offer high-quality education and scale. But it becomes more realistic with a focused portfolio driven by employer and industry demand.

Evo: What can be done to ensure the programs offered align with workforce needs?

AK: There have been incredible strides over the past decade in discussing middle-skill jobs and skill gaps. Over the past five years in particular, I’ve seen many products coming out of Burning Glass, Emsi and LinkedIn starting to tie together skill needs required by industry, as well as credentialing and training opportunities. And I love that I can visualize the notion of a skill wheel. When I think about a skill wheel—from the ones that I have seen—Burning Glass has done some really good ones with probably three different types of skills all workers need. And so there’s not just one skill that someone needs to fill in a gap and get hired.

Jobs require technical skills. Whether in social media analytics, coding, project management or data visualization, they’re business-enabling skills that help you do a job better. And then there are human skills—being a great communicator, a great team player, showing great leadership, being an inclusive manager. Those are human skills. As we start thinking about how to narrow a catalog from 600 offerings to 50 and about how those skills interact, you could end up consolidating three courses into one.

When you think about data analytics, maybe it’s not just data analytics and learning how to visualize or use Tableau. Maybe it’s data analytics combined with project management. Maybe it’s thinking about communication and digital storytelling. And about how you start to pair business-enabling technical and human skills together because that’s what employers want. Employers often say they can teach on the technical side but need the human skills, or they have the human skills but need the technical skills. And those are really strange decisions to make and false dichotomies to put forth.

Evo: How can Continuing Ed leaders take advantage of the global nature of today’s higher education marketplace?

AK: This idea of durable skills such as human skills, business-enabling and technical skills—those are durable skills on a fairly global scale. If you’re a worker in Asia, Europe or Latin America, we have spent enough time with enough global industries that those skills are very much valued globally. In terms of taking advantage of the higher ed marketplace globally, there is a marketing challenge to that. Organizations have to assess on paper if it would make sense to have a huge global market for which you push money and dollars into marketing. But I also think being regional is really important.

Being domestic, looking at your own immediate community, then thinking about how you can be regional. I don’t think there’s enough focus on regionalism. So, taking advantage of the global nature of higher ed lies in offering relevant, durable skills, not just in your immediate community but in a regional, national, global sense. You have to pick—and for different leaders in different institutions, that might mean something different. So in a Canadian market, it might make a lot of sense to think about these kinds of different skills of a global nature than in an organization in London. It probably makes a lot of sense to think differently across Europe.

From my perspective, at New York University, we have such a dense population. I can do a lot regionally. I will definitely use and leverage my global sites in 16 cities around the world for particular areas. Organizations need to pick their shots, but I would say looking beyond immediate borders is quite important. And again, looking beyond immediate borders could be global, regional, it could be just thinking about the different types of learners already in your backyard.

Evo: How can Continuing Ed divisions leverage and market stackable credentialing models to transform single enrollments into lifelong learners?

AK: Stackable credentialing makes sense on paper, but I haven’t seen it work really well in practice—at scale—as much as I would like it to. Consumer behavior and student behavior haven’t backed up the very elegant notion that one can stack credentials. To be candid, it’s not because individuals are failing to persist and failing to follow through. Employers aren’t necessarily rewarding that stacking or upskilling in a way that makes that return-on-investment work. So, I want to put out there that stackable credentials are really smart. I just have not seen them work in practice from a learner behavior and an employer behavior perspective.

That said, I find that notion of lifelong learning engagements to be very important in thinking about student experience and success. There’s a lot of work to be done in lifelong learning. Stackable credentialing is one way of getting lifelong learning engagements from a single enrollment, but I don’t think it’s the only way. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about design and the whole “design your life” movement that originated out of Stanford with the Design Your Life Lab. And that research suggests that most people don’t have only one passion they want to pursue.

Most people have multiple passions, and the notion of a stackable credential aligns with going deep into one area, but most people want to go deep in different areas. The notion that a single enrollment and a great applied, hands-on learning experience that’s transformative to someone’s career trajectory—I think a great course can absolutely lead to lifelong learning engagements, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a stackable credential.

Evo: What trends do you think Continuing Ed leaders should keep a close eye on over the next few years?

AK: If I had a crystal ball, I would see three things: diversity, equity, and inclusion, whether we’re looking at this from a youth perspective, a gender perspective, an age perspective or a race perspective. Being able to target particular demographics is incredibly important. We’re in a moment here. And as we’re recording this on Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada, it’s very fitting that we really think about what we’re doing for particular populations. That’s an important trend. We also need to make sure, for example, we’re spending a lot of time right now thinking about Metaverse training and all the business opportunities and implications of the 3D environment.

Right now, 17% of people in virtual 3D Web3 environments are women. And wouldn’t it be important to ensure we’re not creating yet another STEM, where we have to play catch-up five years from now to make it more inclusive? And so, that’s an example of where we should start now. Start classes focused on particular populations, so Girls Who Code and other great organizations don’t have to play catch-up to make areas more representative.

A second piece that feels really important, at least here in the U.S., is the huge demographic shifts. Folks who are individual learners—potential l learners approaching retirement or in retirement—will not have a high enough income to be as comfortable either intellectually or financially as they would like. And they’re looking for more. Thinking about entrepreneurship and opportunity for near-retirees or current retirees to transfer their skills in meaningful ways to contribute to their economies and communities is incredibly important. I’m very dissatisfied when we think about seniors who often want to contribute, want to work, want to give back in some way, and the answer is they volunteer or join a nonprofit board. They have much more to give, and economies will rely on that workforce.

The third piece I’m excited about understanding is Continuing Ed’s hybrid nature. Much of pre-COVID Continuing Ed was delivered in person, then the pandemic forced a lot of it online. There’s fatigue, and the whole smart, flipped classroom model and the hybrid experience are exciting and important. People want connection and ease in how they consume material in flipped classrooms, where a lot of work is done online or asynchronously. Then you actually have wonderful live experiences. That feels really important. And I don’t know what that trend is like when, in all of the Continuing Ed I’ve done, has been online or in-person. Developing really robust hybrid experiences is very exciting, very needed and long overdue.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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