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Higher Ed: Continuing education

 In September 2020, Special sections

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In today’s new normal, flexibility in adult continuing education is critical.


Last March, many North Carolina college and university students and faculty experienced an extended spring break they never saw coming as the COVID-19 pandemic created a major paradigm shift midway through the 2019-20 school year.

Months after the world went into quarantine, it is not business as usual for higher education, including executive and continuing education. But business school deans and community college presidents agree that while spring semester and summer classes have been anything but normal, they are optimistic the changes they have implemented as a result of the pandemic will ensure their students get the quality education they expect. And if the new learning models are successful, it may lead to permanent changes in the ways schools operate in the future.

“Colleges and universities, both public and private, had to make an abrupt move to remote learning,” says Hope Williams, president of the North Carolina Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

But many were able to adapt, especially with executive and continuing education programs that were already partially online, such as Duke University Fuqua School of Business’ MBA program, including its global MBA program, which is conducted on a virtual, worldwide platform. Last spring, the coursework converted to entirely online, and the school will use a hybrid format in the fall.

“We are structuring classes to be live and held on a regular schedule,” says William Boulding, dean and J.B. Fuqua professor of business administration. “Most of them will include simultaneous delivery to students participating face-to-face in the classroom and those participating online. Fuqua School of Business launched this teaching format several years ago.”

The pandemic has caused collateral damage to people’s lives and to the economy. Unemployment has skyrocketed into the double digits for the first time in a decade.

Last May, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School responded to the economic downturn by launching a pilot MBA program called NC Business Next for recent college graduates.

Typically, MBA applicants must have work experience before enrolling, but NC Business Next will provide opportunities for top students to go straight into the MBA program after earning their bachelor’s degrees.

“We are targeting high-performing graduates and seniors who are graduating into an economic downturn and giving them an opportunity to extend their education over the next two years,” says Bradley Staats, associate dean of MBA programs and a co-author of the new program. NC Business Next will host its first class of grad students in the fall.

Boiling Springs-based Gardner-Webb University, whose online-only MBA program has not felt any adverse effects from the pandemic, has seen a 250% enrollment increase from 2019 to 2020, says Mischia Taylor, dean of the Godbold School of Business.

Taylor attributes the growth to its new 10-Month MBA, an accelerated pathway to earning an MBA.

“It is the exact same content as our regular program, but by condensing the normal 16-week terms to eight weeks and allowing no breaks, students can finish in 10 months,” she says. “For those who can handle the pressure, it is a way for them to get their MBA in 10 months rather than two years.”

Like Gardner-Webb’s MBA program, UNC Wilmington has seen tremendous growth in its MBA program, says Nivine Richie, associate dean of graduate programs, who credits its online presence and the recent addition of health care management as a specialty.

The program, in UNCW’s Cameron School of Business, also fosters camaraderie among students and faculty, she added.

“Most of our MBA students are from North Carolina, and they flock to our program because our course content is relevant, our professors are responsive to their needs and we provide a sense of community even though we are online,” she says.

The school recently launched a dual degree program. Students pair their MBA with a master’s degree in finance or business analytics. It also plans to launch an MBA specialization in marketing and supply chain management.

Students working toward their MBA at UNCW can choose the digital program, which is completely online. The executive online program meets two weekends a year and includes an international component, giving students an opportunity to spend a week meeting with corporate executives in a foreign country. The third option is a largely online program that meets weekly in person.

In all its offerings, UNCW’s MBA program showcases flexibility, offering opportunities for students to structure their classwork around professional and family obligations.

“We were deliberate about creating our online MBA program,” Richie says. “We were able to prepare our faculty by providing opportunities for them to learn how to teach online, and that has paid off.”

COMMUNITY EFFORTS

Community colleges have spent the last six months in evolution, says Jane Stancill, spokesperson for the North Carolina Community College System. Roughly three quarters of the system’s 58 colleges are converting to online only and hybrid-teaching methods.

They also are providing special assistance to struggling students and their families.

“Last month, the state board approved $4 million for virtual tutoring for students who have had to adjust to online classes, and $950,000 for a student assistance program to provide around-the-clock access to confidential counseling for mental health, medical and other concerns,” Stancill says. “These allocations were from COVID-19 relief funding.”

Students who arrived for fall semester classes at Central Piedmont Community College on Aug. 10 faced major changes in the way their coursework will be delivered. Faculty are teaching classes in multiple formats, including online, face-to-face and hybrid or blended, which includes both online and face-to-face instruction, according to Jeff Lowrance, vice president of communications, marketing and public relations. Fall classes will end on Dec. 11.

The college offers nearly 300 programs to get students real-world ready. Affordable and flexible classes help students earn the skills to fast-track into a career pathway or lay the foundation for a four-year degree.

Among these programs are two new transfer-degree offerings in teacher preparation — Associate of Arts and Associate of Science degrees — both in teacher-preparation curriculums. These new transfer degrees were put in place to address North Carolina’s teacher shortage by creating a larger pipeline for future teachers, especially in the state’s rural counties.

CPCC, which enrolls more than 56,000 students annually in for-credit programs and approximately 36,000 corporate and continuing education students each year, contributes $1.2 billion annually to the Mecklenburg County economy, according to Lowrance. In the academic year ending in 2019, more than 140 students completed apprenticeships with 19 employer partners, and 724 students participated in co-ops through 43 programs of study with 314 employer partners.

In Cumberland County, Fayetteville Technical Community College is already accustomed to online education, with a requirement that 100% of courses have an online component. “That goes back for the past 10 years,” says President Larry Keen.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have designated the school as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Two-Year Education. Fayetteville is home to Fort Bragg, a U.S. Army base and one of the largest military installations in the world, and FTCC has a large contingent of students in the military who are able to continue their education even when they are deployed, Keen says.

Like other colleges, FTCC offers its courses in a variety of formats, designed to meet the needs of students and facilitate learning.

PLANNING AHEAD

Few college and university executives know what the future holds, but they stress flexibility and adaptability are key to addressing student educational needs going forward.

NCICU’s Williams believes the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting quarantines have opened a door to opportunities to meet students where they are and foresees continued growth in higher education.

“Years ago, many university and community colleges began changing the way people learn by offering adult programs in both an online and hybrid environment out of convenience,” she says. “Today, what we have learned from COVID-19 is that flexibility is absolutely critical.” ■

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.

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