University Rankings

Mature students ditch lockdown for the virtual classroom

The pandemic sparked a return to school among mature students and recent grads seeking to change careers

Sophie Gray was working as a journalist for a South Okanagan newspaper in British Columbia when the pandemic hit. “Sales were down, staff were laid off and it was very difficult to go out and find local stories,” she says. “There was no room for advancement at that moment; everything was stationary. It didn’t feel like you would be set back by returning to school.” She wound up leaving her job to pursue a full-time public relations certificate at Simon Fraser University Continuing Studies. “I think the pandemic pushed many people to realize that their career isn’t ideal or that it’s not what they really want long-term,” she says.

It also seems to have pushed them back into class—at least a virtual one. Canadian universities are reporting an increase in the number of mature students, as well as recent graduates enrolling in online studies. “Normally, our total registration in online and in-person courses [for spring/summer] is about 28,000,” says Gary Hepburn, dean of Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education. “This spring, it reached over 30,000 in online courses alone.” York University’s School of Continuing Studies also noted an unexpected surge in registration. “We saw a 50 per cent increase in enrolments year-to-date over last year from mid-career professionals pursuing university-level continuing education programs,” says the school’s vice-president, Tracey Taylor-O’Reilly.

The reasons motivating adult learners to return to school range from experiencing job loss and seeing lasting disruptions in their industry to taking advantage of the extra time at home to develop new or further expertise. “Before COVID, I had a good job, but my skills were self-taught. I lacked confidence in the foundational skills of my field,” says Lily Quynh-Thu, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in urban planning before taking on a graphic designer role at an experiential marketing agency in Mississauga, Ont.

Post-COVID, Quynh-Thu was laid off from her job. “We worked on big events—exhibits, conventions—and all of these were cancelled,” she says. Anticipating the ways her industry could transform after the pandemic, Quynh-Thu enrolled in an eight-month user experience design certificate program at York’s School of Continuing Studies. “A lot of events are going virtual and there is more need to understand the online user experience in my field,” she says.

Quynh-Thu’s decision fits with a trend described by Sheila LeBlanc, president-elect of the Canadian Association for University Continuing Education (CAUCE) and director of continuing education at the University of Calgary. “At CAUCE, we have noticed an increase in our short-cycle programs that prepare people for a pivot in their career,” says LeBlanc. Short-term certificate programs usually consist of between four and eight courses and tend to be very career-focused. At the Chang School, enrolment in these types of courses more than tripled through this year’s spring and summer terms compared to the same time last year. Many certificate programs have an “open entry” process with few or no entry requirements and enrol students on a first-come, first-served basis. Still, many students who pursue continuing studies have already spent time at university. “When we look at the statistics, 73 per cent of our students have bachelor’s degrees,” says Hepburn.

Educational institutions are monitoring the changing demands in the job market. “There are now tools that scrape online job postings to identify high-demand qualifications,” says LeBlanc. In May, York’s School of Continuing Studies surveyed 124 senior executives across Canada’s largest employers, including Microsoft, Scotiabank and Rogers, within fields that align with the school’s programs. In response to employer and student demands, the school recently launched two new programs in blockchain and one in information privacy.

Students are also increasingly interested in programs that they view as “relevant to the times and that would enable them to make a contribution,” says Ryerson’s Hepburn. The school’s disaster emergency management certificate program saw a 433 per cent increase in enrolment from the same period last year, while the advanced safety management certification program grew by 383 per cent.

The spike in student interest in continuing education is served by the growing range of options to choose from. The push to convert in-person classes into digital formats was already under way when COVID-19 hit, but the crisis has given a powerful drive to quickly “bulk up” online courses. The University of Calgary’s offerings have increased threefold. “Before the pandemic, 27 per cent of our professional continuing education programs were online; this semester, it’s 81 per cent,” says LeBlanc. Some of this growth is also expected to continue after the pandemic, as more students try online learning with positive outcomes. “Student surveys show that those who never considered taking an online course prior have now done so and had a great experience,” explains LeBlanc.

The current trends suggest adult learners may increasingly pursue further education in the future. “If we are going to be a competitive economic society, lifelong learning for all industries and all individuals in different walks of life is more critical than ever,” says LeBlanc. “This is because of the decreasing half-life of knowledge and how quickly jobs and roles are changing. This pandemic has made anyone entering the workforce recognize the importance of continuous knowledge acquisition more than ever before.”

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