Illumination by Modern Campus

Nancy Coleman (Harvard University) on The Transformative Role of Continuing Education in Higher Ed

May 02, 2024 Modern Campus
Nancy Coleman (Harvard University) on The Transformative Role of Continuing Education in Higher Ed
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Nancy Coleman (Harvard University) on The Transformative Role of Continuing Education in Higher Ed
May 02, 2024
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Nancy Coleman to discuss the current state of continuing education and the opportunities that lie ahead to best serve the new wave of modern learners. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Nancy Coleman to discuss the current state of continuing education and the opportunities that lie ahead to best serve the new wave of modern learners. 

Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Nancy Coleman, who is Dean of Harvard Extension School and Continuing Studies at Harvard University. Nancy and podcast host Shauna Cox discuss the current state of continuing education and the opportunities that lie ahead to best serve the new wave of modern learners. 

Shauna Cox (00:03):Nancy, welcome to the 150th episode of the Illumination Podcast. I'm so happy you could join us today.

Nancy Coleman (00:11):Well, thanks Shauna. It's nice to be here and thanks for inviting me for such a prestigious number.

Shauna Cox (00:17):Absolutely. So recently we released the state of continuing education report that really highlighted what exactly is going on in this space, and we're going to reflect on some of those findings today. You personally have actually reflected on the state of CE with us in 2022, and now we're in the midst of 2024. So my first question to you is how have you seen the state of CE evolve within at least the past two years since we've last spoken? Are there any moments that have stood out to you?

Nancy Coleman (00:48):Oh, that's a great question, Shauna, and there's really so many, because our world is changing so rapidly and the work that we do, I feel like we're always playing catch up to what's new. I think there's really three that I wanted to call out, and one is I've definitely seen a greater adoption and acceptance of CE even in the past couple of years. Obviously that was started during the pandemic as people became more aware of what we do and how our impact on online learning helped the institution. And that has really continued and we're at the table more now, which is something I really like. The second thing is really the prevalence of alternative credentials and the fact that we're really leading the way for a lot of our institutions as we think about micro-credentials and badging and other newer shorter forms of credentials. Our institutions are really interested in that and really interested in learning from the work that we've been doing in that area for a while.

(01:49):So that's really peaking curiosity. And I left what this one for last, but it's probably the biggest one on the table, and that of course is AI and artificial intelligence. And what I've seen is I've seen the conversation even shift in the past six months on AI where when it first was really launched and people realized, okay, this is a thing. This is not going away. There was a fear-based approach to it like, well, how do we control it and how do we make sure it's used in the right way? And now I have seen the conversation shift a little bit. I think it's pretty much known that, okay, well we'll figure that piece, the scary piece out, but now what can we do with it? What should we do with it and how can we really use it to impact the learning experience for our students? So I'm now seeing a lot of excitement and creativity, maybe not quite solutions yet. Some of the solutions are a little pat right now, but there's definitely good energy percolating around this right now. So I expect CE to really be at the forefront of this again as we figure it out.

Shauna Cox (02:54):Absolutely. I think AI is definitely an area that everybody kind of panicked in when it first emerged and they're like, what do we do with it? But as you said, it's definitely not going away. So it's kind of the moment you've got to lean in and embrace it and just leverage it to see where it can help you out. Because personally I'm a strong believer in that it's there to be an efficiency. It's not there to take over people's jobs, it's just you have to find the right balance of where does it fit in your day-to-day operations.

Shauna Cox (03:25):Absolutely. And so relating back to the report that we released in terms of the state of continuing education, one of the findings that came out of that was the access to enrollment in real-time data being such a common challenge for CE leaders. This may be in your case, it may not be, but how do you see this lack of access to data impacting innovation and decision-making, not only within that CE space, but also kind of ripple affecting the institution?

Nancy Coleman (03:57):Yeah. Well first of all, we've been pretty lucky in that we control a lot of our own data. We have our own registration systems. We have pretty robust Salesforce implementation that we can see a lot of it in real time. We have team members who have set up dashboards. So I think internally within our school in general, we're doing pretty well. Where I see a lack of access to it is data across the institution isn't really fully understood. You're not really sure how to go and get it in ways that will help you. And one of the things that we're seeing more and more at my institution and probably others as well, is we see students who are coming in through the CE system and taking classes potentially in other schools or in other areas of the university. And that lack of data insight about the holistic student journey, what the student is doing in one school versus what they're doing in another school under the same institution is really making it challenging Because as leaders, we really do need to have a much more broad based view of what the student is doing across our institution.

(05:08):So I see that being one big challenge that I hope, and I know we're working on breaking that down, but it's not an easy solution. So I'd be curious to hear from other institutions who've been thinking about this as well.

Shauna Cox (05:20):Absolutely. And I kind of want to expand on that a little bit more. Are there any other challenges that you are seeing commonly weaved throughout the CE space?

Nancy Coleman (05:32):Yes, absolutely. And again, I'm going to say three. The first one is really remaining agile. As our programs continue to expand, what's really important and always has been for continuing education, is that we need to stay on the cutting edge of what's happening in our employer community, in our student understanding what students need on their learning journeys. And that's getting more and more challenging as things are moving faster and faster and faster. So how do we continue to innovate in that space and at the same time, not take our foot off the gas pedal in the amazing programs that we're already offering. And now I call this more of an ambidextrous approach, but we really have to balance the new with the, I won't even say the old with the existing, so we can really build quality into both. We're really wrestling with right now who does that, right?

(06:31):Is it our different team building the shiny new stuff? I don't know that I really agree with that, but it's hard to ask an existing team that already has a full workload to think about new things and how do you integrate this and how do you do more and more and more. So I worry about staying agile and being able to stay on the cutting edge of things. And so we're wrestling with this all the time across continuing ed. I think the second thing which relates to the third thing that really linked is this concept of really providing a seamless student experience from end to end. From the minute a student might click on an inquiry form to say, Hey, tell me more about this course program certificate, whatever it is, to the time they finish. I think we in higher ed are really good at creating pockets of excellence within that system, maybe the advisor relationship or what have you.

(07:24):If you others look at their own institutions, I'm sure that they can identify places where they're great, but there's also gaps. And especially as we hand off through different departments, I think we need to do a better collective job at really identifying where are the cliffs that our students are going to fall off of and how do we get to them and close those gaps and close those clips and just make it a much more seamless experience. The third challenge is really, especially for those institutions like mine who focus on the adult learner. We have this new wave of students coming and those by and large are Gen Z students. And I think I read someplace maybe even in the evolution that by 20 30, 60 1% of our audience, the adult learner market will be Gen Zs. And they learn differently. They grew up differently, they have different needs, they have different expectations, and I think we all need to really be focusing on how do we get ready for those students. I know that's a huge strategic initiative in my shop because it's going to be different. And by the way, the existing students that we have now are now going away. They're still going to be in the system. So how do we then serve the existing current learners that we have and bring in a whole new wave of students that are going to demand something different from us? So those are the three things that keep me up at night as I think about the future of continuing ed.

Shauna Cox (08:50):Absolutely. And it's not small potatoes what those challenges are and how to overcome them. But I do want to dive into that a little bit more and talk about what are some of those best practices to overcome some of these obstacles, or at least start chipping away at finding a solution for them to ensure efficiencies and scalability, especially when it comes to providing that seamless student experience that you mentioned.

Nancy Coleman (09:16):So data, data course, I think you really have to do a lot of reflection on who you're serving, how you're serving them, what are the areas of opportunity, because we're moving fast. Every single one of us in this world moves really fast, and I think it's really easy to sit back and say, our educational product is great. We do a really wonderful job. We've got these great systems, and okay, we do. But if you're not constantly looking ahead and saying maybe there's an opportunity to do it better, to think about the next frontier, to use technology better to any number of things. If you're not constantly thinking about reinventing yourself, I think you're missing an opportunity to really engage in best practices. Certainly in our world, there are strong communities like CA and like other organizations that really foster collaboration and relationship building between those of us in this business.

(10:22):And I know that's really been hugely beneficial to Harvard and to me personally in my career. So staying connected with other institutions no matter who they are or what they do, and just being open to learn, I think is a really important best practice that we all need to continue to adopt because there's great things happening out there. And I don't care if you're a large institution with a lot of money or a small institution with no money. There's really cool innovative things happening in both places and we need to be open so we can see them.

Shauna Cox (10:53):Absolutely. And I think a key component to all of these initiatives, especially when it comes to a CE unit, is getting that level of buy-in from senior leadership and from our report support from senior or support for continuing ed units from senior leadership has fortunately been increasing over the years, but I know that there are still some units who are struggling with that. So how can higher ed leaders and faculty kind of build and gain that support and level of buy-in from senior leadership for their initiatives that they want to do to help tackle the student experience and start delivering more of that seamless student experience?

Nancy Coleman (11:33):I think the absolute best thing that you could do, Shauna, is tell your story. Because I know I take a look at our own situation here at Harvard. For many years, we didn't tell our story and we let people make up our story. Other administrators at the university, students, and if you don't take control of your own narrative, people don't understand. People outside of continuing ed don't always understand what continuing ed is, and I can see why it's such a broad based term. It can be pottery classes, it can be degree classes. So controlling that narrative internally and telling people at your institution who you are, what you do, who are the learners that you serve, and more importantly than any of that, the outcomes that your program achieves. I think sometimes at Harvard, there's this misperception about who we serve, but when I start telling alumni stories or these incredible experiences that our students have had and have been able to have because of the education that they've gotten with us in continuing ed, people stand up and take notice.


Like, oh, okay, that's not who I thought that you served. So I think the best thing that we could possibly do is continue to tell our story, continue to use any opportunities that we have to get out in the university and make sure people are aware of what you're doing. And not only that, but what you are doing fits in with the mission of the institution at large, right? Because there is a place at the table for continuing ed. I think a lot of institutions now are sort of waking up to that and saying, oh, there's this whole other market that we haven't been serving, especially with the enrollment cliff and all of those stories that we're hearing all the time. How do we really serve a different audience and where does serving the adult learner market in a continuing ed focused way, how does that add value to the mission of the institution? And I would argue that it adds tremendous value. People don't know that unless you tell them.

Shauna Cox (13:35):I love the idea of telling your story, and it can even be the story of your division specifically at Harvard, and then the stories within the stories within the stories. There's always so many stories to tell, and I kind of want to expand on what you were talking about there and talking about what impact does that have and that level of support have, not only on the CE unit, but also the ripple effect that it's going to create across the institution.

Nancy Coleman (14:05):Yeah, I think that Harvard is always really interested in telling the story of our alums and our students and the good work that they're doing out in the world. And we've got so many programs right now, and I'll just pick one. We have a sustainability program where the students who are in this program are in it because they want to be practitioners and sustain. They already are. Most of 'em are already doing the work. They just want the academic credential to support it, but they want to make change in the world. And I think the more we can help them, again, tell their story and share what they've learned, not only that, but the good work that they're doing to foster a sustainable future, I think that helps not only the CE unit, but it also helps the institution, right, because it's just a different level of impact.

Shauna Cox (14:55):Absolutely. And the last question, I want to end us off here, and of course I think it's definitely something that we can deep dive into in the future, especially as Harvard will be coming up on its 50th anniversary for its CE division next year. What are some of the trends that you're seeing when it comes to the role of CE playing in that broader institutional strategy?

Nancy Coleman (15:20):So a couple things. One of them I touched on, and that's a recognition by university leadership, that there's a whole different demographic out there that can be well-served and has a place in the continuum. If you think about something like the 60 year curriculum where we're educating adults over a lifetime, and a lot of that is just in time. There is a place for continuing education at the table that supplements maybe people who might have four year degrees that they got when they were 18 to 22. There's lots of different places that CE can play. And I'm starting to see leadership in a lot of different institutions wake up to, Hey, how do we plug this in a meaningful way that makes sense for who we are as an institution? I think the second thing is very similar. It's getting a seat at the table.

(16:14):I know I'm invited to meetings that I probably five years ago wouldn't have been invited to, right? There's a broader awareness of the work that we do and the importance of it. And because of that, we're included in more things in a more holistic manner. And I think one of the things that a lot of my peers were talking about before covid was how do we get a seat at the table? I don't really hear that question anymore. I hear that reframed as how do we use the seat that we now have at the table to really do more good work? So I think that's super exciting and I hope those trends continue.

Shauna Cox (16:54):Absolutely. And that's amazing to see that it is being rephrased and not repeated. Amazing. Well, Nancy, that's all the questions we have for you. But before we let you go, we're going to need a restaurant recommendation from yourself. Now you're based close to Boston, so we're going to go with a restaurant in Boston. Where do people need to go?

Nancy Coleman (17:15):Yeah, well, so can I change that just a little bit if you're okay? Yeah,

Nancy Coleman (17:20):

I think there's, so first of all, the FC A conference was just recently in Boston in the Seaport, and you can't go wrong with any restaurant in the Seaport. I love it there. But for anyone coming to Boston that wants to come to Cambridge and visit Harvard, there's a little place actually across the street from our office. It's a bar that serves food. It's called the Longfellow Bar, and it's a really cool, funky place. They have really interesting food and they have terrific cocktails. So that's where you'll find me if anybody wants to find me some night after work. But it's a really cool place worth checking out.

Shauna Cox (17:52):Amazing. I absolutely love that. And I was also a part of the EA conference, and I can tell you that anything in the seaport, absolutely a hundred percent agree on. You have to taste test a couple of restaurants down there. So that's amazing. Thank you so much, Nancy, for joining me today. I really appreciate you.

Nancy Coleman (18:11):Thanks, Shauna. It was fun.

Voiceover: Thank you so much for checking out our 150th episode of illumination by modern campus. Whether you’re a long-time listener or hearing us for the first time, we greatly appreciate your support. Now one thing you may have caught onto is that we love to grab a restaurant recommendation from our guests. And it wouldn’t be a special episode if we didn’t provide our listeners with a little something. 

So with that, we’ve created a webpage where you can access all of the great recommendations from our guests all in one spot—no need to comb through any episodes to remember that one place someone recommended in a city that you happen to be nearby. 

To access this list, please visit