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Will Blockchain Programming Be Integral to Every University Division?

Higher education needs to look down the road to see what’s coming, what needs to change and be able to stay in the right lane to keep up with competitors.
Higher education needs to look down the road to see what’s coming, what needs to change and be able to stay in the right lane to keep up with competitors.

As tech continues to evolve, both student and faculty needs will as well. How these new technologies play into areas such as business, healthcare and hospitality could revolutionize how they operate and how they need to be taught.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What trends will most significantly impact higher ed over the next five years?

Nazlin Hirji (NH): The world is changing so rapidly, and we are living in unpredictable times. As such, five years seems like a lifetime away! Nonetheless, something I have been contemplating quite a bit recently that I don’t think we talk about enough is the unemployment rate. I believe our national and provincial unemployment rate really influences trends in higher ed. What people are looking for and how much they are seeking change depends on whether unemployment is high or low. In a time when people are unemployed (the unemployment rate is high), they turn to more traditional forms of education. They think about diplomas, degrees—full credentials. They have time to do that. They want to invest in their education. But when unemployment is low, when people can get jobs quickly and easily, they’re not thinking about diplomas and degrees as much because they are not required for the positions and careers they are interested in. Of course, certain professions will always require formal education like medicine, law, etc. What we’re experiencing right now is that many jobs do not require full credentials. But Continuing Education, short-form programming and upskilling always have a role to play. Right now, learners want something quick, whether it’s because they lost their job during the pandemic or they want a promotion. They recognize that they don’t always need full credentials. That’s when and why they look for something shorter. So, the unemployment rate will always have an impact on us.

Then, of course, it’s obvious but still needs to be stated: the economy. When inflation is high, people don’t have as much money to spend on education. And when people have money, they tend to be more willing and able to splurge on or invest in their education. Otherwise, they need and want to know what funding supports are available. So, things like bursaries, sponsorships and employers paying for their education become critical.

The availability of Government of Canada tax credits, OSAP loans (including approved microcredentials that are now eligible)—all those things factor into what people will take and what that looks like, depending on their financial situation.

Another factor we’ve experienced is what’s happening globally. Immigration is a good example. When immigration stops, like it did during the pandemic, then our programs for newcomers obviously have no participants. When immigration is happening and many newcomers arrive, often they come very highly credentialed but still need to do some upskilling, retraining or equivalency work. But when they’re not coming, programs designed for them are impacted.

And then, of course, the number of domestic students is declining because of declining birth rates. That will obviously impact higher ed going forward.  

Evo: Are there any indicators you look for while watching these trends?

NH: On a day-to-day, month-to-month or even or year-to-year basis, it’s not like we sit down and say, “Okay, this is what the inflation rate is. This is what the unemployment rate is.” So, as much as we know those things influence our sector, it’s not like we consciously sit down and talk about the rates at specific times. That’s why it’s considered a trend, and I have recognized it in over a decade-long academic career.

What we really look at are numbers and what the customers tell us through their feet, through their enrollments. If certain programs lack or drop in enrollment, we analyze. Is it the curriculum? Is it the teaching and learning experience? Or is it just that this program is no longer necessary? We constantly do surveys, ask our current students and prospective students for their input. We’re constantly trying to assess the market for what the need is. Traditional programs are required to do full program reviews every five years, but that is too long for us.

As a community college, we exist to support our community, so they should become a source of information. What does the community need—what do employers need in terms of education, training and staff? How are we contributing to the pipeline of employees for the businesses in our community? We talk to our community, the employers and ask them directly: What are your issues? Is it a pipeline? And often right now, because unemployment is so low, the most common response is: “We just need people. We need employees.” We also work with some employers on staff training—reskilling and upskilling. For example, we are providing project management training. Employers have individuals doing project management roles when they have never formally taken the training. Another employer has individuals in sales roles, but he wants them to have more of a project management approach even in their sales. So, we really talk to our community to find out what they need. And we build our programming accordingly because we want to respond to the community’s needs. We also try to be as evidence-informed as we can, so we use things like job postings. We access data about employment prospects, skills and what salary a position will earn. We use all of that to inform what programming we should be offering and how it should evolve. Also, experts in Continuing Education recommend that 20 to 30% of our offerings should be new each year. And programs should be phased out if enrollment is low or feedback is poor, etc.

The goal is to continuously innovate. Sometimes you try, take a risk, and it doesn’t work out. If you are being innovative, that will happen. But if we have done the analysis, if the jobs are there, I like to try offering programming in emerging areas and see what people respond to. The one that always hurts me a little is blockchain. I started in this role four years ago. And one of my strengths in the skills finder assessment is futuristic. For me, that shows up in the way I am constantly looking five to ten years out—that’s just the way my brain thinks. So, for me, blockchain was a very clear emerging area. I knew we needed to have programming in blockchain. We worked with a Subject Matter Expert (SME) at one of the big banks, who was also very passionate and knowledgeable about blockchain. He built a course in blockchain for us, but it was as if we were too early and people weren’t ready for it. That was four years ago, and now I see many blockchain courses coming out.

Evo: What role will Continuing and workforce education divisions play in building a more flexible and open postsecondary ecosystem?

NH: At most institutions, CE has always been the poor, forgotten cousin. Because CE is not the primary business of a higher education institution, it has never been a significant priority. In some institutions, revenue generated by CE is a rounding error for the organization’s overall budget. But over the past couple of years—even pre COVID—it was starting to change. The value of CE, its contribution and its potential were starting to be recognized. As funding for colleges and domestic enrollment have decreased, there was a recognition of the potential expertise and contributions of CE. First of all, specifically what we offer is our model: our processes, our structure, our operations, our customer service model. To be clear, we call our learners “customers.” The postsecondary side has never done that. In fact, some take offense, thinking it is insulting. But it is the opposite: When you view your learner as a customer, you treat them differently—better. Now that we’re competing for a smaller domestic market, we’re starting to talk about things like the customer experience. What’s going to differentiate us from our competitors is how we treat students, in and outside the classroom. Previously it wasn’t as much a focus with postsecondary students. But in CE, we’ve always recognized that a customer can choose course by course whether they take their program with us or whether they take it with another college because often the core offerings are similar. Therefore a great learning experience is crucial. But if we all have great courses, the differentiator is how we treat students, especially outside the classroom—the supports we offer, the website and purchasing experience. Do we give them enough information? Those are the things that help us be competitive in attracting customers.

Evo: How can they ensure their institutions are prepared to support Continuing Ed divisions through these kinds of changes?

NH: One is the department’s profile, level and recognition. Who is the leader of the department, and what is their title? If we’re looking to meet employers’ needs, if we’re looking to do corporate training, who is leading that? It matters. If you have a manager or dean running Continuing Education, where it sits in the organizational hierarchy is important, as is how the senior leaders talk about the department and its contribution.

Senior leaders need to articulate publicly what the CE department does—the model, the approach to adult learning. And it’s also about the investment. For example, we’re getting a new e-store. We have a dedicated marketing budget and decide how it is spent. We have asked for strategic investments, supported by a business case and have been successful. The organization recognized the opportunity, the need for this nimble, innovative, responsive department and invested. That recognition and investment are critical. Similarly, it is imperative for all the other departments—the service areas—in the organization to recognize what CE can do and support that.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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