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University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Is Serving as an Agent of Change During COVID-19—Here’s How

Written by Shadee Barkan on Sep 30, 2020

Related content: Higher Education, Digital Education

Higher education is evolving.

As COVID-19 swept the globe this spring, education institutions everywhere were forced to face the challenges of a changed world. Each day, universities addressed important new questions: How can our institution continue delivering exceptional learning experiences in a largely remote environment? Which skills are rising in demand during the pandemic, which are declining, and how can we align our programming accordingly? What’s the best way to support learners who are struggling cognitively, emotionally, or financially?

Change can be daunting, but with the right people and the right partners, it becomes an opportunity. As Canada’s leading institution of learning, discovery, and knowledge creation, University of Toronto is no stranger to innovation. Since 1827, the university’s School of Continuing Studies has helped learners of all backgrounds expand their horizons, advance their careers, and reveal new pathways to opportunity. At 2U, we’re honored to partner with them to achieve these goals by powering academically rigorous, high-quality boot camps that reflect the emerging needs of learners and employers.

I recently sat down with Maureen MacDonald, dean of University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, to learn how she’s aligning programming to a pandemic world, supporting learners through hardship, and delivering on the promise of continuing education schools as agents of change.

How has COVID-19 impacted portfolio planning at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies?

The most obvious change is that we’re now really enhancing our online/remote delivery capacity. Before April, about 28 percent of our programming was available online. Now, we’re at about 64 percent. So that’s been a really massive shift for us. Our planning horizons have become somewhat abbreviated as well. We’re used to planning a year out—or at the very least, a semester out. Now, we’re finding that it’s weeks and days, since we’re responding to what public health information dictates and what a different marketplace is demanding from us.

It’s also been incumbent on us all to increase our sensitivities around what people are going through in terms of health and financial circumstances. We have to be flexible about making some considerations for those sorts of things. In continuing studies, we always feel we’re pretty good about that at the best of times—but the need for it is even more apparent now.

What innovations have come out of University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies as a result of the pandemic?

One thing we’ve done is create a $100,000 Opportunity Fund to support anyone who was adversely affected by COVID-19. This was designed specifically for people who wanted to take courses but maybe were laid off or, if they’re a sole proprietor, weren’t able to bring in the business they used to. They found themselves with more time but less money. By allocating funds to new and returning learners, we supported about 130 people so they could take courses through the School of Continuing Studies. We were quite pleased with how that worked out.

We also created something called the Knowledge Hub, which houses free content to keep our community engaged. We’ve taken some of our really successful instructors and had them do live webinars and also developed some curated content where people can go in and listen to instructors speak on a variety of topics. We’re finding that this has brought in a new group of learners. It also gives people something to do, especially if they have a little more time on their hands but not the funds to support that.

In terms of programming, we’ve also started paying a lot more attention to micro-courses. Recent studies show that the more relevant the learning is, the more interested people are. Micro-courses speak to an immediate need, offering lessons learners can use right away.

How is University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies managing its massive inventory of programs to ensure they’re aligned with learner needs in this new environment?

We’re constantly scanning the marketplace and connecting with employers, instructors, and learners to see what they need. Many jobs have been adversely affected by COVID. The service sector, in particular, has been especially hard-hit, and so have the performing arts. Those folks had their entire world turned upside down. It’s been interesting to see people starting to think, “What new skill sets can I develop to have a safe landing place and a successful career?” Right now, it seems like anything with data in the title is massively popular. We’re seeing that becoming a focal point for many people and it also reflects future opportunities articulated by employers. Learners are pivoting from the path they were on and considering what they can do to ensure they come out of this pandemic successfully.

What are some higher ed trends you’ve noticed during COVID-19?

Universities have been awakened by the realization that almost anything can be delivered online: the classroom experience, the registration process, the advising process. We have entire teams of people spread out all over the country and can still deliver quality programming and services without missing a beat.

I believe we're also going to see a greater sense of humanity throughout higher ed. COVID has brought that about to a degree, along with Black Lives Matter and the mental health challenges people are experiencing. All of that requires us to really think about the human part of what we do. It’s not just an educational transaction. We have to consider the full person as they come in; accessibility and inclusivity play into that. Universities are going to have to pay a little more attention to that than they have in the past.

What advice would you give other deans of continuing education schools as they navigate an uncertain pandemic future?

Each of us finds ourselves in such different circumstances based on our institutional missions, local geography, and so forth—but there are some things I would encourage that transcend any particular institution. I think we’re going to have to be more adaptable and flexible moving forward. Earlier, I referenced the importance of communication. Even when we don't know something, we have to be communicating. We had a virtual event for our instructors last week where we talked about what our winter semester might look like. Well, we have no idea. We had to tell them, “Once we figure it out, we’ll tell you. But for now, we don't know what the health directives are going to be. So it’s a real unknown.” You almost have to overcommunicate.

Another thing I'm learning is the importance of a balanced portfolio. That can help you withstand some of these ups and downs a little more effectively. And the last thing I’d encourage is to be kind. None of us asked for this. In some respects, COVID has brought out the best and worst of us—and sometimes, that happens in the same hour. We have to be kind to our colleagues and kind to ourselves as well.

What does University of Toronto School of Continuing Education’s future look like amidst COVID? How will the university continue serving as an agent of change?

We’re going to continue creating innovative content, working with partners, and striving to meet learner and employer needs. I think there’s going to be short-term pain, but there are some silver linings for us. We’re creating a greater online presence, our staff are more adaptable, and we’re able to provide support to learners in different ways than we have in the past.

Moving forward, I think we need to stick to what we’ve always done well. At the end of the day, it’s about listening to learners, employers, partners, and the marketplace, continuing to develop and deliver high-quality programming, supporting our learners and instructors, communicating, and being flexible. Continuing ed schools have always been agents of change. We’re going to get through COVID by doing what we’ve always done.

To hear more from Maureen MacDonald and Shadee Barkan, register for the ASU GSV panel “Continuing Education Schools as Agents of Change,” taking place on Thursday, October 1, 3:45–4:30pm ET.

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