CCAPS leans into accessible career-building programs through online course delivery

Before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, the College of Continuing and Professional Studies (CCAPS) held its professional development courses in person, with a few exceptions. You know the story: in March of 2020, businesses closed, public gatherings were banned, and we were all ordered to stay home. 

At CCAPS, that meant redesigning most of its courses for online delivery via Zoom. Of course, the plan was to go back into the classroom ASAP but, in August of that year, the Delta variant struck. And then Omicron, and then… well, you know the rest. While this wasn’t the scenario anyone expected, the new normal was actually a blessing in disguise for adult learners in Minnesota and across the country.

Adult Learners Embrace Online Education

Over the next two years, “millions of American adults discovered digital platforms to be effective and convenient ways to learn and communicate,” according to the Longevity Project, an organization that encourages lifelong learning as a path to a healthier, happier life in this era of increased lifespans.

“The pandemic accelerated an already rising need for adult educational programming and also opened the eyes of many adults to the opportunities afforded by digital learning platforms,” the Longevity Project reported in New Horizons: American Universities and the Case for Lifelong Learning. A digital revolution in education had begun.

While many appreciate the more immersive experience of in-person classes, CCAPS professional development students have largely embraced the convenience of remote education. Instructors bring their extensive field experience into the online classroom, just as they did when classes were held in person. Participants in the classrooms can use whiteboards, break out in small groups, and even create an on-the-spot opinion poll. 

“The University did a great job offering the classes via Zoom,” said Laurie Church, who restarted her career as a result of completing the Human Resource Generalist Certificate in May 2021. “The instructors are great and have tailored their course content to fit the online platform. It really worked for me. I really liked that I could attend from home and not have to go anywhere.”

Online Expands Access

Alexandrea Safiq is a rare example of someone who experienced the transition from working onsite to online from three different perspectives: as a researcher, an instructor, and a student.

A postdoc in the U’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, Safiq had gone to visit her grandmother in Tacoma during spring break when the world shut down. Not wanting her grandmother to go through the ordeal alone, she got permission to do her research remotely from Washington State. “Grandma lives alone so I had a lot of concerns.” 

Then, in 2021, Safiq taught a couple conservation biology courses remotely and completed the Leadership Essentials Certificate. “I think the online platform gives more equitable access to education. There are so many people who are immunocompromised. Or they need to stay home and watch their kids. Some are taking care of loved ones or have mobility issues. Or they don’t have a car. So just being able to access those resources and that education online is huge,” she said.

The Future of CCAPS's Online Adult Education

“Online really matters to adult learners,” says Ryan Torma, CCAPS’s Executive Director of Professional Development and Lifelong Learning, which had a 133% increase in registrants from outside the Twin Cities metro over the past 28 months, compared to a similar time frame before the pandemic. “It helps that they don’t have to commute. It helps us attract learners from further away. It makes it easier for people to fit into their schedules.” 

Torma says they’re exploring ways to expand capabilities in the online space and looking at different course models that could be developed toward that end. “We want to continue to improve online engagement pieces, and we’re working on the best ways to do that.”

At the same time, CCAPS wants to develop in-person opportunities to complement online learning. “We’re asking questions like, how do we take advantage of what is great about online learning? But also, how do we create opportunities for some of the educational or social parts of professional development that are best done in-person?” says Torma. “It’s important for professionals to socialize and network and connect and have conversations with peers and with employers. We’re looking at how to make that happen for our adult learners.”