The pandemic made clear how important it is that colleges and universities be ready to not only respond to challenges in the moment but anticipate and prepare for future ones too. The reality is that the traditional way of doing things isn’t going to cut it. Institutions have to find ways to diversify revenue streams, attract more and different learners, enable faculty with professional development and training, and collaborate effectively with workforce and government partners. They have to become, in a word, resilient.
We had the opportunity to talk with Sheila LeBlanc, director, continuing education at the University of Calgary, about the work she and her team are doing. The continuing education department sees about 20,000 enrollments and provides over 1,200 courses each year. Programs are often designed in partnership with corporate and government and partners and are designed to meet people at every stage of their learning journey—from traditional degrees through academic upgrading, upskilling and reskilling, and professional development certificates and diplomas.
HW: The first thing we wanted to do is understand the existing landscape. What was your institution doing prior to the pandemic?
SLB: We’ve been serving non-traditional learners for decades. Over the past five years or so, we’ve seen digital disruption impacting all fields of practice and an increased spotlight on lifelong learning, including a focus on short-cycle upskilling and reskilling. Prior to the pandemic, we were teaching about 25% of our courses online. We moved very quickly—within weeks—to deliver over 90% online. We were very fortunate to have foundational skills within our team and some solid technology in place to do that, using Brightspace for our LMS and Zoom for synchronous courses.
I’d say that the pandemic just amplified trends towards online—towards remote work and remote supports—and moved us forward as much as five to 10 years in the adoption of remote and online learning. Folks who never would have considered it dabbed their toes into it. Some of them jumped in fully, and they are thriving in that and loving it.
This is even more prevalent with our corporate clients. We provide frontline leader and emerging leader development training for the City of Calgary. After running four cohorts through in the last eight months, they’re now looking at how they can maintain a hybrid model going forward.
We also wanted to chat about some of the challenges your institution, students, corporate learning partners faced. Could you walk us through those?
We have an operations team that was a call center physically on campus, so we had to work quickly to think about how we set people up at home. It put a spotlight on recognizing that to work remotely, there are technology, security, and risk management considerations that had to be dealt with at an unprecedented speed—being resolved in two weeks instead of two years.
We also noticed differences in digital literacy. Some people were already familiar with the tools. For others, the learning curve was steep. But people stepped up and learned quickly. I’m proud of how the staff, instructors, and students adapted in the way they did and how we’ve been able to transition through the last year. The challenges were real.
Were there any practices or policies you put in place during the pandemic that you want or expect to maintain going forward?
Absolutely. With student services, we discovered that having meetings virtually via video conference has, in many cases, been more efficient. It allows us to serve students the want to be served, meet with more people, and offer more flexible hours. This has us looking at how we can create spaces that benefit staff and students but also manage our infrastructure needs.
It’s pretty exciting to think through ways we wouldn’t have considered before. “Oh, we couldn’t possibly do that,” but then we did. As we start planning a return to campus, we don’t want to come back the way we were. The language that’s used is “build back better,” and I hope we’re really giving thought to that. I know my team and our leadership teams are working through how we do that in a meaningful way.
Is there anything you wanted to do differently, whether more often or less often?
Given the opportunity to reach people beyond our physical footprint, we want to invest more in online learning. We want to invest in developing the competencies of our instructors to be more creative in their choices. Our technology and tools are continuously getting new features added, and we want to be able to leverage those.
We know there’s value to learners if we do that, and with the current fiscal pressures, we need to be more creative about reaching broader audiences. We want to do so in a way that there is a quality learning experience—and that means investing in both the tools and training. There are already great projects evolving with ideas of how we can do things in blended or online formats going forward.
Can you tell us about some of the work you’ve done with workforce partners? Some of the challenges they’ve faced and opportunities there as well?
At the beginning of the pandemic, they were living the exact same struggles as we were. How do we get our workforce to work from home? What tasks can be done remotely? How do we keep people safe? Now, we’re seeing the longer-term impacts of digital disruption and industry changes. I think the challenges they’re facing are ones we can continue to work on together, identifying those gaps in knowledge and creating short-cycle opportunities that are tailored to their organization.
That’s where it’s going to be important for us as both workforce development partners and as generators of new knowledge. As universities are doing research and developing new ideas and technologies, we have to be ready to mobilize that knowledge and transfer it to practice. We have to do that in coordination with industry partners, identifying when they’re ready to adopt those pieces and how we work them into their contexts.
That’s been one of our biggest learnings over the last five or so years. We have to step down from being the purveyors of knowledge to be the co-creators of knowledge with input from different stakeholders.
What role is technology playing in driving this growth?
We couldn’t have even maintained our core business through the COVID-19 pandemic without the technology tools that we have. It just wouldn’t have happened the way it did. Technology is a foundational element of post-secondary system success.
Our ability to do our work is enabled and enhanced by having the right tools, but what’s interesting is it’s also a shift in executive leadership trying to understand, well, what does a technology investment look like? What does that maintenance, refresh, and evaluation structure look like? And what do those supports look like? How do we keep it secure and maintain privacy? All of those data housing and management issues are front and center now in a way that they weren’t before.
In the executive room, we’re reflecting on how we need to leverage technological investments to do our work well and use them as a strategic advantage. I would argue that, post-COVID, we’re looking at technology through a more focused lens and recognizing its strategic importance.
As we wrap up, what’s the one key takeaway you’d like to leave people with?
Something I feel is critical as we move forward into the world of lifelong learning is the importance of being flexible and working in tandem with industry, post-secondary, and government partners. We need to be thinking about how we work together. How do we become an engine that finds gaps and opportunities in our economy, and how do we fill them with a rapidly adapting, educated workforce?
If I leave one key thing, it’s industry, post-secondary, and government need to be working hand in hand.
Explore the online programs offered by UCalgary Continuing Education
Continuing Education at the University of Calgary offers hundreds of courses and many certificate programs entirely online. Some of the most popular online certificate programs include Occupational Health and Safety, Creative Writing, and Digital Marketing. Online courses are designed with part-time learners in mind and can be taken in several online formats. Learning online has never been easier!