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Finding Opportunity in Chaos

The EvoLLLution | Finding Opportunity in Chaos
Static business continuity plans won’t solve everything. An institution can only fully prepare itself for a crisis after experiencing one, like COVID-19.

We’re in a period of crisis, but there are still opportunities to take advantage of and positives we to take away. For example, shifting to remote learning is creating new opportunities for faculty, staff and learners to experience the advantages of flexible program design. In this interview, J. Kim McNutt reflects on the role continuing education divisions can play to support the university in adapting to COVID-19and discusses the potential for further growth in online learning.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role has your team and your college played over the last few weeks in helping CSU Dominguez Hills adapt to a remote teaching learning and working environment?

J. Kim McNutt (JKM): Our college was well-positioned to deal with the crisis before it even started—the College of Extended and International Education is still operating relatively normally. We already had a strong portfolio of non-credit and credit courses online. For extension programs that weren’t online, I was very impressed to see how quickly our program managers and instructors changed courses to an online format as best they could.

We operate one of 26 OSHA Training Institute Education Centers (OTIEC) for the U.S. Department of Labor.  We’ve had to postpone or cancel many of our Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) programs, which have taken a bit of a financial hit as a result. Those classes are all face-to-face.  However, OSHA is now re-considering their position on online learning and is asking its training centers across the U.S. to pilot online courses. They’re recognizing that we cannot deliver face-to-face courses in this new environment.

Regarding the university, the academic faculty have transitioned to alternative instruction. We intentionally did not call it “online” because we wanted to give faculty full flexibility in how they transition their courses.  We’ve been proud of how quickly our state side (non-self-supportive) faculty have been able to pivot and migrate as much of their courses online as possible.

CEIE is now gearing up for the summer session. This summer, we have 265 academic courses operating and about 65% are in an online modality. So, for the remaining 35% designed for face-to-face, our team is working with their instructors to see if it is possible to move them online. We’re quickly working with our own IT and audio-visual support staff. We’re also working with the university tech support folks to get people trained on Zoom, Blackboard and other remote learning tools.

Evo: How is this impacting your enrollments?

JKM: The last few weeks have really served as our “canary in the coal mine.” We’re seeing very encouraging enrollment numbers for students registering for the summer session. As of April 1st we had over 2,100 enrollments. That’s a positive sign; the canary is still on the perch.  With students registering for summer courses, that tells me they have hope and faith, that they’re looking to the future.

Evo: Do you expect traditional faculties to become more comfortable with the idea of experimenting with online and flexible learning options over the next few years?

JKM: Chaos creates opportunity.  We can use this crisis to get by on a day-to-day operational basis but also to learn and adapt for the future. At the other end of this crisis, those who don’t stick their head in the sand and instead embrace these new challenges will come out better, stronger and leaner. I believe many faculty are going to say that it wasn’t as tough as they thought. We’re going to see a broader shift and an even greater adoption of online learning and remote instruction. This crisis will create opportunity for those that view through that lens and refrain from running and hiding.

Evo: What’s been the early feedback from staff and faculty who are now operating in this new normal alternative learning environment?

JKM: There was early concern about the faculty getting on board quickly–to be fair, they did not have much time to switch from face-to-face to alternative instruction. But we’ve all been pleasantly surprised at how quickly we’re all adapting. And students aren’t disappearing; most are engaged and involved with their courses. While they may not like the new environment that they’re operating in, they’re looking for a sense of normalcy—embracing the opportunity to reengage with their courses as they may be simultaneously dealing with job losses, taking care of children at home, or helping aged parents.  But they aren’t abandoning education. They want that normalcy, and that is encouraging.

Evo: What have been some of your observations on what this shift has looked like for CE?

JKM: Going back to OSHA, when this crisis first hit, nobody knew how long it was going to last–and we still don’t know.  We were instructed to postpone OSHA courses. Unfortunately, we had a fair number scheduled this spring, so we asked if we could start piloting video classes. It’s not fully online insofar as meeting the requirements of what we all agree a truly online course is, but it allows us to share the instruction and course material with students, sort of like the days of televised or videotape course delivery.

We offer many other non-credit extension programs that don’t require a lab or hands-on component. Industry practitioners, who normally teach those classes for us, were able to embrace the alternative model. They were ready; we provided support services and made it happen. It was a nice surprise because I anticipated most of these programs were going to be lost for the semester.

We’re bracing for a reduction in extension non-credit student enrollments and expect a 20% to 25% loss in revenue. But the college is well positioned to weather that storm. We have ample financial reserves to get us through this for the short term.

My strategy has shifted to postponing the long-term for now. Let’s get through the day, the week, the month, the semester. We’ll hit the reset button for summer and fall. But it’s been great to see how resilient people have been in this time of crisis to keep the engine running on education.

Evo: What role do you think continuing ed divisions play in helping institutions adapt to serving more non-traditional learners in the future?

JKM: Continuing ed is a strategic partner in higher education, and our academic partners on the main campus can learn from us. They can retool to offer more training courses and programs in a shorter timeframe. For example, instead of a 16-week semester, let’s offer fast-track programs with one course over eight weeks. Let’s introduce more flexibility by moving more content online and exploring evening and weekend courses. We’re already doing this work, and students see its value and how it’s helping with the summer credit courses. We’re also viewed as a partner to help traditional students graduate faster.

I constantly encourage students to take a class during the summer session, winter break or spring intersession because you can complete your degree on time. You don’t have to be caught in a cycle of continuous part-time enrollment at a university to complete your degree in five or six years. That message is getting across and our stateside partners are recognizing that. They’re seeing tangible results by working with CEIE.

Evo: Are you seeing a significant impact on your international operations as well?

JKM: One of our long-term goals was to grow international enrollments. Unfortunately, we’ve had fewer than 300 international students enrolled at CSUDH. Because of this crisis some students have wanted (and needed) to go back home.

The impact there stems from a long application and enrollment cycle. We’re going to lose some students who want to come to CSUDH but can’t or won’t because of all of the uncertainty. The positive is that we’re not dependent on a large number of international students as a revenue source. We never had that many to begin with, so we will feel an enrollment impact, but it’s something from which we can bounce back.

Evo: What are a few of the lessons about disaster preparedness that you’ve taken from this experience so far?

JKM: My leadership team went through a planning exercise about a year or so ago. We had to update our business continuity plans for a crisis and time of economic uncertainty. We sat down and determined what staff positions and which college functions are essential.

When we implemented the plan for this crisis, I saw how inadequate our initial planning had been. So, this crisis has forced us to review our business continuity plan and see in real-time what is actually necessary–what function is required for someone to be here at the office or what positions can work remotely with minimal impact. We’re beefing up our continuity plan. Now that we are living through a tangible crisis, we know what to plan for.  I’ve also learned that flexibility and adaptability are crucial, which CE units do well anyway.

Our 35 staff members have adapted amazingly well. I am extremely proud of how well they are working together to benefit our students, the college and university.  CEIE is still open, but only three or four staff members come into the office during the week.  Most come in for a short while and then return home.  We’ve provided staff with resources like laptops and VPN access, so they can work from home.  We have daily Zoom calls with the entire team, which creates a sense of routine and normalcy. I still work from my office at the university, which is for my own sense of normalcy but also to provide staff with reassurance that things are okay and that we will get through this.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on March 30, 2020.

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