Career Schools Provide Roadmap for Rising to COVID’s Educational Challenges

June 17, 2020

The following article is from Medium

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has catapulted the American higher education system into uncharted territory. When the dust settles, this unprecedented shift has the power to upend the traditional higher education model of delivering courses in lecture halls grouped together on cloistered campuses.

For all of its consequences, the aftermath of COVID-19 provides everyone with an even more clear picture of why we must transform the postsecondary education for the better — access, affordability, quality, relevance. To do so, we must collaborate, innovate and evolve our thinking to develop an education system that better meets the needs of students, businesses and civic leaders, while finally looking past decades of entrenched stigma to learn from the success of Career and Technical Education (CTE) during the pandemic.

It was just a few months ago when colleges across the country closed dormitories and dining halls, sending students home to take online classes and enlisting faculty to swiftly alter their curriculum and mode of delivery. Simultaneously, large swaths of the economy were shuttered, leaving tens of millions of Americans out of work, seeking both short-term financial assistance and long-term career prospects that provide a path to sustainable employment in a job market that will look drastically different.

Across nearly every sector of society, the pandemic has proven that old ways of thinking won't cut it. Recent data gathered by Strada Education found that nearly two in three Americans fear losing their job due to COVID-19. And notably, the majority of adults surveyed who are considering enrolling in a training program in the next six months prefer nondegree programs. As we evaluate the present landscape, we need to think further outside the higher education box for ideas that not only position institutions for the immediate future but also create transformational change.

Days after campuses closed, many expressed concerns about the ability of CTE programs to seamlessly continue their operations in a virtual environment, believing that many hands-on components could not be taught or learned at a distance. In claiming that CTE programs can't shift to online delivery as nimbly as other higher education providers, advocates risk selling their cause short, again reinforcing the old stigma: that it is a low-tech, second-tier option for learners.

Our organization — which offers workforce training programs for high-demand career fields at campuses in Atlanta, Houston and Tampa — has experienced quite the opposite. While we are but one group of schools, we see a valuable set of lessons for reshaping the education-to-workforce pipeline stemming from this shared new reality.

Lesson One: Flexible learning environments must become the norm.

In the hours and days that followed the extensive shelter-at-home restrictions that were put in place around the U.S., organizations across the education landscape worked to pivot their offerings.

Our family of campuses was able to seamlessly shift from hands-on education to remote delivery thanks to a transition last year to a blended learning model that included providing students with iPads as well as online resources and software so that they could access their classroom from wherever and whenever needed. We also have supplemented our curriculum delivery with lectures by industry experts, created targeted micro-lab experiences for demonstrating necessary competencies, piloted virtual reality that enabled students to do more on their own at home, and provided professional development to our faculty through the use of instructional coaches to ensure they, too, are able to advance their abilities in this new environment.

Contrary to those who have raised the specter of a post-coronavirus "backlash against online education," this shift to distance learning can prove to be a force for good long past the pandemic.

Lesson Two: The silos between education and business must come down.

When the economy is bad, Americans go back to school: the Great Recession led to a 33 percent increase in enrollment at two-year colleges. And with COVID-19 likely to permanently reshape the American workforce, CTE's ability to quickly adjust curricula to fill skills gaps will serve the needs of both workers and businesses.

The pandemic has caused organizations in every industry to rethink, retool and begin the process of rebuilding for the "now" normal as well as the "new" normal of the future. To truly leverage this opportunity, we must erase the lines that exist between education and business to create opportunities that benefit learners — both at the postsecondary level looking to reskill and those looking to upskill for the future — as well as the business community.

Through partnerships with industry leaders built pre-pandemic that include their participation in ongoing dialogues about staffing and knowledge needs, we have enhanced our curriculum, connected students with employers and improved our graduate earning potential by expanding their skill set in their chosen field. In addition, the economics and financing of career training are ripe for rethinking in light of this opportunity to reduce the cost of training, decrease the friction from training-to-workplace, expand program applicability to more businesses, and open the aperture on funding models including income-based repayment, employer payment/employer payback options, and other funding methods.

Policymakers cannot ignore this opportunity. Accreditors can maintain their robust quality standards while relaxing requirements that unnecessarily disadvantage distance learning and the millions of learners it can benefit — furthering the potential to reduce the cost of training and expanding program applicability to industry partners.

Agencies tasked with distributing workforce training funding can ensure virtual programs have the resources they need to thrive.

All must rise to the challenge of meeting the pace of change required by today's students and employer demands, or risk being left behind.

Lesson Three: Learners must be supported at all levels.

Our ability to provide students with high-quality career training that takes place almost entirely online is a promising sign for how the U.S. can scale up virtual workforce training opportunities to help Americans who lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. However we must support these learners throughout their educational journey — especially those from underserved backgrounds — to ensure they are able to find their educational path, stick to it and thrive. Our students have derived great benefit from the wraparound services we provide, which have expanded to include professional skills curriculum with badging and peer-to-peer support.

Recently I participated in a forum of leaders across the postsecondary philanthropic landscape who are working to ensure students have the resources they need to succeed now and into the future. Through emergency grants that provide access to basic needs such as food, shelter, wellness, as well as access to stable internet, we are working to provide students with an equal ability to thrive in a distance-learning environment — a critical component that will enable them to meet their full potential.

Lesson Four: Leaders must be operational visionaries.

To successfully innovate, we must challenge our teams to think creatively and execute strategically. While postsecondary education has many innovators, history has shown that the industry has been slow to evolve to the changing needs of learners, businesses and the economy. Without human capital, we will not be able to modify our efforts for the benefit of future generations.

It's said that crisis doesn't build character, it reveals it. The COVID-19 crisis is revealing that postsecondary career education programs — like those throughout higher education — have the ability to be innovative and nimble. Collaborating with employers, communities, and other institutions America's CTE educators will play a major role in getting America get back to work.

By Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO, ECMC Group