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How Polytechnic Institutions Can Lead Higher Education Through a Recession

The EvoLLLution | How Polytechnic Institutions Can Lead Higher Education Through a Recession
When placing a continuing ed division within the institutional structure, it’s important for its value to be understood internally and externally to the institution.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, most institutions worked and made decisions within their own departments, causing a silo effect across campus. But in this time of need, it’s more important than ever to break down those walls and find solutions as a university-wide team developed not only within the institution but outside as well, as competency-based education relies on external partners. In this interview, Katherine Frank discusses how polytechnic institutions are affected by this remote shift, the tools and techniques we bring with us in the future, and what will define this new normal.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How is remote learning affecting learners in technical, competency-based or career-oriented programs?

Katherine Frank (KF): About 70% of our programs have some online component to them already. It was helpful, but there were still several courses that needed a lot of work in order to make that shift. Also, all of our students have a laptop, but that doesn’t mean all of them have access to appropriate technologies and Internet connection once they’re off campus. Having a laptop is one thing, but having the complete complement of support structures is another.

As a polytechnic, our three tenants are: hands on, career focused and community-building collaboration. As such, we pivoted quickly. We didn’t take any extra time after spring break, but a lot of learning continued to happen as courses were rebuilt and competencies re-examined. We needed to make sure our learning competencies were met. In that, we had to weigh the differences in expectations, quality and impact of asynchronous and synchronous learning experiences to be successful. We did everything we could, like sending mail kits to our students so they could engage in the hands-on learning that would normally happen in labs. Another approach was having students send their 2D and 3D design files for printing on our campus.,

We’ve been reaching out a lot to our industry partners, so a lot of approaches to learning have pulled them into the class in more direct ways to foster some of the learning outcomes that we’re aiming to achieve. In one of our physics class, the instructor turned to computer modeling. It took a lot of extra work and engagement, but students were involved in that process throughout.

It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of learning at a polytechnic depends on internships and co-ops. That’s another area through which all of our students have experiential learning at Stout. It’s a good thing that many of them do multiple internships and co-ops because some of those couldn’t happen this year. Other companies offered additional internships because they were recognizing a need for a different type of contributor to their workforce. And we’re already seeing an evolution of positions emerging, but it’s not consistent. We have to keep in mind that once students leave our campus, there are a wide range of realities that they will face, causing varying access to tools and spaces.

Evo: Do you think some of those approaches and tools that have been adopted in a panic will be adopted and adopted into what we might consider sort of our new normal?

KF: I hope so–and this has been my response all along. This moment has taught us a lot, and we need to take those lessons learned and apply them to our work going forward. What we’ve seen in terms of technology uses on campus is that it’s now far-reaching and consistent across campus. It’s important to use the tools that we’ve invested in as an institution to better respond to the needs of our students and our faculty when they encounter gaps or challenges. It becomes so much more complex when people are using different platforms and tools–and it’s confusing for our students as well. So, we’ll begin to see more consistency but also more comfort in technology use. And with that comfort comes a willingness to be more innovative and take risks with it. As it becomes a more familiar landscape across the board, we’ll begin to see not only faculty adapt to this but students as well.

This crisis also requires looking at this new space of hands-on high tech to examine what it means and how it will evolve. That’s what we’re grappling with right now. But if we can respond in a productive way, we can see polytechnics emerge onto a new platform going forward. That’s exciting, but it’s going to take some time to process. So much of our experience with this has been responsive and reactive that we have to give ourselves time to reflect on what we’ve learned before developing a plan to go forward.

Higher education won’t ever look the same after this–but that’s not necessarily a negative thing. This moment has challenged us, and we’re going to see innovation emerge from it. That’s the positive outlook that I choose to embrace.

Evo: What do you think will be the characteristics that define and characterize the new normal in higher ed?

KF: We’re going to have to continue to think about flexibility and access. Those are not new concepts for higher ed, but we’ll approach them in different ways—which is essential to the development and longevity of what we do. When talking about putting together academic programs, accessing different groups of learners, and creating different pathways, that access and flexibility will be key. This is part of growing comfort with different technologies and using them in new ways in the classroom but also thinking about institutional operations. Throughout this process, we’ve been able to assign many response teams but also recovery teams to thinking about next steps.

What we’ve done is identify the gaps in policies and procedures and flagged issues that we’ll need to deal with in the future. We’ve shored up critical issues as we’ve approached them, so I think we’re going to change the way we think about how we operate as an institution. A very simple example could be thinking about credit/non-credit or pass/fail options for our students. Typically, this type of policy change would be very gradual because that’s what faculty are trained to do–to think about all angles of an issue and to really process what it means for various stakeholder groups. But in this crisis, we had to respond much quicker to best serve our students and provide them with options.

The way in which our policy structure is set up forced us to make many temporary adjustments. And so, we’re going to be thinking about those processes differently as we think about policy building, structuring our various procedures. We’ll identify barriers in different ways, faster, challenging them. This process also really pointed out where silos exist on campuses. It’s going to be difficult to challenge those silos going forward and focus on collaborative group efforts rather than operations in subsections of the university’s community.

Evo: How should polytechnical institutions be gearing up for what’s likely to come as a significant increase in demand?

KF: From our experience, one thing that makes us really strong as institutions is our strong networks of advisory boards. It is incredible to have network of experts and thinking partners in moments like this, and our advisory boards have been very active throughout this entire process. Having those direct lines into industry and maintaining connections with our alumni base are very important to help us think differently about how we respond.

Another area wherein institutions need to gear up is in looking at emerging roles in various sectors—the new needs. The gaps we’ve identified in our individual operations, our industry partners are identifying as well. What does that mean for our students? At Stout, about 98.8% of our graduates are placed in jobs or graduate programs within six months of graduation. That’s something that we take great pride in, and we want to ensure it continues. But our ability to do that will be based on our response employers’ needs. It’s about making sure those lines of communication stay open and flow in both directions. We need to be able to respond quickly to industry and develop curriculum and place our students accordingly.

Flexibility of curricular delivery is also important to be thinking about–stackable credentials and transcribing credentials into credits. Looking at how we can help our partners to deliver the programs they need for their current employees. We’ll still be faced with a lot of challenges going forward. This has such an impact on families and students that we need to do an excellent job of communicating the value of higher education and its importance as a driver for economic stability and success. That conversation needs to continue, especially as high school graduate populations are shrinking.

Evo: What needs to be done to expand access to non-credit workforce directed programming, and how does that tie back into the operations of the main campus?

KF: In developing those types of programs, partnerships are critical. These programs are not just built by an institution in hopes that somebody will embrace them. You have to have these conversations with your partners and understand their needs—which are very unique. They’re not only dependent on a sector but also upon the culture of a company. In creating successful pathways for current employees, you will need to develop a very specialized type of program. You have to think carefully about how you build them with your partner. Partner, partner company, partner industry.

In thinking about general applications, institutions need to consider skillsets and think more broadly about producing programs that develop those skills and recognize them from an institutional perspective. You have to engage your governance and various internal stakeholders from the very beginning so that once you produce these programs, there are fewer barriers on campus preventing its success in pursuing credit-bearing results. It works in a variety of different directions, but it doesn’t take a traditional route through an institution.

Evo: How does the role of continuing education need to evolve to create this mentality and approach to programming and outcomes orientation across the entire institution?

KF: Oftentimes, continuing education programs have been placed on an institution’s periphery. But the most successful units have very intentional, very authentic relationships both internal and external to the institution. Where I’ve seen these types of programs break down is when they focus on one specific area. And mostly it’s an external focus. It’s rethinking how you place continuing education within an institutional structure and making sure that its value is seen both internally and externally. There are all sorts of other factors that impact this—funding, structure, core mission.

Evo: Are there any lessons that we can draw from how higher education needed to respond in 2008 to the recession, or is it fundamentally different?

KF: It feels very different, especially considering the speed at which we had to respond and the many unknowns that still surround us at this point of time. We’re struggling to get outside of the current moment and really reflect and plan. Those are some of the challenges that we face right now. Going forward, what we’re all craving is the ability to assess, to learn from this moment and apply our learning in really productive ways. I don’t see that opportunity for careful contemplation presenting itself again in the near future. So, how do we interpret this moment? Respond to what is most pressing and then strategize going forward.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how polytechs can lead the charge in higher ed’s response to a recession and how it might frame their role in the future?

KF: At Stout, we really thought about the student journey from the point of entry to the point of exit. How are we preparing our students to be successful in the workplace? How are we developing graduates who are not only placed in that first job or graduate school but have the ability to solve problems and think innovatively, to help them be flexible in more moments like this going forward?

That’s part of our DNA as polytechnics, and it’s important to embrace it. Think about this moment and  how it will define who we are going to be 10 years from now. The positive thing is that we can really leverage this crisis, do something with this learning and be a leader in higher education.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 28, 2020.

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