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Reflections on Non-Traditional Higher Ed in Canada (Part One): The Relationship with Main Campus

The EvoLLLution | Reflections on Non-Traditional Higher Ed in Canada (Part One): The Relationship with Main Campus
By maintaining a clear focus on the workforce-oriented skills sought by non-traditional learners and working with faculties to create programming that responds to those needs, continuing education units can add value to institutions and learners alike.

Continuing education divisions vary from institution to institution across the country, and while there are many differences that set them (and their universities) apart from one another, there are even more similarities that bind them together. Over the course of this two-part interview series, three non-traditional division leaders from universities across Canada share their insights into some of the commonalities and differences that make this space so unique.

In this first installment, Heather McRae, Carolyn Young and Ian Allen discuss the state of non-traditional education at their respective universities and reflect on the critical importance of forging strong partnerships with main campus divisions and leaders.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): To get the lay of the land, could you each give a short introduction to your division, its focus, and its place in the wider university?

Heather McRae (HM): The School of Continuing Education at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, was established in 2014 with a mandate to provide innovative educational experiences and credentials that complement and enhance MacEwan’s diploma and degree programming. We focus on building relationships with the broader institution’s faculty, with the goal of working together to find opportunities that enhance a student’s cross-disciplinary abilities, making them better able to respond to changes and challenges facing the world.

We work very closely with internal and external partners to develop new types of certificates and expand access to educational opportunities for adult learners who require language and academic support. 

Carolyn Young (CY): Western Continuing Studies is considered the bridge between Western University and the broader community in London, Ontario. We have several unique program areas: professional development, open enrollment, credit-bearing post-degree diplomas, and French immersion. We have campuses in two different locations: London, Ontario and Trois-Pistoles, Quebec. 

Ian Allen (IA): The College of Extended Learning at the University of New Brunswick is a fairly robust continuing education unit. We’ve been around since the mid-1950’s, and we are considered a profit center for the university. In fact, after tuition, our net return to the institution is the single largest source of revenue at the University of New Brunswick. We have five primary areas that fall under our purview: credit programming and learner support, including a prior learning assessment Centre of Excellence; career and professional development; the UNB Arts Center, which includes the university’s art collection and gallery; the Centre for Musical Arts; and our English language program.

We’ve always been the outreach arm of the institution. We have strong community connections, particularly through art and music, and we are the voice of part-time and adult students at the university. As you know, the demographics of higher education are changing, so continuing adult and part-time students are a growing market. That’s where we’ve experienced a lot of growth over the last number of years, as people require upskilling to move from one position or line of work to another.

We’re always trying to find new ways to be relevant to the needs of our students. Of course, that doesn’t mean trying to figure out what people are going to need now or next week, but what are they going to need next year and five years down the road.

Evo: How do robust programming partnerships between the College of Extended Learning at the University of New Brunswick and the main campus faculties support the College’s mission to serve as the access point for adults and part-time learners?

IA: From a financial perspective, partnerships with continuing education units are one of the ways that faculties are able to continue to do what they do best without having to worry about losing a faculty member or support staff because of university cuts. Universities are in deficit situations across the country. Partnerships with continuing education units allow faculties to expand their reach on a more national and international level. We’re the experts in pulling all of the moving parts together to administer, develop and deliver programs in-house.

So what does it take to build and maintain those partnerships? Faculties are very protective of their offerings and members, and rightly so. It takes a lot of effort to create a level of trust where faculties understand that it’s in their best interest to work with us to create new avenues to programming. We have the necessary skills and human resource capacity to help them expand their programming, without taking any ownership of the content ourselves. These relationships can take a long time to develop and nurture.

We’ve got great working relationships with a number of faculties on campus. I would love to have that exact same relationship with everybody, but some content areas are less conducive to delivering courses through online learning. It’s a continual process of relationship building: we need to stay on top of the folks within the faculties, meaning the deans themselves, and we also need to be very transparent about how we can help make their lives more financially stable.

Evo: You’ve described an interesting support organization mentality in facilitating the work of your main campus colleagues. Does this mentality require an ego check when you’re making that transition from academic unit to support provider?

IA: It definitely requires an ego check; we make no bones about it. On the degree credit side, we’re not looking to develop content ourselves. On the non-credit side, we have carte blanche to do whatever we want, within reason. When it comes to for-credit programming, we align ourselves with the faculties to deliver their offering. This makes it a win-win situation. They don’t have the capacity to deliver these programs to new audiences, and when every element of offering management—online development, delivery, administration, marketing and communications, et cetera—are centralized in one area like ours, it’s a more effective use of resources for us and for the university as a whole.

Evo: Carolyn, you mentioned the work that Western Continuing Studies does to maintain its immersion programming and build experiential, applicable learning opportunities for students. What does it take to offer immersive learning opportunities specifically designed for non-traditional learners?

CY: We are a leader in immersion and experiential learning. Last year, over 700 students were engaged in either a workplace practicum or enrolled in our French immersion program. We have a strong foundation for our immersive and experiential learning opportunities, and it takes relationships and resources to build that strong foundation.

Relationships with employers are essential. If you want to provide effective experiential learning programs, students want to know which employers are going to participate, and how committed those employers are going to be. Every student that enrolls in the seven different diplomas we offer is guaranteed a four-month full-time placement with an employer after their eight months of courses. What’s so exciting about those work placements is that many of the students end up getting hired by the employer. In some of our diploma programs, one hundred percent of students finish the one year diploma and are gainfully employed.

For example, within six months of graduating, students in our occupational health and safety program are fully employed in that particular specialization. That applies to almost all of our programs. We’re very pleased that we can share that statistic with prospective students, especially given the number of recent university graduates who are mal-employed and underemployed. That’s one of the reasons we feel our diploma programs are so successful—they lead to gainful employment.

Relationships take time. They involve lengthy collaboration. And so, for our diploma programs, we have a full-time coordinator who works with employers to place students. For our French Immersion School, we have an administrative team of at least eight people who ensure that the students have an excellent experience while learning French in Trois-Pistoles. Our French immersion program has been in place for 86 years, and involves over 100 families who offer their homes to students who want to learn how to speak French. The success of the program comes down to building those community relationships.

Evo: How does operational efficiency and effectiveness help your team at Western Continuing Studies follow through on delivering and maintaining such a significant array of experiential program offerings?

CY: Whether they’re current or prospective students, when people come to our website looking for courses, they expect a smooth registration process. It’s been very important to us from the very beginning to have operational efficiency in place around registration. That’s been a game changer for us.

We implemented a new student information system in 2014, and it’s really helped us grow. Prior to the new system, only 13 percent of our enrollments were automated. Since we moved to the new system, 98 percent of our enrollments are completed using a self-service functionality. That’s been really productive for our team. Instead of doing data entry, they can do more work with students around advising, recruiting and relationship-building.

For me, the biggest change in having that operational efficiency in place is that I have excellent reporting tools. I can access over 150 reports which help me understand our students’ approach to enrollment. Having that up-to-date data means that when my faculty-side colleagues at Western give me a call, I can explain what we’re doing for them, with complete confidence in our numbers. That’s been a challenge for some of our colleagues in continuing education at other institutions: Without the access to those reports, they don’t necessarily know something as simple as their total registration numbers. From the perspective of relationship-building, this is also immensely valuable as it provides our colleagues with up-to-date information on our impact.

So, there have been multiple benefits to having operational efficiency and it has definitely made our ability to manage our unique program areas far more effective.

Evo: Heather, MacEwan University does some really fascinating work when it comes to ensuring that students not just within a particular division but across the entire institution have access to a very diverse array of program offerings and credential types. What role has your division played in helping to build that diversity of workforce programming and making it available to all learners at MacEwan?

HM: MacEwan is in a unique position in that it transitioned from a college to a university in the past 10 years, so there’s been a lot of opportunity for innovation. I’ve been very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in terms of being able to execute innovative new ideas within the context of a public university. Our first credit certificate program was developed in partnership with the Department of Psychology. The Behavioral Interventions Program focuses on specific courses and practicums in the field of autism. It has an embedded design, which means that students can use the credits for completion of their psychology degree and can also apply for a certificate of achievement in behavioral intervention. If they successfully meet the requirements of the certificate program, they can then do some additional work to attain a certification known as the Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst.

This is a great opportunity for students who have an interest in autism to complete a psychology degree and a certificate that puts them on the road towards a professional designation. We’re currently working with faculty in all areas of the university to develop new types of courses and programs in sustainability, global awareness, Python programming, machine learning and digital experience design.

We’re building on the strengths within all of our faculties to identify the programs and courses that can help prepare students for the workforce when they graduate. These courses are available to students who have completed an undergraduate degree or people who are currently in the workforce. Our programs serve current and graduated students, as well as professionals who are interested in taking a course that is aligned to the workforce.

Further to Carolyn and Ian’s comments about the importance of partnerships, in all of these programs we’re working with industry to ensure that there’s a very strong connection between our programs and the job market.

Evo: What are some of the unique challenges involved in developing a stackable model that creates all of these various access points for different demographics of learners? How do you ensure that learners are being guided towards credit-bearing offerings and industry-critical credentials?

HM: Carolyn talked about the importance of operational efficiency with regard to a modern enrollment and registration system. And believe it or not, as great as technology is, sometimes it creates challenges in trying to help students get the right kind of recognition for the courses they’re taking. In our environment, there are a lot of systems issues that we need to sort out, ranging from the registration process itself to ensuring that the courses count towards a degree.

We had other concerns when I first started and we began intertwining the non-credit and credit sides of the university. Some people were worried that we might be trying to provide backdoor entrance for non-credit students that would take spaces from credit-seeking students, or that non-traditional enrollment would require more resources. Another issue that we faced initially was that many people within the traditional university model didn’t understand the notion of stackable or concurrent programming. They were very suspicious of things like microcredentials or modular programming, and thought that somehow it might diminish the traditional university experience.

One the other hand, however, students have been extremely supportive of these kinds of programs. They see the benefit of taking skills-oriented programs that have a lot of connection to the workforce. They realize this is very important to building their career.

Evo: In regards to the lack of understanding about the value of expanding access for non-traditional students, how did you overcome some of those misconceptions about what program diversity would look like?

HM: Our first foray into building an embedded certificate didn’t start out where we ended up. It was going to be stackable. What we discovered, and this had a lot to do with the students themselves asking for things that were more relevant within their undergraduate degree, was that they wanted offerings that were strongly aligned with the job market. Being able to listen to students and support their interest was really important in creating an embedded certificate.

We also had to understand that the context has shifted. We’re in a world of technology and social media. Things happen very quickly. There’s a lot of information available at your fingertips where you can seek different kinds of information. There are different kinds of competition now: students can take online programming from institutions located anywhere in the world. There’s a growing understanding of how we can look at learning from different and innovative perspectives. The great thing about a school of continuing education is that we’re often seen as a kind of skunkworks or pilot that can test new ideas. If something works, then we can build on it to create more opportunities for students.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To read the second installment, focused on the importance of collegiality and community to driving the success of Canadian CE divisions, please click here.