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Establishing a Student-Centered Continuing Ed Division

Adult learners have busy lives with multiple responsibilities, and institutions need to help support these learners and deliver the right programming that gives them the flexibility they need. Continuing ed divisions are key to delivering on this. 

Adult learners know they need some form of education to stay relevant in the job market, but they don’t always know where to start. Continuing Education has the opportunity to best serve these learners who they’ve already been serving for decades. In this interview, Dianne Tyers discusses the challenges adult learners face when accessing education, how to fulfill their needs and how to become more student-centered. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the obstacles that adult learners have to navigate when trying to access ongoing and professional education opportunities?

Dianne Tyers (DT): There are a few standard ones that our learners encounter when they’re trying to decide what they need in terms of professional development and accessing it. The first one is scheduling. They might ask themselves, How do I fit this learning into my busy work life and family life? So, adult learners really need flexible learning experiences that allow them multiple points of access. That’s one big barrier, and this is easy enough for learning institutions to help learners overcome. 

The second obstacle is that it’s been a while since many adult learners have been back at school. They’ve actually got a personal, emotional obstacle to overcome, and that’s just fear. Fear of engaging in new learning, fear of engaging in something new and fear of failure because it’s been so long since they’ve had a learning experience. They might be wondering, How has education changed? Can I manage the technology? My brain is older, so is it going to process information as quickly as it needs to? So, there’s a whole emotional obstacle unfortunately that many adult learners encounter when it comes to ongoing professional learning activities.

A third but major obstacle is that many adult learners just don’t know what they need to learn and where they can get those learning experiences. They might feel like their career has stalled. Maybe they got overlooked for a promotion, or their industry is dying out or evolving and they need to move to a different industry and just don’t know what they need to learn. They also don’t know what knowledge and skills they already have that are of value.

Adult learners really need to be given the opportunity to analyze what they already know and what the labor market needs them to know—and then what their gaps are. This is made all the more challenging because the world of work is changing so quickly. Many adult learners just don’t know what those changes are. It’s very unpredictable. 

Evo: Do you see a lot of similarities between the obstacles facing adult learners and their expectations, compared to this evolving breed of traditional students starting to come into the academy?

DT: There are some similarities in that both groups are dealing with a rapidly changing, very unpredictable world of work. It’s just as unpredictable for a new high school or university graduate as it is for someone who’s been in their career for five or more years. 

Where it’s different is that I’ve seen more adult learners with that emotional barrier than I’ve seen with the younger learners. Not to say that there are not younger learners with emotional barriers when it comes to learning, if they’ve had traumatic learning experiences or failed in the past, but I tend to see more emotional barriers with the adult learners. I think just because of the amount of time that they’ve been out of a learning environment and how much that learning environment has changed. Whereas younger learners are fresh out of a learning environment, so they’re more adaptable and used to the current learning environment.

And then one other very important difference is that adult learners have a life behind them. They’ve got years of work experience that built up these really rich skill sets and capabilities that they may not recognize. 

Evo: How do divisions like yours help modern universities deliver on the needs of these non-traditional students?

DT: It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves for the last year, and a half and we’re kind of evolving in our knowledge and our understanding of it. I’ll be very upfront: I wouldn’t position us as being experts in this. We are learners of this ourselves because we’ve had to dig into how the world of work is evolving. We’ve been asking, what skill sets do adult learners need, and how has this been magnified by COVID? COVID is just another really interesting piece in this because it’s magnified the need to learn a hundred-fold.

We must, first of all, keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s going on in our in different industries and the communities we serve and what’s going on in the world of work from the employers’ perspective.  They’re major stakeholders in this whole concept of lifelong learning because they can’t always find the people for the roles they need to fill. That’s why, over the last year and a half, we’ve really refocused our efforts on reaching out to our community, employers and sector councils. 

The other key thing is to really focus on making our learning experiences accessible to those adult learners because they do have that accessibility obstacle, the scheduling obstacle. They can’t always come onto campus, or they have family and work obligations. One of our mandates is to provide those accessible learning experiences. We’re focusing on how we can upgrade the technologies that we use and upgrade our online learning experiences to have the right balance of asynchronous and synchronous delivery for our learners.

Evo: How can continuing ed divisions become strategic resources for human resource development strategies for local employers and industry?

DT: The first thing that comes to mind is this whole concept of durable, transferable skills. They are those skill sets that are going to be constant, regardless of what technologies change and so on. That’s actually where we’ve been investing a lot of our time—on upgrading and creating new programming that serves people who are focused on medium- to long-term upskilling where durable skills have longer usability as compared to short-term, tech-driven learning. 

Evo: What are some characteristics of a truly accessible or student-centered continuing ed division, both in- and outside the classroom?

DT: The main components of an accessible student journey are smooth standardized processes and then choices or options for students. You can have all of the choices or options in the world, but if you don’t have really solid processes to support students in making those choices, your choices are going to fall apart. If your operations don’t allow you to offer that smooth student experience, I don’t care how good your courses are or how much you care about your students—having a really solid operations foundation first and then layering on choice is paramount.

The pandemic has accelerated the average customer’s understanding of learning experience choices. Prior to the pandemic, people only knew classroom-based instruction and then maybe a few online options. But the pandemic forced all learning institutions to embrace the technologies for different choices and different ways to deliver learning. It’s been wonderful here at Dalhousie to see all of the innovation and creativity that faculties and individual faculty members engaged in, in order to deliver choices to students that really match their subject and content areas. To my mind, the real choice piece needs to be around different delivery options, so students can find courses that fit their schedules and that fit how they like to learn. 

Evo: If student centricity is a mix of choice and process, then that demands a stackable microcredentialing model. So how do we get from here to there? 

DT: That’s the multi-million dollar, possibly billion-dollar question because higher education institutions need to continue to operate as they implement change. The people who have the biggest advantage right now in making the switch to this highly flexible, personalized, stackable approach to higher education are institutions that are starting from scratch. They can just design their systems and processes to be nimble from the beginning. 

For institutions like Dalhousie and many others, how do we take a system and processes that operate across a large and complex organization and change them?

In our faculty, we’ve started by understanding who we are, what we are and what we have, and then planning how we can move incrementally toward what we need to be. 

We actually didn’t want to go out and create brand new programming around microcredentialing because we knew that some of our programming could translate into microcredentials. One of our first steps was figuring out what microcredentialing is for Dalhousie University, identify existing content that could be a microcredential, then build technical systems for microcredentialing around that. There are a lot of moving parts in this process, so we’ve been chipping away at this. Once we’ve done this across our faculty, and engaged other faculties and learning experience providers in the discussion, then we can start looking at what new programming we need for microcredentialing in order to allow students to portably stack their learning experiences into recognizable credentials.

Evo: How does the new name of your division, open learning and career development, better reflect the mission and focus of your division?

DT: We used to be called the College of Continuing Education. This was such a disconnect because first of all, we were actually a faculty at that point in time, but we were called a college.  And probably a good 70% of our programming was actually not continuing education programming. It was access programming.

The other problem was that it was completely limiting. It said that we only serve this small group of learners or this small segment of the lifelong learning spectrum. We set out to find a name that really captured the entire spectrum of programming that we currently offer but that was also future-oriented. We do everything from helping students get into university and pursue a traditional degree, to professional development certificates and stackable microcredentials, all the way up to programming that serves the needs of seniors. We operate in this entire spectrum, and we really needed a name that captured that whole spectrum.

The other word in our name that we really honed in on was the word ‘open’ because accessibility is crucial to adult learners. And that’s what this word means to us. It says, “This is the door into Dalhousie. We are open for business. We are open to helping you with your learning experiences. Our learning experiences are accessible—just come on in.”

We strategically put career development in the name as well because the main reason that our learners engage with us, regardless of where they are in their journey, is for career purposes (except if they’re at the seniors’ level). Engaging in lifelong learning has impact on their employability, career trajectory, on how rewarding their career is and so on. So, the career development piece, even though it makes the name long, is very important because it’s why adult learners engage with us. 

Evo: What can Continuing Ed leaders do to build a better understanding of their work, focus and benefit to the institution for folks on the main campus who may just not be aware of what’s going on?

DT: One of the things I inherited was that we were very much perceived as being on the periphery of the university. I set out from day one to raise our profile within the university as a whole. I did that not by coming at it competitively—like saying, “We offer this and we have to offer all of the continuing education in the university”—but with the message of, Let us help you with whatever Continuing Education you feel your graduates need. And so, we have helped multiple faculties design Continuing Education experiences. We support them with their Destiny One usage for administration.

We’re gradually expanding and saying, “Look, we’re here to support you because we know you’re the experts in terms of what your graduates need for Continuing Education. And we are happy to share whatever expertise or system we have. We’re happy to have you piggyback on them and use them.” We’re doing this with Destiny One. We’re doing this with our microcredentialing. We have built an administration system for microcredentials, and anyone across the university is welcome to use it.

I’m very gratified with how my fellow deans and any other faculties have said, “Okay, actually we do need this support, we do appreciate it and we do have lifelong learning experiences that we want to get out there for our graduates. Can you help us with them?” And we’re totally happy to do that. 

So, we set ourselves up as facilitators, and there’s just been a greater realization, amplified by the pandemic, that the university has much more learning to offer its students that doesn’t end the day they get their degree. And hats off to every dean and senior leader at Dalhousie because they’ve realized that we do have obligations to our graduates to keep them engaged and help them throughout their entire learning journey. So, part of my job was made easier because that understanding went right to the top at the university. 

Evo: Is there anything that you’d like to add about this process of defining and communicating your vision and philosophy for the division? 

DT: I actually didn’t come into the role with the vision already in place. I came in not really knowing what I would find, where the opportunities would be, where we had the skill sets and where we had programming gaps. It’s been really exciting because it’s been an emergent and iterative process. I did a lot of digging, listening, question-asking, but I didn’t have a hundred days of listening process before I took action. I jumped into work right away. As soon as I saw something we could do, I put it in motion.

We had this corresponding emergent strategy piece and emergent activity piece going in parallel. Every time we learned something new, we asked, “How do we put that into place?” We just went through a formal, strategic planning process about four months ago to help us consolidate everything we had gone through and learned over the last year and a bit. Only at that point were we able to firmly start to articulate our vision. It was this wonderful, interesting creative, innovative process because I didn’t come in with any preconceived ideas. I had no idea what I would find, and I allowed it to emerge. It’s a very difficult journey, to engage in any emergent process, because there’s so much uncertainty and ambiguity. I am really thankful for my team in joining me on this journey.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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