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The Virus that Opened the Floodgates to Change

As COVID-19 has been a wakeup call for institutions to prepare for natural disasters, it’s critical to rethink education and workforce training that will allow people to continue working and learning in a safe environment no matter what circumstance they’re in. 

As we head into a new normal, colleges and universities are rethinking everything when it comes to their programming. Short-term credentialing is becoming increasingly popular in the age of the pandemic and it’s important for institutions to develop the right programs that will show employers just how valuable these learners are in the workplace. In this interview, edited from a longer conversation, Holly Zanville interviews Mary Walshok on the impacts of COVID-19 on research universities.

Holly Zanville (HZ): How has COVID-19 impacted your programs?

Mary Walshok (MW):  COVID has surfaced what we’ve known for a long time: change often requires immediate responses and adaptations in how we work, deliver services, live our daily lives as citizens and consumers, and educate our children and ourselves. Research universities like mine are in the thick of this because a major part of our business is tracking change. Many of our economists, for example, are collecting data in real time before others even hear about it. 

HZ: That puts the research university on the front lines. What does this look like from a programmatic, not necessarily research, standpoint?

MW: One good example is telemedicine. Our university hospital has had to retool to deliver health care services across the social spectrum, and we’ve been asked to provide short-term training to help people in telemedicine prepare. Another example is in teacher education. We’re involved with the San Diego Unified School District which called us when the pandemic hit to help fast track teachers in online teaching.

HZ: What do these examples say about the impacts of COVID on specific industry sectors?

MW: What COVID has surfaced is the wide range of professional and technical occupations that are constantly confronted with external forces beyond their direct control, like changes in tech, global pandemics, and global markets. We’re seeing the closing of some industries and the rise of others. COVID has surfaced how societies have to confront periods of high unemployment and rapid unemployment—how do we respond to declines in core industries? We can look at the rapid declines in the service and discretionary medicine sectors, for example, as folks have been trying to determine whether they can do a knee replacement or get their teeth cleaned. Meanwhile, in my area in California, we need 500 people to track and trace viruses, but we don’t have anyone to train them yet.  

HZ:  Many folks look to community and technical colleges as the front-line responders to provide short-term education and training in a rapid-change environment. How are research universities responding? 

MW:  We’ve embraced the fact that our talent agenda goes much broader than the production of bachelors’, masters’, and doctoral degrees. The need for a 60-year curriculum was emerging before the pandemic. Our job is to prepare young people, teachers, and parents to get their kids ready to learn, whether that means learning at a technical school or university and assuring our graduates are ready to learn across their lifetime. This will not mean accumulating multitudes of masters’ and Ph.Ds. For many, it will mean accumulating a variety of certificates and other short-term credentials that allow people to stay current, upgrade, or repurpose their competencies and knowledge perhaps gained in an original degree.

HZ: What types of short-term credentials does your university offer? 

MW: Right now, our continuing education division offers around 90 short-term credentials, mostly certificate programs. We retire them when they’re no longer needed. While degrees are hard to retire, and new degrees are hard to get approved, certificates and other short-term credentials can be created on a much shorter timeline and be continually updated. We’re seeing a growing need for and interest in these credentials.

HZ: What are examples of programs you’ve added in the last few months? 

MW: We recently launched a new teacher certification program that helps teachers integrate online tools and methods into their teaching. 4,000 have completed the program in the past four months. In just one week, with teachers attending class six hours a day, we can provide a great deal of upskilling. We’ve also had thousands of parents enroll in our online courses. We’re positioned to move quickly because we talk regularly with school superintendents, interact with a lot of professional and industrial communities, and get insight on where the demand is. This is not a philosophical commitment to staying in touch with our community; this is a “just in time” response to real demands. 

HZ:  Is there data on how much short-term credentialing research universities are doing? 

MW: Until recently, this kind of data has not been collected and reported by our university, or by most universities that I know of. There are likely hundreds of thousands of credentials awarded nationally at research universities. No one has accurate data on them. At my university alone, we award around 3,000 short-term credentials annually. My university is currently revamping our student information system. If we see a patient at six years old in our hospital, then that person does a summer camp a few years later, then completes an undergraduate degree, gets a Ph.D., donates to the university, joins the alumni group  that person would be in the database. We’re moving to an integrated data system across the lifespan, so our system is not about students in degree programs only but how people are connected to the university as a whole. From this database, we expect to see that large numbers do get degrees, large numbers get certificates, and large numbers get services. This will enable us to do new large organizational research soon. 

HZ: Why do so many folks have the perception that large universities like yours can’t pivot quickly, don’t have the flexibility to respond during times like this?

MW:  Many folks don’t know much about the extension units of research universities, which are part of the land grant mission. Part of the reason we can respond “just in time” is because the university has the capacity to do non-credit or professional continuing education programs. So, you don’t have to be a full-time matriculated student to benefit from the knowledge within the university. We can call on mainline faculty to bring their expertise to the short-term credentialing that is burgeoning right now — our biologists, computer science, and literature professors, for example. 

HZ:  Looking ahead, what are the growing areas for short-term credentialing?

MW:  There are three areas we’ve been focusing on in which we expect to grow in the future: 


Rapidly changing professions that are delivering health care services remotely.  

Teacher education

Our teachers have to upskill and reskill across all disciplines. Even if you teach in elementary school, you have to know a little about science. So, there’s growing demand for teachers to expand their knowledge in science, and to enhance their overall teaching skills, especially to teach online or hybrid (combination in-person/online). At the university, our medical school is using computers for labs more and more. What the university is doing can be adapted for use in K-12 science labs.  


Our engineering school just launched an academy to teach fundamental engineering principles to high school teachers. Teachers can introduce foundational concepts and credential this learning so that high school students, regardless of whether they’re going into a tech program, the Navy for further tech training, or engineering school, will have digital literacy and cognitive comfort with producing work, analyzing problems, and solving them in teams regardless of the path chosen. Why is our engineering school doing this? Because, it’s taking five years to get through our program when it should take four, in part because kids are coming into engineering without the experience and knowledge they could have gotten in high school. We want kids to internalize concepts in physics and math and come ready to learn and ready to work.

HZ: More employers indicate they’re not requiring college degrees for many jobs. How will this impact the research universities?

MW:  Among the 5,000+ high tech companies that represent 25% of San Diego’s GDP, 36% of the jobs they hire for do not require a college degree. They do require certifiable competencies past high school for jobs in such things as biotech manufacturing, IT support, technical, and diagnostic laboratory support jobs. These are high wage jobs with a future. The rub in our region is that employers cannot find adequately trained and credentialed people to fill such jobs. Even though most of these companies hire mostly bench scientists and Ph.D. candidates, they really need certificated high school graduates for close to one-third of the jobs essential to running their enterprises. Universities can play an important role in enhancing the competitiveness and growth of these companies by providing not only well-educated bachelors’, masters’, and doctoral students but an excellent pipeline of mid-level technical workers whose credentials reflect the competencies the industries explicitly need.

HZ:  Do you think displaced workers will find their way to higher education to reskill?

MW: Can a 35-year-old person with a family go to a community college or university to complete a degree? Probably not. But can we interact with displaced workers who will seek shorter-term credentials like certification for growing fields? We think we can. A high school graduate or dislocated worker who wants to go into IT support, for example, may need a training program of eight hours a day for three months plus an internship or project with a company. People need competencies, connections, and the self-confidence that they can navigate the continuous change happening, and do it by learning across a lifespan that is properly designed and delivered. The learning must be available in different modalities, depending on the student’s skill set and the moment. And we will need multiple forms of credentialing.

HZ:  What are other important COVID impacts? 

MW: COVID has helped us to see that a lot of the newer tech industries are global, and the global competition gives rise to innovation—the talent that feeds this is education. Talent is a huge value if you’re a tech company. As recently as 20 years ago, the auto industry would recruit students in high schools for well-paying jobs before they even finished their diplomas—with the pitch, they didn’t need to finish their high school degree to get a good job at their company. This doesn’t happen anymore.  Students need some post-high school training now, and in some cases, advanced credentials even if they don’t need a college degree. COVID has helped the whole country recognize that you can’t displace all these people and close all these small companies and be economically viable. 

HZ: Can we design systems of learning across the lifespan? And if we can, who are the main players? 

MW: The research universities are a main player. We’re getting more involved in the areas of digital literacy and advanced technology because we already interact with industry, for example, in the life sciences and medical technology. There is and will be a proliferation of credentials in these spaces. We are promulgating at our university and across the system: “Ready to learn, ready to work.” These are not in competition. “Ready to learn” is huge if you’re going to college, and if you’re going right to work. And as you finish college, you will need help to become “ready to work.”

HZ: There are folks concerned that short-term credentials don’t have quality assurance, even at the university level. 

MW: All credential providers face this concern: who validates the content of what you’re doing? In the old days, if the UAW said this is what you need to do to be a model maker, that was validation enough. But what if Stanford University, University of Washington, Berkeley, or our university says, “We just designed a certificate; our local industries and campus people reviewed the knowledge and skills needed and validated them, and our industries are accepting them.” The notion of national accrediting gets put into question. Will we have people moving as much as they have in the past? Local currency may trump portability in how you validate the quality and utility of a credential. The states may become the preeminent centers of gravity—not national organizations—around quality.

HZ: This is complicated because so many professions are highly regulated, like cybersecurity and health care. Many professions cannot be defined by local/regional standards because they’re national or global credentials. 

MW: Yes, and that complicates the marketplace. We need a more nuanced matrix of what kinds of skills need universal standards and what kinds need more local/regional standards. There have not been incentives to work through this problem. This is a complicated environment. We need the intermediaries and interlocutories—the organizations that stand at the crossroads and are good at harvesting input from multiple directions and integrating it in actionable terms—to help with this.

HZ:  How do you see the research universities contributing going forward?

MW: Something important is happening right now. The floodgates to change have opened with COVID. We recognize that we must prepare for any number of national disasters: global warming, floods, pandemics, hackers. All these situations raise education and training issues, especially for professions like firefighters, nurses, utility workers, people who track weather and climate, disaster preparedness, and people who work in safety. 

To think that the world can be conveniently divided between institutions that give baccalaureate and advanced degrees and those that give associate degrees—that community colleges do the workhorse stuff and universities do the fuzzy-headed academic stuff—is crazy. We have a “salad bowl” of needs in which universities play an important role. The “salad bowl” is made up of a large number of credentials that have significant regional currency because of employers’ confidence in universities and the levels of local industry curricular and instructional input.

This is good for regional talent development with minimal concern for portability. This represents a growing phenomenon essential to national competitiveness. Alongside these, of course, are widely recognized and measurable core competencies across sectors, which may be portable. The preoccupation with national standards is so 20th century! The digital age and re-emergence of globally competitive regional clusters means we need both. The national standards movement will potentially become irrelevant.

Our extension program and similar centers for workforce development have the job of integrating what we’re hearing on the demand side with what we know on the supply side in terms of the knowledge and skills needed, and then design education and training programs that are appropriate for them. We’re “bridgers.” In the old university model, we sent out our knowledge and expected people outside the university to figure out how to use it. The new model is that there’s knowledge out there that we need to integrate into how we do our scholarship and research and engage closely with our communities.

It is a two-way bridge, and the research universities are helping create these bridges. We will need intermediaries, interlocutory efforts, and interactive communities of practice.  “Inter, inter, inter” will be key. We will be co-creating, co-developing, integrating our new systems of education and work.

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