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The Role Artificial Intelligence Will Play in Continuing Education

Shorter approval times for new programs means students who aren’t necessarily interested in a four year degree can get the most out of their education in a shorter timespan.
Shorter approval times for new programs means students who aren’t necessarily interested in a four year degree can get the most out of their education in a shorter timespan.

Advancements in technology are impacting ever corner of the institution, from the registrar’s office to the continuing education department.

Ensuring faculty and staff have access to that technology, and the know how to properly use it, could transform the way higher ed operates as a whole

Evo: What are the trends that will most significantly impact higher ed over the next few years?

Daniel Piedra (DP): I have a number of items in mind here, and I think some of these were clearly in the works before 2020; some of them have probably been enhanced or advanced because of what’s happened in the world in the last two years. The first one that comes to mind is artificial intelligence. The fact is that it’s behind a lot of things that we do today online. Handheld devices or laptops are pretty much feeding us all sorts of information that are all AI driven. I think that will become part of all that we do in education. I can see it expanding into learning platforms that’ll continue to get better. AI will make learning management systems and similar tools that we use, drive content and make recommended next steps for learning to really make that learning journey more personal, which I think is great because that is what students want, particularly in the world of continuing education and contract training. It is very much about the individual and tailoring the needs to them. AI makes this a more certain reality.

Another trend that will impact higher education over the next few years is the concept of a digital or a mastery transcript. I think this is something that had been discussed prior to COVID but has really picked up a lot of steam in the last couple of years for different reasons.

One of them being that it’s probably very closely tied to micro-credentials and how those are recognized. The reality is that traditional academic documents like transcripts are pretty much void of any detail that would give the learner an advantage in marketing themselves and certainly would make it very difficult for potential employers to be able to assess what a person is capable of doing, particularly when they’ve come out of an academic program. Digital transcripts or credentials carry with them the potential to empower learners with a tool that more accurately and efficiently communicates their abilities.

Another trend which I think will impact higher education is on-demand learning. Again, this is not new, but I think the need for it has been magnified by what has happened in the last couple of years with COVID and the need for training that meets the needs of non-traditional learners who demand flexible and quick results. The idea of having flexible, online self-directed courses and programs I think is going to become very, very important.

Evo: Are there any indicators right now about where AI can go for McMaster specifically?

DP: One indicator of where things are going in higher education is our enrolment. It’s not whether we are up or down, but rather it’s where students are going in terms of their mode of delivery. In the post COVID world, they really have three choices. They have the classroom option now, which is starting to come back. They have a virtual classroom, which is really the replacement of the classroom during the COVID years. It evolved by taking a classroom experience and delivering it live using Zoom or WebEx.  

Then of course, there’s the online asynchronous experience. The interest in that format has remained pretty steady. Where we’ve seen some significant growth, is in the virtual classroom. That phenomenon seems to indicate that at least in our region, students have gotten used to the idea of being online more. Zoom is no longer something new and is pretty much part of our lives now. I think that people have experienced it with doctors, lawyers, real estate, and many other services, and so it makes perfect sense that they would feel comfortable completing their education using the same virtual technologies employed by those services.

Of course, this forces instructors to take a different approach. What they could have done in a classroom may not always be the most feasible for a virtual classroom experience. They have to really think more about how am they are going to develop a course, make it engaging, and take it take it to the next level. As such, we have had to respond to training for instructors giving them best way, what are the best practices to deliver a virtual classroom. The idea of a self-directed or self-study course is also increasing in popularity. When I first saw that mode of delivery in 2016, I thought it was probably going to fade away, given the growth of traditional online classes.

I don’t really see the traditional classroom experience being a part of what we do in the near future. We played around with the idea of trying it out in the Winter 2023 term, but to be honest, I would be very surprised if we are successful in running anything in the classroom. I think students have made that turn. I think we’re more of a virtual operation now than ever before and will likely remain as such moving forward.

Evo: What role can continuing ed and workforce education divisions play in building a more flexible post-secondary ecosystem?

DP: I think the beauty of it is that those divisions are typically the ones that are more mobile and nimble in terms of what they can do. Usually their approval process for their programs is much shorter than you would see in an undergraduate or graduate program, so they have the benefit of being able to pilot and try things without having to wait for an approval process which could easily take a year or more. This is where you will see a lot of piloting, different models of education and innovation flourishing. Regardless of whether something works, we can learn from it,  and it often works its way into other parts of the university.  

That is something that I think happens naturally because again, in continuing education, you’ll see a lot of different models and a lot of experimentation. Thee departments have the ability to just turn on a dime and go back or rework something and make it better. My experience over the years, working in a number of different academic institutions is that, that’s where a lot of the innovation happens and that’s where a lot of that piloting happens. It then filters its way to other divisions of the institution.

I think that is really a key part of continuing education and workforce education departments aside from also being able to obviously meet the needs of the adult learner, the nontraditional learner who has no interest in a two, three, or a four year program. That’s always going to be at the forefront of what continuing and workforce education does. Case in point, when all these discussions began to happen in the last two years around micro-credentials, it was these units which were best positioned to transition much of their programming into micro-crdentials. The reality is that, continuing and workforce education has always been about micro learning. And that’s something that I think will not go away. It’s at the heart of what continuing education does. It’s short term, very specific training, with very particular purposes for people to get in and out quickly and move on in their careers.

Evo: What can CE leaders do to ensure that the school is prepared to actually support those learners?

DP: Number one, keep an eye out on what others are doing and use those experiences to drive decisions. I’m referring to things that happen outside of their own institution. Make sure that they’re involved with outside networking groups. There are plenty of opportunities for that within the academic circles, provincially, nationally, or even outside of our own country. They also need to develop relationships with other institutions. It may be as sim ple as picking up the phone or sending an email to see what you can learn from colleagues at other institutions. In over 15 years of working in continuing education, I have yet to ever run into someone who through an email or a phone call or even a personal chat at a conference would say, I’d rather not talk about this. People are more than willing to share their experiences and tell you how they’ve done things and what they have learned. So it could be, just as I said, something non-formal, but it could also be a formal agreement to help and to work through certain projects that would help both institutions. I think leaders can have a big effect on the future of a division or even an institution if they’re willing to pilot and to try things out, but you must have the right environment for that. Sometimes it’s just not the right environment or it’s not the right program to do it in, but there are usually opportunities around the corner in many areas to be able to do that.

The other thing, I think, is to consult with the two stakeholders that are sometimes forgotten industry and students.  I know a lot of times academic programs are developed in conjunction with industry, so there’s definitely some interaction there shaping programs. But I don’t know if we do such a good job in reaching out to current students, recent students, or even future students and getting their take on programs. The reason I refer to those two is because I saw that happening with the micro-credential movement which moved at a lightning pace in the past year, but yet it was the academic group that was driving it at that fast pace. The industry hadn’t really caught up yet and the public was even further behind. If the micro-credential world is going to work, it has to be an effort of three stakeholders. The academic institutions is only one piece of the puzzle.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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