Visit Modern Campus

Behind the Scenes with Five Experts Presenting at CAEL 2020

Although it will exceptionally be held online this year, the 2020 CAEL conference affords postsecondary educators and administrators the opportunity to share the challenges they faced in light of the pandemic, best practices for student success online, and many more strategies to design learning for the “new normal.”

CAEL’s annual conference is going to be different in ways we couldn’t have imagined a year ago. But one important aspect of the conference remains unchanged: it will feature visionary speakers from throughout the adult learning world. They’ll be sharing their insights through various sessions during the week. To provide a “sneak peek” of what’s coming, I asked five speakers to answer a few short questions. They cover the virtual conference format, what they’ll be addressing there, and a little speculation about the future.

CAEL: Over the past several months, many have had to adapt to a “new normal” of virtual interaction. Although we’re disappointed that we won’t be able to gather in person at our conference, can you think of any “silver linings” about attending a virtual conference?

Dr. Ray Francis (RF), professor at Central Michigan University: I believe there are many silver linings to the virtual conference. However, one is the simple idea that as faculty and professionals working in a technology-based world, we can meaningfully participate and be engaged in a conference via technology; the second silver lining is that many of us have realized that technology has been a way to bring colleagues, family, and friends together, and that we may not need to wait until an annual conference to connect, celebrate, and be in effective collaboration.  

Karen Gross (KG), educator, author, senior counsel at Finn PartnersI think there are several silver linings. Even pre-pandemic, travel was hard for some adult learners, given diverse home and work situations and finances. These hurdles are diminished. Next, a virtual conference is, in some ways, less stressful and allows for more focus because the social piece is largely missing. Don’t get me wrong: there is a loss, and networking matters, but in its absence, we can hone other skills. I always said that my rule of thumb for a conference success was twofold: (1) did I learn something new that I can actually use?; and (2) did I meet one person with whom I expect I will have future contact?. Both can be accomplished virtually.

Sarah Ancel (SA), Founder and CEO, Student-Ready Strategies, LLC, and CAEL 2020 keynote speaker:  I am likewise disappointed not to be able to shake hands and sip cocktails like before, but one thing I really love about virtual conferences is that it is often easier and less intimidating to ask questions, initiate conversation, and otherwise connect. You won’t be stuck in the back of a crowded breakout room or have to battle stage fright to ask a question in a big plenary. To meet up with someone, you can search the chat for their name instead of roaming banquet halls, hoping to run into them. It’s more egalitarian, in a way. I hope that when we do meet back in person, this experience leaves us feeling a greater sense of belonging in those large crowds.

Michele S. Spires (MS), Acting Executive Director, Learning Evaluations for the American Council on EducationThere’s an opportunity to really plan ahead on the sessions to attend, which provides the right framework to minimize distractions and leverage conference tools. Many colleagues attend the virtual conference as a team. That advance planning, scheduling debriefs, and collaborating on any conference follow-up offers efficiencies we don’t normally get with an in-person event.  

Evelyn Fernandez-Ketcham (EFK), Executive Director, Workforce Development at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY): Generally, human beings thrive when they build relationships and connect with others. The global pandemic prevents interaction between humans. Although we may be disappointed that we will not be able to travel and gather for the conference, the “new normal” demands that we pause and think differently. It is challenging everyone to obtain new skills and figure out how to tap into all of our competencies. Maybe now we will become truly digital-literate and savvy, encouraging the use of technology as a resource and not the driver of everything we do.

CAEL: Have you noticed a shift in adult learners’ expectations from postsecondary education because of the pandemic?”

RF: Yes, without a doubt there is a difference. With everything they are balancing–work, family, school, social justice concerns, and the pandemic–these students are stretched and stressed to a breaking point. So many late assignments, but that is not the point. The point is that they are balancing so many things that they are having to prioritize in a very stressful and impactful situation. The best thing we as faculty can do is show kindness and care with deadlines and pacing. They are great students under great pressures, and we need to show them we understand and want to work with them.

KG: For many adult learners, the recent months have been overwhelming, especially for those who have lost loved ones, lost jobs, or have children doing at-home schooling or college-aged students who have returned home. I think this makes it harder to find the time — the mental bandwidth — to pursue postsecondary education. I think adult learners are also recognizing that the world is changing, as are the types of jobs that will be needed moving forward. So, this makes education more valuable — if it is accessible and affordable and doable within the stream of current life issues.

SA: We hear a lot about younger students’ disappointment with the disruptions to the traditional college experience they expected. For many adult learners, expectations were never about the experience but about the outcomes. They want to learn. They want a degree. They want a better life at the end of the process. They always expected that they would be required to adapt, asked to compromise, and challenged to persevere. The only thing that has shifted in this pandemic is their sense of urgency. With degree-holders more likely to be able to work from home and less likely to be laid off or furloughed, the stakes attached to those outcomes have never been higher.

MS: At ACE we have noticed an increase in the requests for more “high-touch” support. Learners want to have a designated contact person to help guide their understanding of available options, how to communicate with higher-education administration, and to vet the online resources from trusted authorities.

EFK: Yes, adult learners and emerging adults who attend postsecondary education institutions are requiring more support due to the global pandemic. Students were already trying to balance life, school, and work. In some communities, the pandemic has amplified already existing issues. 

CAEL: What are some high-level dos and don’ts about transitioning to online/remote learning that you think the higher ed has learned from working to accommodate students during shutdowns?

RF: 1: Technology is a tool. Use it wisely, kindly, and meaningfully when working with adult learners who may have varying levels of experience with it. 

2: Just because a new technology program or application becomes available does not mean that you as a faculty member should immediately implement it. Rather, take some time to explore it, become comfortable with it, and then work with students so that they can focus on the course or learning content, and not fail due to unfamiliarity with the technology.  

3. Be kind. The world is in a high level of turmoil due to COVID-19, and adult learners are balancing work, family life, and school. If ever there was a time to be kind and show students a level of empathy for their situation and struggles, it is NOW!

KG: I think higher ed (actually all of education) has realized that folks can only stare at a screen for so long. So, shorter time slots make more sense. I think higher ed is seeing that there are many more ways in which technology could and should be used, but they were not and may still not be prepared to try all the possible creative and bold online methods. I think, too, that we are realizing that higher education is not a light switch than can just be turned on and off; way more thought is needed to transition in and out of online learning.

SA: DO meet students where they are and engage with them as co-designers of this new normal. I have been so pleased to see an increased focus on student needs and solicitation of student feedback, from college presidents to individual faculty members as a result of this crisis. 

DON’T overlook key elements of being student-ready. Reopening plans and virtual learning have dominated the conversation, but less visible campus structures like placement and transfer policies, registration holds, and financial aid requirements also have the potential to halt student progress during this difficult time. Our recent report, “When the Crisis is Over: Becoming Student-Ready in Post-Pandemic Higher Education,” lays out practical advice for being student-ready in post-pandemic higher education, including content specific to adult learners.

MS: Higher ed recognizes there is an art to innovating the online/remote learning space to best facilitate students’ experience. This also includes offering a variety of student support to flank the learning environment. Online faculty are on the front line and need to be trained on how to direct students to those support services, such as mental health, technology support, childcare, and financial planning.

EFK: In working to accommodate students during a shutdown we learned that we do need to set up and continue to build a robust remote support system for students. In addition, don’t think that because we provide students with a computer or tablet, we have successfully helped students take courses and complete training programs remotely. Students require a technological infrastructure with high-speed internet and software capabilities without incurring the cost. 

CAEL: In one or two sentences, can you share a “sneak peek” about what you’ll be presenting at the conference?

RF: In my presentation titled “Assessment, Evaluation, and Accreditation: Connecting Authentic Assessment of Adult Learners with Faculty Teaching Performance in Higher Education,” my colleague and I will be demonstrating ways to effectively connect the authentic assessment of adult learners with the demonstration of effective teaching performance by higher education faculty. As part of this process, we will use quantitative and qualitative data, and ways to transform qualitative data into usable quantitative data for faculty reappointment, promotion, and tenure. 

KG: I think that we have been so focused on our learners’ physical wellbeing that we have not paid sufficient attention to their psychological wellbeing. For many (but not all) students, the pandemic and accompanying racial tensions, economic uncertainty and weather disasters have been traumatic. Dealing with trauma effectively (and there are ways to do that) is the focus of my presentation. I want participants to appreciate the profound impact trauma can have and then what can be done about it — concrete, doable strategies. The book that undergirds this conversation – Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door— will be available with a publisher’s discount of 15% and free shipping (Teachers College Press June 2020) that will be shared at the session.

SA: I will make the argument that now is the exact right time to be bold in advocating for adult learners and the institutional transformation necessary to serve them more effectively. I will give very practical advice about how to turn this crisis into a catalyst for change.

MS: We have some exciting updates and technology modernizations about the ACE Military Guide/Digital Catalog.

EFK: I hope to stimulate thinking about ways in which community colleges can be more inclusive and reflective of all nontraditional learners. I will share strategies implemented at Hostos Community College that can help increase the creation of a more ready student pipeline for college and/or work. 

CAEL: Besides viewing your presentation, what’s the number-one reason someone should attend CAEL’s 2020 virtual conference?

RF: Aside from viewing my presentation (LOL), I believe the number one reason someone should attend CAEL’s 2020 virtual conference is to GROW! Grow as an individual, grow as a professional, and grow as a critical thinker. The CAEL 2020 virtual conference experience matters.

KG: To listen and learn–to hear others’ voices–and then assess how these teachings can be integrated into our changed lives. I think being open to newness is a key takeaway. Another value: we need a break from our routines such as they are, and a conference can do that. Engaging with new people, even online, who offer fresh ideas, can be invigorating–like swimming in cold water.

SA: I have always loved the CAEL conference because of who it brings together. Advocating for adult learners can be isolating, especially when we try to engage people with antiquated notions of who we are serving on our campuses. At CAEL, people know what andragogy is. Nobody refers to students as “kids.” Everybody believes college-level learning can happen outside of a college classroom. That’s not only refreshing and validating, but it also means that we can have authentic conversations about how to do our work even better.

MS: Despite the frenzy of life, both professionally and personally, we must commit to building relationships, to connecting, to learning, to innovating and to growing. CAEL’s 2020 virtual conference provides that opportunity.

EFK: CAEL’s 2020 virtual conference will transport to everyone interested the most up-to-date best practices for all lifelong learners. 

CAEL: Make one contrarian prediction about the future of postsecondary education.

RF: A prediction I would make, based on my work and the work of my colleague Mark Deschaine (the University of Mississippi), is that postsecondary education will need to look more locally for student data, and base more of their assessment processes, evaluation, and accreditation on qualitatively based data sources. The COVID-19 global pandemic has disrupted the typical testing pattern, and alternatives such as visual scaling, ratio-based assessment, and authentic assessments will play an expanded role in making programmatic decisions.  

KG: First, here’s a contrarian take: I don’t make predictions any longer. Predictions are based on some set of facts that can be assessed to consider the future thoughtfully, and we don’t have those facts. So, it is near to impossible to know where we will be in late 2020, let alone 2021. That said, I can make a conjecture that is also contrarian. Content learning will diminish in importance (skills on how to become X) and other skills will be preferred, ones that enable workers to be flexible and nimble problem-solvers; these will be in high demand given the uncertainty that stands before us all.

SA: I never predicted a pandemic or murder hornets, so I’m hesitant to make any more predictions this year! I will share my hope, which is that higher education uses this time, when the status quo has been so thoroughly disrupted, to transform into what it needs to be to serve students who have been historically marginalized, including adult learners. My corresponding fear is that our collective nostalgia for better times and our fatigue during this period of rapid change will lead us to cling to old ways of doing things.

MS: Education blockchain and a shift in how learning currency is validated, aligned, and applied are going to be the driving forces to empower all learners, unlock lifelong learning, and improve economic mobility.

EFK: Even though we are momentarily at the mercy of artificial intelligence and its algorithms, the future of postsecondary education is bright. We are caught in the middle of a global health crisis and a technological revolution. However, I believe in humans’ desire to be freewill thinkers and problem-solvers. 

CAEL: Anything else you’d like to add?

RF: My advice to conference attendees, particularly those new to this conference, is to pick a theme and experience it. The CAEL 2020 virtual conference offers six themes that fit a huge variety of interests. And, don’t be afraid to explore an unfamiliar strand. You might just be surprised and find a gem that impacts your professional practice!

KG: I want to add that if ever there were a time to overhaul education across the landscape, it would be now. We are in such a disarray that change could actually happen. Educators have been slow to change, sadly. Perhaps the current state of the world will propel us forward to make substantial changes rather than tweaking at the margins.

SA: I am very excited about the upcoming conference, honored to be asked to share my perspective, and looking forward to reuniting with old friends and building new connections!

MS: Grant yourself the time and space to attend with full focus, just as if you were traveling.

EFK: I look forward to joining everyone at the 2020 virtual conference. I can’t help but think about the 80s sitcom Mork and Mindy and conclude by saying, “Na-Nu Na-Nu” (Robin Williams as Mork).

I’d like to add my thanks to Evelyn, Michele, Sarah, Karen, and Ray for taking the time to share these compelling observations and perspectives. In planning the conference, I’ve had the chance to see how all of the sessions fit together. I promise you that you can’t go wrong by attending any of their presentations.

I’d also like to encourage you to set the stage for these and the other great sessions we have planned by attending our pre-conference workshops. They are designed to enable a better understanding of the complexities of the adult student and why meeting them where they are is important. To help clarify their connections with important issues, we’ve aligned them with critical challenges in adult learning today. For example, Marketing Strategies: Attracting Adult Learners and Marketing Strategies: Using Product Differentiation and Social Media to Enhance Your Outreach will provide postsecondary educators in-depth insight on how to leverage consumer marketing techniques to attract adult students well suited for their institutions. And Built Competently: Leveraging Quality Standards in Competency-Based Education (CBE) Programs builds familiarity with C-BEN’s Quality Framework for CBE Programs and how to use that framework in creating and maintaining programs. 

Finally, I also want to remind you that that conference registration is free for all CAEL members this year. Fortunately, sponsors are coming forward to provide generous support to allow us to offer this complimentary access, even as we face the loss of the traditional funding we receive from in-person gatherings. You can support our mission by spreading the word to any of your colleagues who would benefit from attending–member or non-member. You can find registration details, including upgrade options, at

Author Perspective: