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The Vitality of Internal Institutional Partnerships to Drive Lifelong Learning

Each department, unit and faculty brings its own set of particular expertise to the institution. It’s critical to break down silos and foster collaboration to meet students’ needs and support them throughout their lifelong learning journey.

The lifelong learning model isn’t going away anytime soon, and higher education needs to begin consolidating this type of learning across the institution. Partnerships among different departments are required to create a seamless experience for learners, no matter what life stage they’re at. In this interview, Sheila LeBlanc discusses the impact of partnerships on a seamless institutional lifelong learning model, what makes a strong and lasting partnership and ways to begin breaking down silos.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo) Why is it important for institutions to focus on more internal partnerships across the institution, especially when looking at a lifelong learning model?

Sheila LeBlanc (SLB): What society needs from public funded higher ed institutions is really changing. The societal importance of higher ed supporting a lifelong learning model—particularly adding the mandate to provide responsive professional Continuing Education that ensures mid-career workers can upskill and reskill for a changing world of work—has been heard by government and by senior institutional leadership. However, the work needed to make this a reality needs to go beyond senior leaders and government; it needs to be embedded into the fabric of academic work at higher ed institutions.  

It’s through internal partnerships and breaking down silos that we can build a wholesome institutional ecosystem that supports the lifelong learning model. We need to partner widely and deeply, bringing together our academic faculty’s expertise with Continuing Education’s expertise to build and operationalizing learning designed to serve mid-career and career-transitioning adults. Together, we’re well positioned to create a full portfolio of learning over a lifetime. That’s the future.

Evo: What are some of the challenges to building those internal partnerships and growing a lifelong learning model?

SLB: The knowledge, skills and abilities to create a lifelong learning model exist within higher ed institutions—the building blocks are there. The challenge is that those capabilities are spread among disperse groups that exist in cultural and operational silos. This is especially true in large research-intensive universities.

Aligning goals can be challenging. Academic institutions are known for being loosely coupled organizational structures, with many subcultures and diverse goals. Individual academics often identify more closely with their discipline colleagues than with the umbrella term faculty or the institution they are part of. Further, traditional faculties take very different approaches to teaching and have different priorities than Continuing Education (CE) teams. For example, they have different approaches to selecting programming topics and content; determining who designs curriculum and teaches it; offering programing part time, during evenings or weekends; and developing programming in multiple modalities are all different. Central registrar’s offices have different operational goals than CE as well. They are regulated and often require more ridge practices than wanted or needed for nontraditional students. Academic policies, student policies and student services also vary widely between the traditional academy and CE.   

Another, more under the surface challenge is balancing power among various groups. While this varies from institution to institution, CE teams have largely been at the margins for many years and may not have a seat at important decision-making tables or enough influence to be heard when negotiating and making recommendations with faculty leaders and other central services teams. This presents the risk that the experience, ideas, practices, processes and systems of the less dominant culture—the CE team—may not be leveraged. This would be a loss as, most CE teams better understand the needs and wants of lifelong learners.

To build a lifelong learning ecosystem, breaking down silos and building internal partnerships are critical. We need to work together to build a broader portfolio of learning options, designed to meet the needs of a broad range of learners over a lifetime. It requires us to evolve deeply embedded cultures, recognize power differences, be open to others’ ideas, while working toward integrated business processes, systems and operational processes. 

Evo: What are some characteristics of a strong internal partnership, and how can partnerships help break down silos?

SLB: Every partnership or relationship needs a foundation of trust and respect. Strong partnerships are also grounded in shared goals and clear accountability. We’ve been purposefully building strong partnerships as a grassroots approach to drive broader change at the University of Calgary.

UCalgary CE’s vision is to “Champion UCalgary as a leader in continuing and lifelong learning.” As a research-intensive university, we know that to build high-quality, research-informed professional Continuing Education for the most skilled workers, we need to do so in partnership with academics. However, this work hasn’t been a priority for most academic staff. Our grassroots approach has been to dig where the ground is soft, to invest in strategically aligned professional and Continuing Education projects that individual academics, department heads or deans have proposed. Through supporting these initiatives, the UCalgary CE team has been building bridges between CE and the traditional academy, resulting in pockets within the academic community that are primed for broader collaboration and change. 

It has taken time, and fortunately we have been able to develop and implement a number of successful projects with faculty and with central student services and the registrar’s office. Through these projects, we have built credibility. We now have solid exemplars and are building a critical mass of colleagues in faculties and other senior leadership positions that recognize the unique knowledge, skills and abilities CE offers toward creating a lifelong learning model. Our CE team has also learned more about what is important to various faculties, their unique disciplinary perspectives, academic cultures and language. This understanding gives us the tools to be better internal partners and to drive change. 

It is an important time for UCalgary Continuing Education. Through building credibility, delivering on projects in partnership and demonstrating the value of Continuing Ed’s expertise, we’re now fielding more internal partnership inquires than we can fulfill. More broadly, CE is now invited to or asked to lead at decision-making tables associated with lifelong learning. Further, we are now building more formal partnership structures and operational processes to embed CE as an integral part of a pan-institutional lifelong learning ecosystem at UCalgary.

Evo: What are some low-hanging fruit higher ed leaders can explore to break down these silos?

SLB: I wish I could say it was easy. Each institution has its own starting point. Disconnects and silos will exist in different places across the institution.

Policies, processes or systems are starting points to consider. We have had success with building connections between CE and faculty by implementing Modern Campus as the shared noncredit system of record for the institution. CE now sits in the center of this work, providing noncredit registrarial services for the whole university. By centralizing this function, we built bridges and formalized CE’s role as an academic delivery partner with faculty. We also demonstrated our operational expertise in serving nontraditional learners.

As shared earlier, our CE team has been able to drive change from the middle, by selecting and investing in strategically aligned projects and partnerships that faculty members or academic leaders in the professional CE teaching space initiate. This space needs to be entered with a bit more caution than operational partnerships. Discussion about roles, responsibilities and goals are critical, as sharing in this work potentially threatens the identity and perceived domain of the traditional academy. To help select partnership initiatives in this space, we consider a number of things, like whether it’s a project in which we’ll be able to demonstrate our unique value or if someone or some other team is better suited for this partnership and whether we are aligned regarding the learners we want to serve, the financial plan and the expected outcomes. We also consider how likely we are to create an ally, a potential advocate for our work through the initiative.

It is hard and slow to break down silos and build a collision for change from the middle of an institution. The most effective and efficient way is through strategic alignment, which requires executive sponsorship. 

I want to close with a call to action for executive institutional leaders. For those leaders who believe the lifelong learning model is the future of higher education, please continuously evaluate, encourage and where possible embed this vision through alignment at the organizational, team and individual levels. This means building lifelong learning into strategic and academic plans, including targets and goals for the institution, for faculties and for departments. It means, executive leadership time, guidance and financial support. It means setting shared goals for team leaders to work together to build the student journey and supports for nontraditional learners. At the individual level, alignment means finding a place for this work as part of academic promotion and tenure practices. It means engaging and enabling support staff to identify processes, practices and systems that need to change to facilitate the lifelong learning model. It is through strategic alignment at all levels that a lifelong learning model will become embedded in the fabric of an institution.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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