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The Role of Continuing Education in Reclaiming Quality Online Education

AdobeStock_June 13 2024

Providing learners with a quality online learning experience requires listening to their needs, picking a focus and balancing serving the university with serving industry.  

Continuing education is continuing to shift as modern learners’ needs and demands evolve. It’s important to remain flexible and agile to drive student success and retention. In this interview, Krissy Collins discusses how continuing ed’s role has changed in recent years, the challenges this division continues to face and what’s ahead for higher ed.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have you seen continuing education evolve? 

 Krissy Collins (KC): Continuing education has evolved a lot in the last couple of years. The pandemic quickened everything. Online, flexible education was our zone and area of expertise in continuing education. Some universities were actively offering online learning on the credit side, but noncredit professional continuing education has been online for a long time. We know how to build effective online engagement and foster strong learning. 

One of the greatest changes is that the world sped up rapidly and elicited all kinds of perceptions—negative and positive—online because everyone was scrambling, and the results were not always positive. Right now, we’re battling with trying to understand and communicate what quality online education looks like and positioning continuing education as a leader in quality online education because we’ve had so many wild iterations. As a parent going through the pandemic, you could see how effective and ineffective online teaching and learning could be.  

Right now, we’re trying to reclaim quality online learning and our position as a leader in quality online learning development and delivery. Education is changing, and there are far more competitors in the space. It’s a much more competitive landscape than before. EdTech and content companies have really ramped up, delivering content quickly, in multiple formats and being ultra flexible. Whereas universities have these large infrastructures and quite a bit of bureaucracy, so it’s not easy for us to move as quickly as the private industry does. In addition, learners are more discerning. They want quality; they want it quickly; they want it when they want it. My concern is the university will fall behind because we can’t move as fast as the industry. The great benefit of university continuing education is access to novel information, research and outstanding instructors, but we need to be sure our learners understand that value and come to us key partners to learn throughout their lives. 

Evo: What are some of the key obstacles that CE leaders continue to face, especially when it comes to real-time enrollment data? 

KC: Since it’s so competitive out there, quality is everything when it comes to enrollment. It should be the driving force of university-based continuing education. That is what will set us apart. We have to fight for every single enrollment.  

We must have sophisticated marketing, be attuned to economic realities and pivot our strategy to find opportunity. Many of us rely on international students, but the geopolitical landscape can change in a heartbeat. We need a diverse portfolio of domestic programs, courses and flexible learning opportunities to remain sustainable within our university.  

The challenge is that we’re susceptible to external forces, and most university CE units do not receive funding. So, we’re fully reliant on our learner base to support our organization and continue innovating. That means we need a quality-first approach and effective marketing. We then need to keep our learners once they’ve enrolled with us, which we can do by listening to them and partnering with them on their journey to make sure we’re always delivering what they’re looking for. 

Evo: Do you see any trends or changes in the way CE has been operating or needed to operate because of these constraints? 

KC: I’ve been in the CE space for a decade, and in many ways we’ve become the junk drawer. Anything related to nonmatriculated learners gets sent our way, and we need to build a process around it, staff it and sometimes find a technological solution. We’ve carved out our identity within our universities as being this place that can figure it out. That was great for a time, but we’re now constrained by time and resources and need to be much more deliberate and mission-driven.  

We must bring focus to what we do. We can’t absorb everything, so we must be proactive about how we’re structured as an organization, the technology we use and the teams we build to be most effective. We want to be collaborative when people come to us with a project or task, but instead of simply taking on more work we want to be co-creators, stakeholders and true partners. With proactivity, focus and authentic partnerships, we can achieve this. 

Evo: What are some best practices to get senior leadership’s buy-in to scale and find resources?  

KC: It’s about telling your story. Explain how you operate and be proactive about it. You have to continually talk about the impact your programs and courses have on the population and why that’s important. Overcommunicating what continuing education does is key because there are many misconceptions about our role and worth within the university.   

Often, CE leaders and team members get together and complain that nobody understands us. I’m trying to move beyond that and say we have a really important role to play within our universities as a front door for nonmatriculated learners, the community and those interested in the university who haven’t yet been a part of it. We have an important role to play, and I’m proud to be an adult educator. Within our own institutions, we need to define what that looks like and be sure to get the word out in a positive and collaborative manner. 

In terms of buy-in, we want schools on campus, faculty members and our division to have skin in the game. If we’re all investing time, energy and funds into building something, there’s more of an investment and a willingness to help it grow. When we build a program with a school on campus, we want to leverage our expertise as adult educators and instructional designers. We also have deep market knowledge and industry connections that we can leverage to build something impactful. We can be exceptional partners to our campus collaborators, and I feel strongly that if we all invest in quality learning we’ll reap the benefits when it succeeds.  

Evo: What advice do you have for CE leaders navigating this changing landscape? 

KC: I’ve been in this position for two years, and I’ve found that being proactive about what you do and what your strategy is affords you the opportunity to say no when something doesn’t fit. If you don’t have a plan or a strategy and that hasn’t been communicated, then everything lands on your plate. It is empowering to have a well-structured and well-communicated plan.   

It’s all about planning, communication, telling your story and being proactive about what you want to engage with. Our time is money, so we have to be thoughtful about the work we do. That’s not to say we won’t serve the university; it is our job to serve the university in many ways. It’s just about being thoughtful about the ways we serve the university and what makes the most sense to fulfill both our local mission as continuing education and our broader mission for the university.  

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?  

KC: The real key to success within our institutions is to complement what’s happening on campus and find our place within it. Historically, continuing education has often been at odds with the university. We have wanted to be taken seriously and be the center of the action. The reality at a research institution is that continuing education is never going to be front and center—and that’s okay.  

Where we get in trouble is when we try to compete. We don’t want to compete; we want to add value and be a complementary partner, to be taken seriously for our expertise. But we do have a fairly specific niche within a research institution where it’s our job to add value. If we’re able to approach it with humility and recognize the purpose of our universities and continuing education, we can do some meaningful work without ruffling feathers. I have a great deal of respect for the institution and the impressive research and instruction that occurs here. It is truly incredible. The university is consistently striving for excellence and greatness, as it should. We have an important role to play also, and I believe with everything that if you’re going to do it, you had better do it really, really well. That’s what we’re trying to do here at UC Irvine—continuing education done really, really well.