Shifts in career trends, drastically changing workplaces and the information-driven knowledge society are disruptors, particularly in post-secondary education and re-defining the traditional model of four-year bachelor’s degrees.
The tsunami of post-secondary skills and qualifications is reshaping continuing education. Globally and here in Edmonton, it’s turning into a demand for lifelong learning. In fact, trends in continuing education, in particular, are changing the very demographic of most Canadian universities with more adults than ever heading back to class to gain new skills and enhance careers.
After two years of scrambling and the many changes triggered by pandemic lockdowns, people in most aspects of daily life – from business, school, work, shopping, recreation, socializing and more – are adjusting to many new normals.
In Edmonton, by the time the lockdowns happened, Continuing Education (CE) was already way ahead of the curve and supplying the demand for new skills and qualifications, mostly due to technology and the warp-speed changing workplace.
“The last few years have seen a growing recognition of continuing education as a vital component of capacity-building for the new economy,” says Wendy Rodgers, the University of Alberta’s Deputy Provost and Interim Dean of the Faculty of Extension. “In a world that now demands regular upskilling and reskilling to adapt to new technologies, changing industries and demands for economic diversity, continuing education has emerged as a nimble and flexible response to the rapid pace of change in the job market.”
Stats show that 25 years after the internet became commercially available, CE (alias post-high school learning) is now a lifelong endeavor for many adults. It offers a constantly evolving and diverse ecosystem of options.
Only a couple of years ago, the digital transformation of the economy and labour market took a giant leap forward. At just about the same time, online education went mainstream. CE 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 earn alternative credentials.
For Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institution of Technology (NAIT), continuing education was rapidly evolving and had been happening for a few years. “There is more flexibility for students on learning modalities, more online and blended (mix of online and face-to-face) opportunities and increased access to NAIT courses,” explains Brock Olive, NAIT’s Executive Director of Corporate and Continuing Education. “It’s vital that there is an increased focus on instructor training and support, as well as an increased focus on active facilitation, cohort-based, interactive, engaging, and supportive delivery of courses using synchronous and asynchronous tools. One change is that it has reduced delivery of correspondence-type courses.”
The UAlberta is also transitioning into the CE new normal. “Continuing education providers are increasingly responsive in structuring their offerings,” Rodgers adds. “There is increased emphasis on short-term programs that target a specific competency immediately applicable to the workplace, such as IT skills. Those short offerings are designed to stand alone as a complete learning experience.”
Continuing education is dynamic. In Edmonton, at the University of Alberta and at NAIT, there is a momentum of curriculum, enrollments, delivery and credentials updating and new CE formats. The sudden COVID scramble was a fluky timing factor and just accelerated things.
With CE as with most things, timing is everything. Just as new CE options and formats were gaining popularity, the pandemic restrictions hit and turned the gradual development of digital CE from an emerging option into an urgent necessity.
At NAIT, the sudden pandemic lockdowns and dark classrooms were more of a CE upshift than a kick-start. “Although many training sessions were already developed for online learning, there was a rapid move to have all CE courses move online/blended” Olive says.
“There are extensive NAIT resources committed to supporting instructors to facilitating their courses online, including adapting activities and utilizing technologies.”
According to Bill McMullen, NAIT’s Manager of Instructional Design, “Exploring the use of new modes of delivery, increased use of new technologies and delivery strategies give students more options and greater flexibility. And there is strong support for online delivery from students. More than 95 per cent of CE students completed fully online or blended courses this past year, 68 per cent now prefer online or blended learning over classroom learning, 96 per cent of CE students would somewhat or very likely take another course at NAIT and 85 per cent of CE students found the online platform easy to use.”
Most CE experts agree that the abrupt lockdown limitations forced continuing education’s already-in-progress transition – for students as well as instructors – into sudden new normals. “Convincing instructors and students to move online was historically a challenge,” he admits. “When forced into it due to COVID, most adapted well, and it has quickly becoming the norm.”
Coincidentally, as the lockdowns forced CE to go virtual, it overlapped with the supply and demand already redefining CE curriculums.
“By overall enrollment numbers, programs like project management and power engineering are still popular but enrollment is flat or declining,” McMullen says. “Enrollment growth is happening in areas like health programming and IT certificates like data science. Although many training sessions are already developed for online learning, there is a rapid move to have all CE courses move online or become blended.”
Olive is enthusiastic that, “Instructors, students and industry have adapted to online and blended learning very well. Instructors, staff and students now have more flexibility. For example, we’re able to teach instructors at various institutions in Uganda because of online course delivery. Virtual learning is opening up new opportunities and new markets for NAIT students and for NAIT continuing education.”
Rodgers acknowledges that, while the past 18 months or so have drastically supercharged the format and delivery options for CE courses, the supply and demand, always driven by students and the workplace, is also transforming. “There is a lot of interest in technology-related courses,” she says. “That’s reflected in the roster of tech offerings at the Faculty of Extension, which includes programs in areas such as web development, UX/UI design, programming courses, and much more.
“Another popular selection is our program on renewable energy technology, where classes tend to fill immediately after opening for registration. At the university level, some of the most popular offerings are the free online courses in our portfolio of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are offered in partnership with Coursera. Our most successful MOOC is Indigenous Canada, a course that explores Indigenous histories and contemporary issues. Since it was launched in 2017, more than 420,000 students have enrolled in Indigenous Canada, making it one of the most popular courses in Canada.”
Rodgers mentions a slow but unmistakable decline in demand for offerings that aren’t directly related to work life. “There used to be a significant number of courses designed for enjoyment and personal growth. They now represent a much smaller percentage of our total offerings.”
“Online continuing education is here to stay!” Rodgers notes with positivity. “The pandemic experience of moving rapidly to online delivery provided us with a deeper understanding of what works, what students want, and how we can meet their needs. We will certainly be offering more—and better—online courses going forward.”