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Non-Credit Is A Non-Issue: How Short-Cycle Learning Can Change a Community and Institution

Developing shorter, condensed programs gives members of the workforce the flexibility to return and re-skill, which benefits both the institution and the community as a whole.
Developing shorter, condensed programs gives members of the workforce the flexibility to return and re-skill, which benefits both the institution and the community as a whole.

Shorter programs that take a few weeks to complete, instead of a few years, are allowing institutions to remain in students’ lives for significantly longer than the standard four-year degree.

Shorter programs allow workers to re-skill and upskill quickly, which can drive growth within the university and the community. Especially when the tools to develop those programs are easily available.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): From a strategic perspective, why did the University of Calgary want to consolidate and streamline the management of non-credit courses and credentials?

Teri Balser (TB): We recognize that the world is changing. People want more flexible opportunities to engage in learning in bits and pieces, in addition to longer programs. We’re trying to reposition and recentre the value of short-cycle learning.

What we really want to say is, “Everybody should be participating in short-cycle learning opportunities.” And it’s not only learning within the Continuing Education unit. We want to say, “This is a part of who we are at the university.” So, from my perspective, the value lies in the university providing learning over someone’s lifetime. That’s where I want to see us go.

Evo: How does taking that broader viewpoint on the role of non-credit education reposition the university as a driver for economic growth and long-term relevance?

TB: It’s the recognition that people need to keep learning. It’s thinking about their continual refreshment in the workforce, whatever that workforce is. From our perspective as a research university, it’s providing knowledge to that workforce in the more advanced levels of their learning and ensuring they have the best possible long-term career trajectory.

I heard somebody say recently that it’s not about being employable in the same career for 40 years anymore but about being employable for a career of numerous starts and changes. To me, that is the direction in which universities need to evolve—to recognize that we don’t just serve a single demographic anymore. It’s not just about an immersive four-year bachelor’s, two-year master’s and multi-year PhD studies, it’s about the ongoing learning opportunities that anyone needs, everywhere, at any age.

Evo: From an operational excellence perspective, does that speak to the idea of a centralized approach to managing those programs?

TB: Absolutely, because we want to make sure we’re keeping track of our learners and have the flexibility to say, “You’re a learner with us, but we recognize that you’re not in a traditional degree program.” It allows us to keep track of them and underscore that they are all University of Calgary learners, recognizing and celebrating their continuous learning with us. I think there’s a real importance to that as an identity piece.

Evo: How does creating this cohesive model for lifelong engagement with learners create buy-in and affinity between any individual, and the institution they attend?

TB: The experience I had at Dalhousie University involved learning about how they spent ten years debating the definition of a student. And when I came in from the outside, I thought, “What are you talking about? How hard is it to define a student?” But then I realized it’s more than that—what is a student, exactly? How much time do they have to spend with us for us to call them our students?

In the end, Dalhousie managed to come up with a definition of a student that works. It is more inclusive of the short-cycle learning, the non-credit-bearing learning and the non-four-year big-degree learning. This was an important lesson for me about how it’s really important to think about different types of learners.

So, here at University of Calgary, we’re thinking about learner populations. And that leads us to the next step, which is portfolios that follow you through your lifetime. We’re focusing on how we best serve different learner populations because they have very different needs. An 18-year-old has very very different psychosocial developmental and learning needs compared to a 35-year-old who wants to re-enter the workforce.

Evo: How do you create relevant pathways to the right learning, at the right time, for the right individual, depending on how much they’re able to spend and the time they’re willing to give?

Sheila LeBlanc (SL): Part of it is having some centralization, creating quality and infrastructure and allowing visibility in student records, but it goes beyond that.

Tapping into our faculty’s expertise is of great importance. Having that as a capability allows us to use faculty’s subject-matter expertise and start thinking about how we look at the learning needs of the current, or future, labour market. How can we bundle up learning into smaller packages, little bits and pieces suited and desired by the market at that point in time?

Teri already mentioned that we’re thinking about the different learner populations and how we best serve them, as they have different needs. Some individuals need upskilling to acquire their next promotion, but others may need a complete career revamp, so they need to re-skill. We currently provide more than 50 short-cycle certificate, diploma and designation programs in different fields to support learners who make these transitions.

Evo: What concerns did your team try to address regarding this consolidated approach to managing non-credit programming, and how did you get to where you are today?

SL: It has been a strategic journey, sparked by risk mitigation, but with an end goal of increased visibility and improved student experience for professional Continuing Education learners. About five years ago, we were evaluating how short-program learning was being offered across the academy. We also saw a downturn in the economy, particularly in our city; we were seeing the displacement of oil and gas workers and professionals.

Then, I received three phone calls from folks that had escalated up to my office. These individuals were looking for course records or transcripts. They said they’d taken a very expensive non-credit course with our institution and now that they were displaced, looking for employment and in need of a record of it, couldn’t find it and wanted to know where they could get a copy. It turned out that some courses or programs were taken in single faculties or units, and it was discovered that some units did not have records of their non-credit courses.

Our Continuing Education unit (CE) has existed since the university’s inception, and it has kept data and records for courses that this unit has put in place, but at that time we found inconsistent student and financial record-keeping in other faculties and units offering non-degree programming. As you can imagine, this was immediately identified as a significant risk-management issue to address.

We created two working groups to help us in this journey: one looked at academic processes and governance. This was a working group that I co-chaired with our vice-provost at the time to have a conversation with our academic community about what a non-credit credentials framework would look like.

The second working group managed a large IT initiative, which brought us to launch a request for proposal (RFP) for a registration system that would become our system of record for non-credit student information. From that RFP, Destiny One ended up being the system deployed across the academy as an enterprise system. Historically, Destiny One had been a stand-alone system within the CE unit, but then we worked with another group that I co-chaired with our CIO in order to implement Destiny One as an institution-wide system.

Evo: How did you gain buy-in from individual faculties to participate in this effort to centralize non-credit programming management?

SL: It came through doing the governance work first. Through creating the non-credit credential framework, we articulated that a system of record was required, that there was risk management associated with how funds would be collected and the importance of having transparency with both students and employers regarding the depth and breadth of our non-credit programs. 

Once the framework was approved by our General Faculties Council we could say, “Here are the rules of the game.” It now meant that, if you’re not following the framework, you are offside with academic governance and approved university policies. We worked with the university and governance structures to that end. In parallel, of course, we had two years that we called a “hold harmless” period for all faculties and units to comply with the new framework.

The CE unit’s surpluses paid for the deployment, and we are continuing to fund the infrastructure. Then we set up the non-credit registrarial functions to manage non-credit certificates or courses, work in collaboration with the central registrar’s office and provide foundational elements such as financial mechanisms for payment, student records and governance compliance tracking. That is all now provided without the academy having to pay for it.

There were also some financial savings for those in larger faculties and units were using a service such as Eventbrite or something where they have to pay a percentage for each registration, in addition to adding more security to protect students’ privacy, data and the money involved, as we now have security protocols and processes through Destiny One.

Evo: How was the institution able to weather the foundational shift in the postsecondary marketplace as a result of the consistency in non-credit programming management?

SL: I’m not sure I can say there’s a win or a story there in terms of that. We completed deployment of Destiny One to our six or seventh academic unit to enter the system in the months before COVID-19. In the following days, the rest of the academy, for the most part, shifted their attention to address the online learning challenges the pandemic brought on. The primary focus was on figuring out how to teach our traditional-degree students and how to support our faculty in providing remote and online learning.

A few months ago, we were able to resume the work we started before the pandemic. We are being sought out by other UCalgary faculties and units to do more for them. We have been helping them, but now we’ll do so in a more comprehensive way by offering them a full-service model approach, from consultation in non-credit program development, to curriculum design, to implementation of the Destiny One solution. 

This initiative has really elevated the profile of Continuing Education within the academy as a partner and a leader in non-credit and Workforce Development programming.

Evo: What benefits have you seen since this streamlined and consistent approach to non-credit management was applied institution-wide?

SL: The bottom line is that we have mitigated a number of risks, while improving the student experience. We can manage our various risks, whether that’s having audit-worthy financial records, reliable student records or even just consistent parchments that go out to the marketplace.

Through a consolidated webpage and consistent navigation, we also created an improved web experience for those looking to explore our institution-wide professional and Continuing Education offerings. Creating one entry point into continuous learning at the university and simplifying how individuals search for and find potential learning opportunities across the institution is important. 

Of course, there are revenue-generation pressures, as well. Those two items are pushing the faculty to engage with us to assist them in developing, managing and even promoting their products, their programs and their specialized short-cycle learning.

Evo: How has the University of Calgary been more able to serve its employers and stakeholders with an approach to non-credit management?

SL: We’ve made improvements in transparency, associated with what the various pieces of parchment represent.

A student can say, “I completed this credential at the University of Calgary. But what does that mean?” A certificate is not a certificate across the country—or even in the Western world. A few parts of the world have a clear credential system for non-degree learning; for example, New Zealand’s qualifications framework tells you the level and breadth of the certificate you receive.

In the absence of a systemwide non-degree credentials framework, and with our established non-credit framework, we at least have an institution-wide credentialing structure and system. It allows for transparency with students, employers and other stakeholders.

From a learner perspective, online accessibility of student records is also a benefit. If students need to obtain proof of learning for their employers, for example, they don’t have to wait for us to send them a transcript. They can log in to our Destiny One system and get their information themselves in the form of an official student record.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

To read more from Teri Balser and Sheila LeBlanc, and learn how the University of Calgary is driving non-credit conversions, click here.