Calgary training and education was already being innovatively re-defined when the COVID-19 panic—at least the intense and focused scramble—happened.
Some local education experts say that, from sudden Zoom sessions to the tricky fine details of online synchronous course delivery, the COVID scramble accelerated changes and adjustments that were in the works or being considered.
Dr. Brad Donaldson, SAIT vice president, Academic points out that “within weeks after COVID hit, SAIT’s Centre for Learning and Technology department developed a course for all faculty to prepare for and deliver their courses online. The goal was to set students up for success by ensuring faculty knew how to be most effective and comfortable engaging in these environments.”
All levels of training and education, particularly business-related programs, are embracing the changes and have been gradually and subtly making adjustments for several years. In business, there’s an expectation that “the supply” effectively trained (re-trained) and educated students will “the demands” of business.
“One of the biggest trends is incorporating high impact practices such as experiential learning, including engaging with the business community,” explains Leighton Wilks, associate dean of Teaching and Learning at the Haskayne School of Business, “incorporating work experience into the classroom, curriculum integrated learning and research opportunities. Another emerging trend is lifelong learning and embedded certificates within programs. For example, Haskayne has new embedded certificates in leadership and entrepreneurial thinking.”
Training and education experts recognize that, at the current rate of social and technological change, business leaders are guiding their organizations in a different world. According to Tanya Verhulp, director of Executive Education at Haskayne, “Creating transformational leadership opportunities through higher education to be relevant in this context requires developing programs and services for adults who are learning while they are working. “This pandemic continues to create new dynamics in fields like Supply Chain, Automation, Remote Work, Talent Management, Customer Engagement, Emotional Intelligence and Dealing with Change and Uncertainty.”
There is also professional consensus that, while the tremendous impact of technology was already an essential aspect of training and education trends, long before the COVID crunch, the impact of technology could be getting warped out of proportion. “Tools and technology for learning have increased almost exponentially, though it is important to not overwhelm learners with too many platforms,” cautions Christian Cook, academic director of the Academic Development Centre at Mount Royal University (MRU). “So much so that the learning the technology for learning overwhelms the learning for content. Some students and staff are experiencing ‘zoom fatigue.’ It’s a function of the time we all spend on video calls contributing to something called cognitive overload.”
There is caution about technology trampling the importance of the personal touch. “Social-interaction will continue as a vital aspect of education,” Wilks says. “The feedback we are receiving is that students miss the interactions between themselves and their instructors, as well as interactions between students within courses.”
While harnessing the value and benefits of technology, Christian mentions that possibility that the 24/7 work balance may have also been impacted. “As with any communication when we are not face to face, there is always the opportunity for misinterpretation as well,” he says. “And when almost all of our communication these days is through technology without that personal and informal time together, the room for interpretation grows.
As people aim to make themselves available and to stay engaged, the already blurry lines between work and home can disappear altogether. “People need to remind themselves to unplug to recharge and that is even more important with so many of us working from home. This ‘always on’ mode is not sustainable,” she warns. “Particularly if we are expecting innovation and creativity.”
Although the overload caution is well taken, technology is a crucially indispensable component of contemporary training and learning. “Technology provides the ability to connect with participants more easily at a distance,” Verhulp adds, “often drawing in participants from abroad and bringing groups together that don’t typically connect within teams or across organizations. It also makes it easier for learning groups to connect outside the in-person sessions.
“Education is moving from learning first in school, then applying that same learning throughout one’s tenure at work, to a continuum of lifelong learning—going through several cycles of continuous personal evolution.”
She adds the deliberate re-structuring of programming to be conducive to an online learning environment, including the structured delivery of concepts prior to each session and impactful live interactions with facilitators.
Donaldson emphasizes that technology has been an important component of training and education for quite a while and are now basic and essential skills in the workplace. “The use of media in learning is being taken much more seriously. Video, interactive technologies like augmented and virtual reality, 3D modeling are really shining because a student can be put into a scenario that demonstrates competency or comprehension of a concept that would otherwise be unsafe, costly or time consuming to do. Like taking apart an engine, making a mistake, disassembling, reassembling versus just a press of the reset button.
“Technology and innovation are forcing people to be much more fluid and dynamic in their roles than ever before. Industry is looking for employees to bolster their experience and education with micro-credentialing through continuing education courses to stay current,” he says.
Wilks notes that there is an increase in effective computer simulations in all areas of business courses like marketing, human resources, operations management and others.
“Talent managers in business are also focusing on an increased importance of credentials and micro-credentials such as stacked certificates, certifications and degrees throughout organizations’ hiring and promotion practices,” Verhulp explains. “A majority also see shifts in learning methodologies to gain these credentials, such as a heavier reliance on technology, personalization, and social learning.”
Some things never change, not even with the COVID crunch. Calgary training and education providers still adhere to high standards of “why” student excellence. The “how’s” are changing, drastically. “In winter, as we pivoted from classroom to online, we had to do it quickly,” Christian says. “In May, MRU confirmed that the majority of fall programming will also be delivered remotely, so we have now had much more time to prepare.
“We are getting even more comfortable with technology, being really intentional about things and asking questions like how much synchronous and asynchronous content is the right blend? Many of us are also taking this time to re-evaluate assessments of learning and create ways to make assessments really authentic and provide students the opportunity to demonstrate not just what they know, but what they can do with it.”
One way that the COVID was an unexpected boost was the updating of training and education. “The urgency and the importance of the digital technology transformation that was underway pre-pandemic have been heightened,” says Donaldson. “SAIT is opening a new Centre for Continuing Education and Professional Studies and, in downtown Calgary, a new School for Advanced Digital Technology. All students in all programs — career launchers and career changers, those upskilling and those reskilling — will be equipped to thrive in a digital economy.”
Verhulp admits that, in many ways, the sudden programs protocols and adjustments sparked by COVID-19 may have initially been a bit of a scramble but moving forward, “The appetite from adults for online offerings will likely continue to grow with many continuing to work from home and teams being dispersed nationally and internationally.”