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How Accessibility, Continuing Ed, and a Diverse Student Population Are Changing Institutions’ Priorities

Continuing Ed highlights the need to respond to industry demands and learner interests. By identifying that need and filling it, CE can market itself as a great educational option for many students.
Continuing Ed highlights the need to respond to industry demands and learner interests. By identifying that need and filling it, CE can market itself as a great educational option for many students.

Student demands are changing, and the schools they attend are adapting to better fit their needs, offering shorter, easy-to-pick-up programs to those currently in the workforce as well as those just starting their education journey but not looking for a four-year commitment.

Education has never been so accessible.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are modern universities starting to look at more ways to expand access to programming for diverse learner populations who might not fit the mold of the traditional 18-year-old looking for a four-year residential experience?

April-Dawn Blackwell (ADB): Many universities have already been expanding access to programming for a long time, with access agendas for full-time and part-time programming. So, from the perspective of having full-time programming with access agendas to the landscape of continuing education (CE) and non-traditional students, I agree that access has evolved and will continue to do so. The landscape is changing even more—due to what some call a perfect storm—with COVID-19 and the urgency to shift to fully online, the declining number of students who can take full-time programming, the increasing number of alumni in need of ongoing education for reskilling, upskilling and career transition. CE and the broader university are responding. It is not a perfect storm in the literal sense, yet it is a storm that we have the ability to respond to.

We saw changes in education coming decades ago. 20 years ago saw a storm of technological changes. I recall running some of the first national executive education synchronous pilots when learners were asking for more flexibility as well as understanding based on what their world of work looked like. Flexibility was needed and possible. Learners saw it then and are seeing it now, requiring change and flexibility in their work life and asking for more of the same in their education to make it easier to advance professionally.

To this end, universities benefit from great programming, subject matter experts and research to work toward ongoing or continuous lifelong learning. Today perhaps more than ever, we are seeing more changes in society—some of it long overdue, addressing our collective need for inclusion, diversity, belonging, decolonization and indigenization. We can’t ask all learners to pause their full-time, working lives and all their personal responsibilities to pursue full-time studies. So, how do we help? The mindset to help through access and flexibility continues to grow alongside our universities’ ability to expand programming opportunities for all learners.

Evo: How do you picture the work that Continuing Ed and professional development divisions do when it comes to driving that effort to realize the vision for more accessible and adult-oriented education?

ADB: We can really support each other with the subject matter expertise and back-of-house administration support in place to amplify what we do for our communities and learners.

 To home in on the first part of your question, CE can assist in looking at the current mechanisms for bringing content to market quickly and supporting and delivering quality learning and professional development opportunities.

These education divisions can also highlight the mechanisms in place for responsiveness and industry/learner interest. This line of thinking revolves around systems to make it easier to sustain our quality of learning and seek to understand whom our learner is with data and insights. We have greater needs for interdisciplinary learning with a strong base of more human skills such as intercultural communications, inclusive practices and working teams and environments, recognizing implicit biases and so much more. CE plays a significant role in creating adult-oriented education with these essential skills—the people and global citizenship skills that cannot be achieved through automation or with an algorithm. This is where CE can bring new and previous learners (graduates) to the university at all stages of a career and learning journey.

There is so much more to your questions that we could expand on. I am not the expert in these discussions on accessibility; however, I do appreciate that the conversation circles are expanding to reflect an increasingly diverse pool of learners and need for learning.

Evo: How do partnerships between CE and other divisions across the university support institution-wide access for new audiences?

ADB: I believe there is always potential to explore ways to evolve how we do what we do. There are business cycles and situations that initiate change and technological systems that can support university-related work in research and teaching and open doors to learn and develop as people and professionals.

Partnerships between CE and other divisions mean supporting each other by not duplicating systems. There may be opportunities to create a learner experience journey and map out the ways to simplify the steps they need to register, pay and track their learning, for example.

Partnerships create a common understanding and clarity of the processes, scalability of learning opportunities and partnership opportunities for people to move around to other roles as their institution evolves. Seeking opportunities to collaborate with subject matter experts, instructional design, teaching and learning, research, etc. facilitates opportunities to elevate the university’s work.

Evo: How do you build a symbiotic relationship between the college’s faculties for all types of programming?

ADB: Listening, collaborating and having a compelling reason for the change to have all types of programming. Any change requires people to understand the impetus for it and a reason to buy into that. It may be helpful to see your colleagues as customers and ask yourself how to support the customer and offer more types of programming that meet the needs of a variety of learners. Recognize that you can facilitate more opportunities to research, teach the subject areas they love, spend more time with students, design new learning, etc. It’s about understanding and translating their passions into programming that also meets learner and community demand.

It is not simplistic; you must understand the compelling reason for the programming and how to implement it. But it doesn’t have to be revolutionary; it can evolve over time, with insights, experience and through phases. Building together a plan of where to go from here, given what we know and our vision for the future is to meet the needs of a diverse and evolving learner.

Evo: What obstacles does a CE leader face when scaling programs, serving more learners and expanding access to the institution?

ADB: We can sometimes get in our own way. The process can occasionally have clear steps forward, but we have to be thoughtful about the context and nuance between those steps. There are many elements to prioritize because the CE landscape, education, recruitment, credentials, recognition of prior learning and COVID-19 have kept shifting.  

CE leaders are not the only ones facing obstacles. In talking with many leaders, the reference to Clayton Christensen industry disruption leading to the need for new and more innovation comes up quite a bit. We’ve been scaling programming and serving more learners for years, but managing that kind of steamship change across so many areas is not simple; however, you can find those that are ready to openly discuss the obstacles and provide proactive solutions. I recognize that your question doesn’t ask for the solution—and no one person has it. It is ideal when you have people who seek to co-create the solution with you. By listening, you can better understand the problem, try new solutions and then build on them with others. But don’t expect them to be permanent. Let’s create a practice but maybe not a best practice because we then risk not evolving. We benefit from listening and learning about how to be responsive for the next practice. You have to keep being responsive. And in CE, that’s the crux of what we do—we’re responsive and deliver quality that has learners coming back.

Evo: What I love about your approach is that it’s a combination of the strategic, philosophical and tactical. That’s what we all look for—to set a vision and outline what it means at a leadership level and then an execution level. That’s where change starts to happen.

ADB: I don’t know where the proverb is from—I learned it when I was younger: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It has stuck with me year after year. I’m a type-A, so I love results. I love seeing programming that supports learning and the action learners want to take personally and professionally in their lives and careers. That lights my fire because I hear real-life stories about what education can do for people. So, when we can be thoughtful about how we put strategy, action and plans in place to bring more people together for learning opportunities, we benefit from an interconnected system that serves experts, learners, employers and communities. I spent a few years in the access and pathways space designed for people who hadn’t considered themselves ready or able to go into post-secondary education, and their recognition of experience as learning is a way CE brings more people to the university–just one or many opportunities going forward in the next 10-plus years.

Let’s go, together. We have a long way to go, but together we can get there.

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