Higher Education’s Biggest Challenge? Finding a Model that Meets the Demands of a Changing Workforce, MET Dean Zlateva Tells ‘Modern Campus’ Podcast

As dean of Boston University Metropolitan College (MET), Dean Tanya Zlateva is steeped in matters of online course delivery, development, and the means of bringing professional education approaches to traditional research university settings. In a conversation featured in a recent episode of Modern Campus’s “Illumination” podcast, Dean Zlateva explained that her experience having designed some of the first online courses at BU was as formative as it was instructional.

“I believe the big challenge for higher education—in general, but especially a challenge that is very acute for research universities—is finding a new, sustainable model for educating a rapidly and continually changing workforce,” she said.

Traditional higher education and its online and professional counterpart, she found, have somewhat differing central missions, and as research universities aim to adopt online and professional education approaches to compete in the emergent knowledge economy, finding a balance is a priority.

“While the traditional faculty prioritizes the creation of new knowledge, the continuing education unit is looking at how to deliver, right now, the knowledge that is needed and the skills that are needed,” Zlateva said.

The modern skills market demands college-level experience and accreditation, and most higher education delivery modes, as Dean Zlateva put it, “are not exactly friendly for working adults.” Instead, she said, course delivery models need to be flexible and responsive to the dynamic professional environment, while offering meaningful upskilling to those who are looking to develop professional acumen to sustain them in careers that last longer in accordance with longer lifespans.

The job market is flush with opportunities in computing, information, and intelligence processing, while other forms of work are becoming obsolete. It’s a common industrial cycle, Zlateva explained, where some forms of work disappear while others bud and flourish, but never before has the pace of change been faster, or have people lived longer and had more life to consider and prepare for.

Blending the need to meet the traditional research obligations and expectations of academia while staying as up to date with industry developments as the professional class can be difficult—especially as students seek education that can serve and last them decades. Still, making these missions meet is critical to the future, and viability, of universities far and wide.

While modern research is increasingly narrowcast in detail, Zlateva explained, “That is not what professional education needs. The professional education curriculum has to be in very close touch with industry demands.”

For some learners, it’s been decades since they were instructed in a foundational education like math. Being attentive to those basic needs, while integrating industry tools and keeping pace with rapidly evolving practices, is too great a burden for faculty to shoulder alone—especially in addition to their teaching responsibilities. These are challenges experts in continuing and professional education know well, and Zlateva sees an opportunity for more willing and open collaboration between faculty and experienced instructional designers to ensure optimal delivery and meet the ongoing needs of students.

Zlateva—who cowrote a chapter in Fielding University Press’s upcoming second edition of its Handbook of Online Learning, dealing with best practices in the field—sees a need for a change in culture. Faculty like to teach more than they like to learn, and their occasional reluctance to adopt new technology demands that skilled instructional designers must be empowered to bring to bear their knowledge in what works best in online coursework, especially as it pertains to experiential learning.

The situation requires not only traditional residential offerings but also online, hybrid, and even non-credit models. And achieving a blend is, ultimately, a win for student learners, who can grow comfortable intaking and disseminating information online—in a world that increasingly demands it.

For more on the ways research universities can benefit from the expertise of continuing education units and learn to collaborate with support in research and student outcomes, listen to Dean Zlateva’s interview at The Evolllution.