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The Need to Refocus University Continuing Education

The EvoLLLution | The Need to Refocus University Continuing Education
The quick transition of all courses online has exposed problems of flexibility and accessibility in learning that can be easily remedied by permanently implementing this new modality.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has intensified a trend that we are seeing in continuing education—and for which growing numbers of people are committing to major learning projects—online.

Greater student engagement is always tied to a life transition—the greater the engagement, the more significant the transition. The University of California, Irvine’s Division of Continuing Education (DCE) has created the Life Transitions 60-Year Curriculum that frames our efforts to be learner-centered, recognizing the realities of our learners’ lives, and their motivations for learning. Adopting this framework has led us to view our roles differently, revealing the huge changes underway in university-based continuing education’s (CE) social role and the competitive landscape for our services. The pandemic has amplified the university’s need to anticipate the future and the changes that will shape university continuing education programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an accelerator

The sudden shift in our economy has resulted in over 30 million Americans filing for unemployment insurance, creating a recession that has caused a mass expansion in the life transitions that fuel CE enrollment.

In my 46-year career in continuing education, I have experienced the effects of a recession about five times. The typical pattern in economic downturns begins with a countercyclical element: CE sees an increase in enrollment rates as people turn to higher education after either losing their jobs or delaying job-seeking. They seek to increase their competitiveness in the marketplace by increasing their skills, knowledge, and certifications. This phase typically lasts for six to eight months, and then, if the recession does not recover, students become discouraged and no longer seek CE as a solution.

However, this recession may follow another pattern. Many more people now have some experience with online education or are being forced into online or remote formats. Therefore, a large segment of both students and instructors are now becoming familiar with,  and more comfortable in, the online space. In addition, since the last 2008 recession, much more low-cost education is available online. And the evidence is clear that people are taking advantage of open and free education. For instance, Coursera, the major provider of MOOCs, reports at least a 25% increase from the previous year in student engagement. The barriers to the accessing of education are being taken down.

The pandemic has created a clear trend: the association of academic credit with free or low-cost online education. Coursera’s MasterTrack™ Certificate and edX’s MicroMasters are examples of this trend, as are the low-cost master’s degrees in computer science offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois. The drive toward creditable certifications, in the form of credit-bearing courses or degrees, is the result of employers seeking to verify the skills and competencies of the people they hire. This trend will also be supported when universities adopt digital credentialing (addressed later in this paper).

There is evidence to suggest that this recession will be with us for a protracted period.  However, there is hope for people to find employment. In some industries, wherein specialized training is required, high paying jobs are available. This is particularly true in the IT and technological industries in which universities have a command of the underlying body of knowledge from which professional education derives.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a renewed emphasis on the importance of change in higher education, those changes, although not generally recognized, have been evident for some time. In fact, they are so evident and inevitable that I call them “imperatives”–certain in their prospect and great in their impact. Three forces are at play as we consider refocusing CE in universities: the need for career services, the advent of digital credentialing and the growing need for strategic partnerships.

Career services

Traditionally our role has been to provide CE courses and programs that develop students’ professional skills and abilities. Increasingly, however, we need to expand these efforts to address our students’ life transitions by providing them help with 1) identifying job and career options, and 2) entering jobs and careers. Career assistance and job placement services are both a necessary and natural extension of the programs that we offer. Linking CE courses and programs with employment opportunities reflects CE students’ motivation. It becomes a powerful marketing tool for attracting students to CE programs. It also fosters important and positive relationships with employers, often the largest suppliers of students to CE courses, as well as the largest beneficiaries of the talent created by CE programs. While most CE units supply what might be called “passive” career services—information about how to prepare a resume, how to succeed interviews and how to access local job listings—few offer a full spectrum of career services that include job placement.

At UCI, the continuing education division is under the same leadership as the career services office, and we are creating active and focused career services that include job and resume posting, automatic resume scoring, technology and courses in interviewing, local labor market statistics, and career counseling. These services will be a prominent feature of our marketing efforts.

While career services for working adults should have a renewed focus, CE should also be aware of the need to provide graduating seniors with special programs. Service to graduating students is a new and urgent necessity. The recession will significantly affect the graduating class of 2020. Research indicates that if a student does not gain meaningful employment within the first six months after graduation, he/she will have a much lower chance of ever catching up in terms of responsibility and salary. Such a significant setback at this stage is not only crucial to students, it is tremendously threatening to colleges and universities—over 80% of students and their parents indicate that the main reason for college attendance is to gain a meaningful career. Universities are increasingly judged by their graduates’ successes, particularly in terms of entering salaries. There are now common rankings of universities based on the return on investment that students receive from the tuition they pay. Regional accrediting bodies now require that each degree publishes learning outcomes, with metrics associated to the desired outcomes.

To have an entire cohort of students face unemployment after graduation this year will only intensify the scrutiny under which the value of a university education is considered, particularly as tuition and student debt increase. One issue is that university career services are usually available only to matriculated students and not to those who have just graduated from degree programs, thus depriving them of the services that they need at the most crucial time for their future. At UCI, we have partly addressed this gap by extending a set of career services to graduates for free during the year after their graduation. Our work with the UCI Alumni Association extends low-cost customized solutions to graduates.

Our services also engage students in meaningful connections with CE offerings. The UCI Division of Continuing Education has identified over one hundred degree courses in the UCI regular degree curriculum that articulate with our professional certificate programs, thus providing students with the opportunity to complete a portion of a CE professional certificate program before they graduate. For instance, our paralegal program has identified several undergraduate courses in law that apply toward the ABA-approved paralegal program.

Alternative digital credentials

Alternative Digital Credentials (ADCs) will transform higher education institutions’ relationships with their students, industry partners and ultimately with society. The use of ADCs will significantly supplement traditional university transcripts by providing a fully digital, information-rich record of professionally relevant skills and competencies.

While degree attainment will remain important to employers, alternative forms of competency markers will quickly create a new way to evaluate skills for the marketplace. The demonstration of acquired skills and competencies itself will be more important than where and how the learning occurred. With ADCs, students will own their credentials and their distribution.

There are many indications that ADCs will become more and more important. ADCs are already widely used, and employers have accepted them during the hiring process. ADCs fit societal needs by focusing more on actual skills and competencies relevant to the workplace as contrasted with most university courses that focus on learning attainment rather than learning application. ADCs are consistent with active learning and the movement toward more relevancy in pedagogy. Finally, they foster closer relationships between institutions and the employers who hire their students.

With the ability to provide employers and potential employers with a self-verifying, secure and unalterable permanent digital record of their competencies, students will gain a competitive advantage in the job market. Universities will be able to improve their relevance within the regional economy by releasing themselves from the restrictions of course formatting, allowing a focus on relevant competencies desired by the local workforce. Employers will be able to rely on the university to set standards and give assessments that can be used to evaluate job-seeking candidates. Employers can now become closer to the university as they seek help in acquiring talent.

The institutional adoption of ADCs, with appropriate standards and oversight, fits nicely with both the 60-year curriculum and career services already described, supporting both and being in turn supported. ADCs also create an avenue for the formation of strategic partnerships described in the next section.

Strategic partnerships

It is clear that no single university CE unit–even the largest–can serve all of a particular community’s needs. Except for some online degree programs, university CE units draw their audiences from a very local area, with only brief forays into the national or international markets. Even the service areas with the largest populations (such as UCI’s service area of Orange County California with 3.2 million people, larger than 22 states in the union) cannot generate many financially successful programs. This leaves large gaps for local areas’ needs. This became clear with the advent of IT-related boot camps. The creation, maintenance, and marketing costs of these boot camps in a local market are too great for most CE units to undertake. This left room for companies like the for-profit Trilogy and its competitors to approach universities with a full, maintained and updated boot camp curriculum. But boot camps are not the only example of this typical gap in CE units’ service. Many IT courses and programs are of immediate and urgent need, with a short shelf life, requiring scarce or expensive institutional resources and the need to provide special facilities or software.

The cost of curriculum development and maintenance is a significant barrier, but so too is the lack of a distribution channel that takes programs beyond the local area to a larger market. Again, third parties– profit and non-profit–are available. Many top universities are partnered with Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, and other MOOC providers of national and international exposure. For instance, UCI is a Coursera partner with over 110 courses on its platform. Since we started working with Coursera in 2013, over 19 million people have visited our courses, 2.7 million have at least started courses and over 500,000 have completed a course.

However, relying on these non-institutional third parties has its costs, which I will describe in the next section. These costs are beginning to push institutions into closer partnerships for program sharing. For instance, UCI is part of a program sharing network with a number of other universities, including its sister UC campuses at Davis and Riverside. Network members share courses and programs that they have developed either on a licensing basis or on what we call a marketing basis. Thus, we are able to quickly fill in our program gaps with high-quality programs developed by other universities reducing reliance on for-profit partners.

The competitive landscape is radically and rapidly changing: what to do?

Strategic partners in curriculum and marketing distribution are clearly CE imperatives for the future. University CE units simply can’t fulfill their mission to service local communities by relying on their own resources. However, a disturbing ongoing pattern is emerging in the competitive landscape for university CE. As universities seek out these strategic partnerships, they begin to compete with each other, giving up a significant part of their income streams derived from the programs. In effect, their large distribution and marketing channels are using universities’ brands to create the academic equivalent of “big box stores” with the potential of driving out the smaller university-based CE units. Fueled by millions of dollars of venture capital, and driven by the need to provide those investors with a high return in the face of low margins, our marketplace’s dynamic is changing quickly.

How should we respond to this threat and challenge?  Our focus should be on serving our local regions and students with high quality, customized and responsive programs and services. We must pay attention to our students’ life transitions, be there when they need us, provide career services to students, and serve local employers with talented and workplace-ready employees. The issuance of ADCs, tied closely to the region’s workforce needs is another strategy to meet the competition from non-institutional CE providers. The formation of strategic partnerships with other institutions rather than with our for-profit competitors are also steps that we can take.

However, we should not engage in the wholescale abandonment or boycott of large-scale marketing and distribution partnerships such as Coursera and edX. They do serve a broader purpose by delivering high-quality education to millions of people who otherwise would not have access to such education. We all have a stake in this kind of world-wide service, but we can take steps to carefully monitor and communicate our experiences with these private third parties to make sure they that represent us well, being alert to instances when their objectives differ from ours.

The current social unrest over the twin crises of racial tension and COVID-19 present some of the most serious challenges to university CE leadership in decades. Each day it seems that new circumstances emerge and require our immediate attention but also indicate what will happen in the future. We all need to take time to make predictions and then take action in light of what we see. Despite the challenges we face—others need us. We should re-dedicate ourselves to serving these needs through responsive redefinitions of our roles.

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