Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
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Going online may be more important now than ever, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes everyone to explore new options. Of course, as institutions begin to settle into a remote learning environment, it’s incredibly important for them to distinguish to students the difference between remote and online education. And continuing ed divisions are here to help. In this interview, Ian Allen discusses what role continuing ed has played so far in helping institutions adapt to the realities of the pandemic and reflects on how that role may evolve into the future.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role has the College of Extended Learning played of the last few weeks in helping the rest of UNB adapt to the remote teaching and learning environment?
Ian Allen (IA): We’ve been front and center. We have a Center for Enhanced Teaching and Learning, which focuses on integrating technology into the classroom (as opposed to online teaching). Our IT department is our backbone in rolling out new tools, like Microsoft Teams, and in helping integrate these technologies into our remote course environment. That’s an important distinction here. This wasn’t meant to be a movement to get courses online—it’s to allow them to be taught by remote faculty to remote learners. So, we use the term “alternate delivery method” as opposed to online education.
What we’re trying to do now is finish off the academic year and head into our spring and summer semesters. During these seasons, we play a particularly crucial role because everything that happens on campus flows through our unit. A large number of courses will be based in an online format. Our open-entry courses, which are asynchronous and flexibly scheduled, have seen enrollment increases. All this is designed to support the alternative delivery method courses we’ll be running synchronously week to week, while using tools like Teams or Zoom to communicate with students and get feedback.
What we’re doing is no different than what we’ve always done in CEL. We have delivered degree courses and programs and professional development courses online for most of their existence. Our traditionally face-to-face certificate programs are moving online. A large portion of the content itself will be housed within our LMS. We’ll then use communication tools like Zoom or Teams to run the synchronous sessional class times like we normally would in a face-to-face environment. In truth, the main difference for us has been the social aspect.
Evo: How important is it to communicate to faculty and learners that what they’re doing is in response to a pandemic, not well-designed online learning?
IA: We aren’t looking to create new highly polished versions of existing face-to-face courses in an online environment with these courses. We’re not using instructional designers, web developers or graphic designers to develop the pedagogical aspects that makes it a true online course.
We’re instead looking purely at the necessities you need to have in place in order to deliver your course and maintain some level of engagement. It’s important to keep in mind that these are not a perfect replacement for what we do on-site.
It’s been a challenge. This is something that’s completely outside most instructors’ wheelhouses. At the end of the day, there is some content that doesn’t lend itself to this delivery mechanism. It’s really forcing people to think outside the box. They’ll need to be able to create course notes that will be adaptable to both teaching environments.
That’s always a challenge, but that’s where continuing education divisions can support them and help develop materials they haven’t thought about.
Evo: Have you seen many cancellations or have people been comfortable with the shift to remote?
IA: We’re just beginning to see some movement there. We’re at the crucial point where courses are being set up for the summer, and instructors are assigned to them. There have been a few instructors who have backed out because they’re not comfortable with remote or online teaching. As a result, their courses will either be assigned to a new instructor or simply be cancelled. We still don’t know the full extent of that yet. The good thing is that there is a large number of K-12 teachers looking to complete their master’s degrees. Those courses will likely be high in attendance because teachers are no longer confined to the two-month vacation period in the summer to get courses done. They’ll be able to start sooner.
Faculty are creating additional sections to certain courses that are core requirements of a program, so there will be positive movement there. But some people aren’t comfortable with engaging in a full course or program online; they just want to get through the next couple of weeks. Depending on how compressed they are, it puts a certain level of pressure on an instructor to revisit whether or not they want to offer that course at all. It’ll be up to faculties and departments to determine what core courses need to be taught.
In our nursing program, for example, we’re moving practicums and other core courses to the fall. We’ve had to make several adjustments and get permission from the provincial department of health because those programs are tied into professional accreditation. So, there’s been some course correcting, and it’s not over yet, but it’s certainly allowed traditional thinkers to think outside their boxes.
A couple of programs that we run in partnership with the regional health authorities are now on hold, and there are employees who no longer have a large portion of their workload taken up by these programs. We have to figure out how we can redistribute work so they can help out in increasingly busy areas. We’ve been able to move a few people around, so they have something to work on. It’s not what we hired them for, but everybody’s willing to step up and refocus their energies as needed.
Evo: How do you think this experience is going to change the role and understanding of what continuing ed can do within the institutional context?
IA: The work our unit does is very broad. We offer everything from online learning to professional development to English language training. Over the past few weeks, we’ve gone from being a fringe unit that few people understand to one whose work people are starting to deeply value.
It’s a nice thing to see, especially for the folks on the ground doing innovative work. Sometimes it becomes exhausting to constantly try to prove your worth. But all the work we do—from setting courses up differently in the system, to having different course codes based on delivery, to identifying money flows and finding revenue sharing mechanisms—is really at the forefront now. Universities need to do something if we’re going to stay viable and maintain a viable regional draw, and CE can really lead the way here.
Going forward, institutions will only be the main draw for their local traditional-aged audiences if they offer relevant programming in the demanded formats. Continuing education units are going to be front-and-center in these initiatives at most colleges and universities to ensure that they stay relevant. CE units are more broadly focused on finding creative approaches to program expansion. Traditional institutions tend to believe students will find them if they have a good offering. And in truth, students might find us that way, but looking at our new normal, and it’s unlikely that they’re going to be able to physically come here to enroll. That’s the big change.
Evo: Do you think the demand for ongoing continuing ed is going to grow over the recession on the horizon or are you expecting this recession to be significantly different from previous?
IA: Right now, people are just trying to finish what they started, and I think they will want a break afterwards. But after that, there will be a change in what people are looking for.
The mental wellness aspect is going to play a much stronger role in helping people cope through this whole crisis. We’re already seeing an uptick of demand for shorter courses and programs on mental wellness and coping skills. There’s also movement with respect to companies purchasing bulk licenses for specific programming. For example, a company might purchase 1,500 seats in a course for their employees.
We may even reach a point where if people aren’t working, there may be some inclusion of personal engagements—like taking a wine-tasting course online—as long as it’s priced accordingly. If we are going to enter into a recession, and this crisis is going to be longer term, most employers won’t have the money to spend on employee development. We need to rethink what type of programming we’re offering and then make sure it’s priced accordingly. This kind of thinking–and the adoption of CE best practices–will have an impact, but we won’t be able to go from zero to 100 overnight.
Continuing ed units are responsive to markets to the point that we’re continually looking to see into their futures and react accordingly. There will be a bit of a balancing act for institutions. We need to make sure we’re staying on top of what people are looking for. What can people do for fun versus what can engage their brains and make it applicable to their work situation? CE units have the pulse on what the population is looking for much more than traditional faculties do.
Evo: Once we establish a post pandemic new normal, how open do you think traditional faculties will be to experiment with online and flexible learning options the role continuing ed is going to play in driving that forward?
IA: Universities will do whatever is possible to maintain their student population. Larger, more elite universities will likely go back to normal because they have the population to draw on. For mid-sized schools, this will be an opportunity for them to learn what their possibilities are. The new normal very well may be more online engagement and a more blended education model. For each institution, it will likely depend upon the strength of its president and senior executives to shape the institution’s future structure.
That’s the approach we have to take. Not everything can go back to the way it was. Instead, we’re going to be much more engaged online. And this actually answers a number of problems for us in regards to shrinking demographics. Developing more online opportunities can help us engage learners and reach out to a broader population.
We can still deliver a high-quality program, and we’ll deliver it directly to them in their workplace or in home. That has to be the change in thinking.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 6, 2020.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students