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Understanding the Approach to Lifelong Learning

For schools with a long history of providing Continuing Education, the CE departments can serve as hubs for experimentation and innovation in different learning modalities and formats, approaches to teaching and meeting students where they are.

Higher education is known for sticking to traditional processes, but that doesn’t mean all institutions follow suit. For some, innovation and change have occurred in Continuing Ed divisions for decades. As the modern learner seeks out higher education through multiple stages of their lives, it’s critical for the institution to have the right teaching approaches and services in place to respond successfully. In this interview, Tanya Zlateva discusses marketing lifelong learning to the modern learner, how Continuing Ed units can drive the institution to innovative change and the evolution of lifelong learning.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can institutions market to current undergrad and grad students to create more visibility for lifelong learning? 

Tanya Zlateva (TZ): Creating higher visibility for lifelong learning means one, explaining its value for lifelong career and personal success and two, identifying the educational pathways that best match their individual goals and backgrounds.  

The need to acquire knowledge and skills is generally well understood. The harsh criticism of college education we have received over the last ten years has been focused on the type of curricula (too abstract), cost and accessibility (high tuition and mostly face-to-face) and the scarcity of shorter, career-focused programs. But despite the continued criticism of higher ed, the fact remains that a college education is a defining factor in finding a job, staying employed and commanding a good salary. There has always been a gap between college graduates’ lifetime earnings and those of high school graduates. Due to the rapidly changing workforce structure, the gap is widening. Change is driven by automation, global connectivity, data science, artificial intelligence and, more recently, cyber-physical systems—all knowledge-intensive areas with an expanding and fast-changing instrumentarium of tools and techniques.

Acquiring these new competencies means going back to school. But the challenge for the individual is to identify the career path closest to their aspirations, assess their preparedness to enter a given course of study and choose the modality (in-person, online, hybrid) most compatible with their lifestyle. 

To help prospective students navigate the complex landscape of degrees, certificates, micro-credentials and delivery formats, a successful marketing approach must provide individualized outreach in addition to rich content on programs, modalities, employment trends on multiple venues such as social media, webinars, interactive panels, peer discussions and industry presentations.

Marketing is transformed into mentoring and coaching for career success. We have implemented this approach through our admissions office, which proactively reaches out to students and guides them through the process.

Evo: Have you seen any developments in personalized marketing to students such as automated marketing?

TZ: Automated marketing with some personalization—for example addressing students by name and providing information on a specific inquiry, usually from anticipated or frequently asked questions—is increasingly routine.

In addition, we conduct extensive personalized outreach including opportunities for live consultations with faculty and admission staff. This is the transformation of marketing I mentioned: supporting, coaching and mentoring to follow up and crystallize expressed interest into concrete goals. It is vastly different from a classic marketing approach to selling a product or service, like through a call center. Our fundamental attitude is not to sell a program but to support a human being in finding their way to further their education. This is difficult to outsource but very effective when done by the school. The challenge is that this is not a core academic activity and requires building new organizational units with marketing and advising expertise and harmonizing the structures and processes with the research and teaching mission.

Evo: What is the difference in program development between the traditional institution and the Continuing Ed unit?

TZ: That’s a fascinating question for me because Boston University has a large Continuing Education college with over 20 years of experience in online education. In BU’s 2030 strategic plan, digital learning for both residential and distance learners is called out as one of the pillars of a vibrant academic experience.

Three years ago, the University launched an online MBA at a disruptive tuition price, and an online Master’s in Public Health will start in January 2023. Before I comment on the differences in program development, I want to stress the commonality. We all have a shared mission, a commitment to research and teaching and social responsibilities to disseminate knowledge and educate the public. The differences are in what part of the shared mission the different colleges emphasize. Traditional academic departments in R1 schools emphasize the advancement of disciplinary knowledge and its incorporation into the curriculum. Thus, their programs tend to more extensively take on foundational and theoretical frameworks with limited incorporation of industry tools and techniques.

In contrast, Continuing Education units are immediately aware of changing industry needs because the working professionals in their classroom ask that faculty teach in emerging areas: “Well, I want to learn more about machine learning or about data analytics in general.” Program innovation and experimentation—in content, modality and program model—are baked into the Continuing Education mission. So, it’s easier to have a new course or a new program format and therefore no accident that programs in emerging areas—cybersecurity, data analytics, business analytics, supply chain—are first developed in extension schools. The same is true for modality—hybrid and online programs and credentials—certificates, preparatory laboratories, alternative credentials. Why? Because our mission is to prepare people for careers, for jobs and to teach. The emphasis is on that.

Both extension schools and research departments have demonstrated a high level of innovation. But it is interesting to note that institutional culture strongly influences the style of innovation. Traditional Continuing Education departments developed programs that directly answered student career needs, emphasizing applications and industry tools and skills, low development cost and short, affordable programs. From the first MOOCs at Stanford, Udacity, Coursera and edX to the $6K MS in Computer Science at Georgia Tech, traditional departments approached Continuing Education as a research project: global vision, emphasis on originality and creativity, consciously disruptive, financial solutions delayed to a later phase.

Evo: Where are the challenges in developing a program for lifelong learners coming from, and how does BU address them?

TZ: Industry can be a good partner to help us understand which knowledge and skills are most needed. Collaborations between industry and academia are very valuable but difficult to maintain because academia looks at ten-to–twenty-year cycles while industry typically thinks in two-to-three-year projects. Nevertheless, that is very critical input.

Internally, there are two main hurdles. One is administration: a convoluted, slow and sometimes sclerotic process of credit program approvals. And two, faculty resources.

Higher education is famous for changing very, very slowly. We were fortunate that BU was open to online education early on, and we currently have a streamlined and efficient process. However, faculty resources remain a challenge we are continually working on. Leading research faculty will embrace the challenge and excitement of developing a new course or format and experimenting with educational technology. But teaching large online classes for an extended period is a good use of their time only if they have a support team of teaching faculty and administrative resources.

At BU, we provide the necessary faculty presence in our large online courses, with extended teams that include tenure-track faculty, clinical and of-the-practice faculty, facilitators and course administrators. This diversity opens the issue of differences between faculty roles and expectations for the different ranks and titles and integrating their contributions for a stronger academic experience—a new and non-trivial problem.

Evo: How did online course structure and pedagogy evolve over the last 20 years—and what was the impact of remote teaching and learning during COVID-19 epidemic?

TZ: Pre-COVID, the online medium was focused on developing its own language: integrating text, interactive graphics, videos, adding course elements like various types of discussion boards (groups, topic-focused, water cooler), self-test exercises. For me, the most exciting was the step-by-step building of a virtual community of learners. It is different from the brick-and-mortar university, where connections and relationships are formed almost incidentally by virtue of being in the same classroom or having a casual conversation. In contrast, the virtual world needed to intentionally provide the venues and tools to bring the community together. The results, while not perfect, are encouraging. Sometimes the engagement and conversations between online students and teachers are closer and more frequent than those on campus. So, that’s very positive.

When COVID-19 hit and everybody had to go remote, I witnessed how faculty who had never taught online went through an accelerated version of the online evolution—from synchronous zoom teaching, to adding online office hours, then discussion sections, posting more online materials. Emerging from the experience, I see mostly positive changes. For one, the majority of faculty accept that online teaching can be of the same quality as in-person teaching. Two, most acknowledge that the experience has made them better teachers. And three, there is a better understanding of the possibilities and opportunities of the virtual environment.

However, there is also some disappointment: Faculty and students missed the spontaneity and easy communication flow of the traditional classroom, felt constrained by the need of minute advanced planning and overwhelmed by the amount of work required to develop high-quality online materials.  

Thanks to our long experience with online teaching, the transition for Metropolitan College faculty was very smooth. Well-developed online course sites were already available and we extended them to the face-to-face classes. We also extended the training session and consultation hours to faculty from all BU colleges to ease the transition. On balance, the changes are very positive and an impetus for rethinking curricula and engaging more faculty in rethinking their teaching approaches. Many people are now thinking about new formats—micro-courses, online labs, prep courses—so as terrible as the pandemic was in the area of virtual teaching and learning, it helped us make substantial progress.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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