To suggest that Edmonton’s continuing education has been transformed, particularly in the wake of almost three years of lockdowns and workplace disruptions, may be a simplistic understatement. Trends have changed. The wants, needs and must-haves of continuing education learners have changed. The formats and delivery of Edmonton’s continuing education courses continue to change.
While continuing education resourcefully pivoted and re-grouped during the sudden COVID commotion, technology has dramatically accelerated changes. “When it comes to trends that are taking, or pushing, learning to the next level within the continuing education sector and within workforce development, the future is definitely digital,” says Jessica Butts Scott, associate vice president, Online & Continuing Education at University of Alberta.
“What we know is that online learning is here to stay. In fact, the online learning market is growing exponentially and the market is expected to reach US$645B in 2030, up from US$215B in 2021.
“Of course, the focus on the broader implementation of digital or online learning was influenced by the pandemic and it fundamentally changed the way we work, communicate and learn. Post-secondary institutions, as well as business organizations, emerged from the pandemic in a stronger position, very much influenced not only by the option of online learning, but how continuing education units develop and deliver purpose-built online learning.”
She explains that even prior to the pandemic, in-person training and development had already been moving steadily from a face-to-face experience to online experiences, in part because opportunity costs for organizations are so high when pulling team members away from their work for days on end to attend in-person development sessions.
“Once the pandemic hit, the movement of training and development to digital formats increased exponentially in a very short period of time. Many post-secondary institutions and companies were forced to move to what we call emergency remote delivery, using technology-based platforms like Zoom or Teams for live instruction. Initially they were considered online learning, but there is a big difference between purpose-built online learning and simply moving a place-based experience into an online course shell.”
Michelle Naylor, manager of business development at NorQuest’s Continuing Education and Partner Solutions, agrees that the evolution and transformation of Edmonton’s continuing education has been happening for quite a while.
“There has been a steady change with increased demand for upskilling, reskilling and shifting workforce needs. Continuing education needs to offer personalized micro learning to the market that is flexible, stackable, skill-based, part-time and industry aligned.”
She points out that the shift and the changes are not completely replacing academic training with workplace skills, “But we have definitely seen increased attention to the skills needed once learners are in the workforce. This includes upgrading skills to meet industry demands, the need to reskill to move labour into growing sectors and a growing emphasis on soft or durable skills like communication, collaboration and adaptability.”
Workplace trends show that working professionals want to upskill and reskill quickly on their own terms. Naylor continues, “They seek out concepts that are most relevant to their work and for their future. It’s an approach to learning that is shaking up continuing education’s instructional design to offer a more personalized and deliberate learning experiences. Lifelong learning through continuing education has become a necessity to stay relevant and current in the rapidly changing work environment. It’s also a key component of organizations’ retention strategies, investing in their people for growth and career advancement.”
According to Brock Olive, executive director of Corporate and Continuing Education at NAIT, academic learning and skills training will likely not become a continuing education binary choice.
“Modern reality is that targeted skills training is absolutely becoming more important as jobs are becoming more specialized and as the skills gap increases. No doubt about it. Foundational educational remains critical as it develops broad skills and competencies that are valuable across a wide range of career paths. These include critical thinking, communication skills, teamwork and more, often referred to as soft-skills.”
In Edmonton and throughout North America, the focus and the processes of continuing education delivery are changing at warp speed. He mentions that the major new trend in continuing education is the advent of micro-credentials, aligned to specific in-demand skills within industries.
“Micro-credentials are designed to validate and certify specific skills that an individual already possesses and were developed through work and lived experiences. Micro-credentials allow for a more efficient exchange of skills and talent, as they surface specific skills that otherwise might not be evident,” he says.
Naylor also underscores the relatively new continuing education concept of micro-credentials.
“They are shorter term, non-credit certificate programs, which are rapidly expanding to serve a need for those wanting to upskill or reskill into new careers without the burden or cost of credit programs. The flexible delivery of content accommodates the return to live interactions with the added complexity of also responding to continued virtual preferences and more asynchronous content to reflect individuals’ need to fit learning into their busy lives.”
Butts Scott is also positive about micro-credentials. “They enable professionals and organizations to quickly upskill or reskill their team members; there is no wait time and the benefits can be almost immediate, with quick impact on both workers and the workforce. A recent Angus Reid study focused on Canadian expectations for work and post-pandemic life. It showed that 61 per cent of those surveyed said micro-credentials are something they wanted to pursue in 2023.”
The many online and other digital options, as well as the focus on continuing education programs, are vital changes. “The importance of instructional design in online learning applies technology to the teaching and learning process,” she emphasizes.
The experts agree. For online learning to be successful, instructional design must be at the forefront developing purpose-built, quality, engaging and impactful programming. Butts Scott enthusiastically adds that U of A is focused on developing purpose-built online learning credit and non-credit courses that put the learner at the centre of design and are rooted in an innovative learning experience.
With the many changes in continuing education, businesses are wondering about the long-term impact on organizations and the workplace. Will the post-pandemic workplaces’ re-grouping, re-training and transformation of continuing education help with Alberta’s labor shortages or merely shuffle workers around like a deck of cards, slipping them into more skilled positions? Time will tell.
“It depends on the specifics,” Olive says. “It’s safe to say that both are happening in tandem. ConEd includes a lot of short, targeted courses designed to get people into jobs and address immediate labour shortages. NAIT also offers longer programs that allow people to completely change careers and advance themselves overall. Both are important and, ultimately, we want to support the ambitions of individuals to advance their prospects, earning potential and quality of life.”
Butts Scott is also confident that continuing education may do both. “It will continue to not only positively impact the labour shortage but will also move professionals into more skilled positions. Purpose-built, innovative, and impactful online learning will thrive in our rapidly changing, global world of work.”