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[State of CE Reflection: 2021] Four Trends in Professional Development and Continuing Education

As traditional academia mirrors some of the work continuing ed divisions have been doing for years, it’s important for them to consult CE trends and best practices in building curricula for the future of work.

*Editor's note: This piece was originally written in 2021 and reflects the state of continuing education as of that year. Please note that the information and trends described in this document may have evolved since then, given the dynamic nature of the educational landscape.

This has been a compelling year if you happen to work in university continuing education (CE). It almost feels like a renaissance.

Online learning? Check.

Alternative credentials? Absolutely.

Industry connections? Of course.

Skills gap? On it.

While so much of the world is trying to contend with the rapidly shifting landscape and world of work, those of us in CE have been working to respond to these changes already (at a slower pace than our current super-paced COVID-19 context, mind you).

In many CE circles the biggest challenge has been determining how to get on the radars of people, organizations and politicians who may not be aware of the sometimes un-sexy work of continuing education. We’ve been here for quite some time, doing this important work with little to no funding and the entrepreneurial spirit of a medium-sized start up.

Suddenly, skills gap and future skills are hot topics, and we’re working our buns off going, Hello? We’ve been here all along. Not in a snarky way of course; CE leaders are just not like that.

(It’s like that time when I worked at the National Film Board of Canada, and my father, an elementary school teacher, lamented that he wished there were films addressing environmental issues in the classroom). 

So here, I humbly offer you key observations from the trenches of continuing education and why these “trends” and hot topics, are not trendy at all but here to stay:

1. Alternative credentials, digital credentials, microcredentials or um…nano credentials?

Here’s the scoop. To put it in an overly simplistically: an alternative credential is not a degree or diploma. Often shorter in duration and developed using different approaches and following different governing standards, alternative credentials are not designed to replace traditional degrees or diplomas. Alternative credentials are designed to provide supplemental skills and knowledge to support an individual’s learning in a specific discipline or topic area. Non-credit certificates, as offered in many continuing education divisions, can therefore be considered alternative credentials. All of this preamble is to say: the concept of alternative credentials is not new.

Microcredentials on the other hand, represent shorter, more concise and sometimes stackable versions of an alternative credential. Microcredentials may even be layered on top of an existing degree or diploma. Confused yet? This is also not necessarily new; short courses have been around a long time, but how we talk about them may seem new. 

Digital credentials, sometimes called digital badging, are the actual new (and kind of exciting) credential type. This is the part focused on providing successful learners with a credential that visibly represents what they have learned in a specific course, part of a course or a series of courses. Digital credentials are visible, easy to use, secure and portable. Learners can include their credential on a digital resume, website or profile, and potential employers or collaborators can click on it to find out more about of the associated skills and competencies. This may sound gimmicky, but hear me out. 

Digital credentials have a great potential to level the playing field. From an equity perspective, just as everyone doesn’t give a great interview, not everyone is stellar at communicating their skills via a digital profile. Validated digital credentials on the other hand do that work for the individual.

Imagine this: you are a hiring manager looking for a stellar front-line developer. You peruse a series of online profiles and discover that one of the potential candidates has digital credentials related to full-stack development on their profile. You’re able to click on each credential and understand exactly what skills this person has acquired. While they may not nail the interview, they have the exact skills you need. In this case, the digital credential helped that individual secure a great opportunity for themselves and helped you, as a hiring manager, get what you need.

In short, digital credentials are just catching on and, in my opinion, they are here to stay. Before you start telling me that employers don’t care about these things, just wait. Exposure right now is low, and some of the younger organizations we work with are already asking for digital credentials. It’s coming folks. You heard it here for the first or maybe 125th time.

2. Meeting learners where they are

Also called varied schedules and formats. The bottom line is that we live in a society where we can get what we want, when we want it. Although it’s somewhat expected that large institutions are behind the curve on this, there is still an expectation of flexibility. What this means is, if an average working professional wants to access training, they may not want to wait for the start of a term to take a course. And why should they? These are busy people!

For university continuing education divisions to stay competitive and not be overshadowed by the’s of the world (love Lynda, see the irony, different purpose though), we need to be flexible, offering high-quality, instructor-supported courses at varied times throughout the year and in varied formats. Online isn’t everything, nor is face-to-face. The key to success is offering varied formats (not just blended) and at different times to respond to the needs of all learners. The more we can meet learners where they are and provide them with what they need outside of the confines of “traditional” academia, the more successful we will be.

3. Learning outcomes FIRST          

Time is of the essence, so the idea that a specific number of hours needs to be put in in order to get something out of it is passé. Depending on learning outcomes, the time commitment required to achieve a skill or competency is highly variable, so why do we have standard thirteen-week course formats? Of course, this is related to the point above; however, my point here is that course format and duration should be dictated by learning outcomes, not by specific and maybe arbitrary standards in the context of professional learning and development.

Related to this, we may also need to loosen the reigns in terms of what a learner must do to earn a credential–shouldn’t it be up to the professional adult learner to decide what they need to achieve a certificate? This is not wacky. Interdisciplinary certificates supported by knowledgeable academic advising may just be the key to supporting individuals in tailoring their learning for their individual needs and areas requiring improvement or enhancement.

The bottom line is this: learning can be dictated by individuals, not by “traditional” notions of required time commitments. This doesn’t mean standards are not important; see my next point.

4. Academic quality and authentic assessment

The trend that should and will never go away is the importance of academic quality and authentic assessment. It should probably be number one, but if you’ve read this far, you’ll know why it isn’t: it’s not shiny and new. Academic quality is paramount. A well-designed course combining theory and rigorous practice, taught by a passionate and knowledgeable instructor is essential in a high-quality continuing education course. This should never change regardless of format or timing.

In terms of assessment, we need to break away from traditional approaches and think critically about benefiting professional learners. Is a high-stakes exam reflective of even the most stressful day of work for some professionals? Likely not. So, why do we insist on high-stakes exams, and why don’t we more closely reflect what work life really is all about? Authentic assessment means thinking critically about the course material, learning outcomes and the potential roles individuals in a specific discipline might occupy, and designing assessments that solidify learning and provide a positive summary for the course experience. Does it mean lighter and easier? Absolutely not. It means assessments that are closer to reality.

In conclusion

With all the hype around new terms—microcredentials, alternative credentials, upskilling, reskilling and the future of work—I am a little concerned that we might lose sight of what really matters: not what we call education but the value it brings to learners. While some of this is novel, a lot is happening already, and discussions are hot and heavy behind the scenes. My colleagues across Canada may have differing opinions on some of these trends, but our agenda always has been to prepare professionals for the future of work.

If you’re engaged in conversations about the future of work and skills gaps, consider including professionals who work in university continuing education—we’ve been here all along and we’re evolving at a rapid pace.


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