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As continuing ed divisions take the lead in helping their respective institutions enter the remote or online environment, their teaching and programmatic styles are gaining more attention than ever before. A common ground needs to be established so that both parties can use their expertise to deliver the best learning experience possible to their students. Introducing the online learning world to traditional faculty helps open their minds to alternative tools, but that doesn’t mean they can teach everything in the same way. In this interview, Tanya Zlateva discusses what it took to help Boston University shift to remote learning in the wake of the COVID-19, what it’ll take to serve the increasing demand for reskilling programming and the role continuing ed divisions have in helping universities serve non-traditional learners.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role has the Metropolitan College played over the past few weeks helping Boston University adapt to remote teaching and learning?
Tanya Zlateva (TZ): The most important contribution we’ve made is sharing our experience, guidelines, best practices and process–how to make, transition and conduct daily remote classes.
University-wide, we had to go from face-to-face classes to remote classes in just four days. Metropolitan College by itself has over 360 classes running face-to-face. Many of them are taught by faculty from other colleges across campus. Two days before the announcement to go to remote went out, we had a team ready to support the effort of setting up classes in Blackboard.
We had a team running two or three training sessions a day for all faculty. We gave out guidelines (including training videos) that let people know what to expect, what type of IT help needed to be put in place, etc. These training sessions had really high attendance practically every day.
In a nutshell, Metropolitan College provided knowledge and materials that helped a substantial chunk of BU classes go online smoothly.
Evo: Are you concerned by the possibility of faculty and learners equating remote learning to what’s possible in a well-designed online education offering?
TZ: There will be some people who have that complaint, but I’m not concerned. The majority of faculty and learners have seen that it can be done and that it has clear advantages. Of course, there are also clear disadvantages too—for example, that this is happening during a time of crisis–but students have been very good in adapting. Faculty have tried their best to step up to the plate. I feared that the traditional faculty would resist change or not put in the time to adapt, but that hasn’t happened.
The tragedy we’re currently living through has allowed people to open their minds. They’re finding alternative ways to connect, work and learn. That is going to help, even on a very general level, to broaden their minds. Faculty have a natural curiosity to try something new, even if they initially resist it. When they’re pushed to try it, they often adopt it. It’s now their own product, and they naturally try to think about it in a positive way and want to be proud of what it’s enabling them to do.
I’m pretty optimistic on that front.
Evo: What has this shift meant for courses being offered by Metropolitan College and for its learners?
TZ: Everything has been very well received—there was such an openness to come together–but isolation is also very intense. People are confined to their houses or their rooms, and they cannot move around. I’m curious to know if remote classes have actually helped them deal with these kinds of conditions. People are losing their jobs, their kids are at home, so it doesn’t make learning any easier. But everyone is in the same situation—both faculty and students. There’s a lot of patience and empathy on both sides. I expected the stress will translate to more incidents, and so far it hasn’t.
We’re faced with a critical time for higher education. Exams need to be conducted and grades need to be submitted. The longer such a situation goes on, the more difficult it is to sustain.
In the U.S., the infection is developing rapidly and people are very scared. I expect that this is going to make it more difficult in the month leading up to graduation. We have had to adjust the grading criteria and the grades themselves. Students have the opportunity to have a credit be pass/fail instead of a letter grade, if they decide to do so. That’s helped decrease the pressure, and faculty have been very collaborative on that front.
Evo: How open do you think more traditional faculties will be to experimenting with online and flexible learning options going into this new normal?
TZ: I think they’ll be much more open to it. They may not embrace it completely, but there’s a newfound respect for flexible learning—a better understanding of the technology that enables it and increased openness of trying it. It’s also about trying out a new medium, which is interesting, no matter how rigid you are. I don’t expect the masses to adopt it, but there will certainly be a substantial increase in those who do.
Evo: What steps do CE leaders need to take to be ready to serve the significant audience looking for upskilling and re-skilling programming?
TZ: We have the capacity for this. The need is there, and it’s going to be massive. In fact, it was here before this crisis because there are enormous skill gaps between what the industry needs and what knowledge and skills were available to learn in the workforce. For 20 years we’ve been observing this continuing shift towards automation and to jobs that require more education. With the supply chain disruption, there’s going to be some adjustment in economic structure.
So many people are losing their jobs, and they may want to come back to school but will need someone to support them. That support would be paid for by tuition and will cover faculty salaries and infrastructure. Education cannot be free, but there have to be supports in place for anybody who wants to study. That hasn’t been the case before; it has been very limited, especially for non-credit offerings.
Evo: What role do you think continuing education divisions play in helping institutions more broadly adapt to serve more non-traditional learners?
TZ: It’ll be similar to what we’re experiencing right now. The process of putting all traditional classes online was done by someone who had the knowledge, guidance and best practices to do it. These people largely came from continuing education units. This is only the first phase, though, and we realize the work will continue.
However, it’s not just continuing education units going through this shift. Traditional disciplinary schools increasingly have launched programs and classes for part-time students. Both for degrees and for upskilling, they’re developing programs closely oriented to job market needs.
It’s a whole shift in traditional university thinking, being more receptive and paying close attention to the adult learner. And it could get competitive. There are signs that this could lead to increased competition between traditional and continuing education units.
There are two steps we can take to help avoid this challenge.
Finding a balance
Continuing education units have significant experience teaching and serving part-time, professional and adult students. However, traditional schools have the background of research opportunities and more traditional types of academic activity. Of course, traditional schools are starting to recognize the importance of serving non-traditional audiences, and CE units can support them in doing so. For example, our business school is developing an online MBA set to launch in the fall. We’ve worked very collaboratively on that, but it’s their degree. So, there is this flow of expertise going in both directions, and it’ll be fascinating to see how it evolves.
At the same time, there’s tension between the research departments’ missions and serving non-traditional students. Serving non-traditional students is not easy; materials and content need to be developed and adapted to address their needs of flexibility, additional explanations, more case studies and more real-world examples. On the other hand, a research unit needs to focus on producing new knowledge. Producing new knowledge doesn’t allow for detail, explaining and illustrating every single idea or aspect relevant to the job market. It’s a very intensive process to find something new.
So, the two sides need to complement each other. That will only happen if there are teams comprised of both researchers and teachers. Together, they can provide the framework and shape the programs. The knowledge of the teaching faculty in continuing ed brings in expertise on how to retain and retrain the non-traditional audience.
It’s a very interesting problem, but one that presents an exciting opportunity for more collaboration between traditional faculties and continuing education units.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how continuing ed divisions can help their institutions adapt to the expectations of a recession economy?
TZ: We can provide our knowledge of the students and the challenges they face. We are in direct contact with people who want and need education. We know their goals and the areas they struggle with.
I hope institutions will have the openness to listen and to make this a part of their overall strategy. There’s an increase in understanding the need to bring both of these ends together—an industry- and workforce-oriented curriculum paired with a research-intensive mission.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 3, 2020.
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