Since the sudden scrambling and the many changes triggered by the pandemic lockdowns, people, business, work, school, shopping, recreation, socializing – and continuing education – are adjusting to all kinds of new normals.
Just 25 years after the Internet became commercially available, continuing education (alias post-high school learning) is now a lifelong endeavor for many adults as well as a constantly evolving and diverse ecosystem of options.
It was only a couple of years ago that the digital transformation of the economy and labour market took a giant leap forward. At just about the same time, online education went mainstream as continuing education providers at all levels, including colleges and universities, were forced to experiment with remote learning, a preferred and cost-efficient format for part-time students to pursue and earn alternative credentials.
As the momentum of new continuing education (CE) options and formats were gaining popularity, the abrupt COVID-19 restrictions hit and turned the initially gradual development of digital CE from a developing option into an urgent necessity. The economic dislocations caused by the pandemic accentuated the timely need for worker reskilling and upskilling. Now more than ever, CE is a vital priority.
The dynamic CE sector, particularly at Calgary’s Bow Valley College, University of Calgary and Mount Royal University, had been updating and transitioning CE formats for several years. From curriculums, enrollment and instructor delivery to student expectations and routines. The sudden COVID scramble just accelerated things.
“We have been offering certificate and diploma programs for the non-traditional adult learner for decades,” says Sheila LeBlanc, director of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary. “This includes responsive, workforce development programs. Over the past five years, we have started to see digital disruption impact all fields of our practice, which has significantly increased the demand for short-cycle training for mid-career professionals. These short-cycle training programs, or what is now often referred to as micro-credentials, have enabled learners to advance or stay current in their careers through upskilling or reskilling.
“The pandemic has amplified the need for online learning. It has pushed us forward five to 10 years in the adoption of online learning. We are responding with new and creative programs which are proving necessary not only to provide learners and employers with the training and development they need, but also to help sustain ourselves financially.
She underscores the fast-track of the transition with stats showing that, prior to the pandemic, UCalgary delivered approximately 25 per cent of courses online. Once the pandemic happened, the University quickly moved every course it could to remote teaching. “This past year, over 92 per cent of our courses were offered online,” she says. “We were able to accomplish this major transition quickly and effectively because we had experience with online teaching practices and access to video conferencing tools and a solid learning management system.”
At Calgary’s state-of-the-art Bow Valley College (BVC), there have also been dramatic CE changes made. “We have adjusted the type of courses to include more business and technology courses, addressing current market realities,” details Suhayl Patel, BVC’s associate dean of learning innovation. “We have also expanded our delivery. Traditionally, we offered many courses in a face-to-face environment and now the bulk of our courses are offered online asynchronous (courses with some or no live conferencing sessions) supporting professionals unable to meet in a weekday classroom.
“And we have expanded the credential options. Although we still have certificates of achievement and participation, we now include assessment-first competency-based micro-credentials, enabling learners to demonstrate previously acquired skills.”
As in most aspects of life and business, timing is important.
At Mount Royal University, the repercussions of the sudden COVID lockdowns shifted the continuing education from a transition into a fast-track. “MRU CE was well-positioned to transition to virtual learning at the start of the pandemic,” explains Brad Mahon, dean of MRU’s faculty of continuing education. “We were already offering more than 30 fully online programs and a number of blended learning options.
“With our infrastructure already in place, we were able to transition about 20 additional programs to a fully online format with relative ease. For several years, MRU offered more than 100 CE programs and over a thousand courses to support a breadth of personal and professional development areas. In the past four years, we refined our focus and streamlined our programming to align with the needs of emerging and in-demand labour gaps.
“MRU continuing education aspires to be part of the future economy of Calgary, southern Alberta and beyond,” Mahon notes. “We now offer 70 programs, 50 of which can be completed entirely online. Moving forward, we expect to offer some programs with in-person, online or blended delivery. Other programs may continue to be offered fully online.”
The sudden transition to virtual learning also turned out to be a perfect opportunity to review CE curriculums and update courses and programs.
LeBlanc points out that UCalgary’s Business Management programs continue are very popular and cover a broad spectrum of topics taught by experts in the field – including occupational health and safety, human resources, leadership and professional management. UCalgary currently offers over 50 CE certificate and diploma programs, in 12 different program areas.
“The speed of digital disruption appears to be accelerating, creating an increased demand for both foundational and advanced digital skills,” she adds. “There is an increased demand for our digital technology programs, including software development, data analytics and machine learning. We also developed a technology management series of courses designed primarily for non-technical individuals who need to learn the language, have an awareness of the latest technology and its potential applications in the workplace.”
Mahon highlights the most popular MRU programs: technology related, such as Cyber Security, User Experience (UX) Design, and Digital Media Marketing;
essential business skills, such as Organizational Change Management, Conflict Resolution, Leadership Development, Business Analysis and Technical Writing; and new emerging areas, such as Cannabis Education and eSports.
“Overall, we are seeing an increase in demand for programming that supports career enhancement or career change, and a decrease in demand for previously popular personal development or hobby courses.”
Suhayl Patel explains that, even before the lockdowns forced courses to go virtual, the BVC curriculum was already being reviewed and re-defined. “Our most in-demand CE certificates and credentials now include Business and Management, Maintenance Management, Bookkeeping, Administrative Assistant, Payroll Professional, Human Resources, Accounting Applications and IT, such as Database Administration, Predictive Analytics, Business Intelligence Analyst and Microsoft Office. Some CE programs which have faded include Home Inspection, Petroleum Industry Management, Production and Inventory Management, Purchasing and Sales.”
Although business and workplaces are moving on and managing the various new normals caused by the pandemic lockdowns, it is impossible to properly measure the actual impact on organizational aspects, the future of workplaces, prioritizing skills, employee expectations and work trends, credentials, qualifications and the role of continuing education.
“The pandemic put a spotlight on the disparate levels of digital literacy and skillsets of all individuals,” Sheila LeBlanc cautions. “We had to recognize how COVID and remote work trends have affected a variety of equity-deserving groups.”
The lockdowns have not only accelerated the role of technology in the design and delivery of CE programs and courses but it is re-defining the skills and credentials that job hunters need and employers expect.
“The analogy I’ve heard many times and one the resonates for me is, ‘We have all been in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Some have a yacht, while others are barely afloat with a leaking rubber dingy.’”