Illumination by Modern Campus

April-Dawn Blackwell (Brock University) on The Mandates of Higher Ed to Serve Its Community

March 23, 2023 Modern Campus
April-Dawn Blackwell (Brock University) on The Mandates of Higher Ed to Serve Its Community
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
April-Dawn Blackwell (Brock University) on The Mandates of Higher Ed to Serve Its Community
Mar 23, 2023
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by April-Dawn Blackwell to discuss how Continuing Education has evolved in recent years and the heightened awareness needed to serve your community. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by April-Dawn Blackwell to discuss how Continuing Education has evolved in recent years and the heightened awareness needed to serve your community. 

Voiceover (00:05): Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast, focus on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today's episode, we speak with April Dawn Blackwell, who is Associate Vice President of Professional and Continuing Studies at Brock University. April Dawn and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss how continuing education has evolved in recent years and the heightened awareness needed to serve your community. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:33): April Dawn, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (00:37): Thanks, Amrit. It's a pleasure to be here. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:39): So, I, I'm curious, as you look, you know, at where continuing education has come, how have you seen our space evolve over the last five years? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (00:50): Well, as everyone should and, and does, we, we talk about the global pandemic being sort of, uh, the catalyst, uh, that moved forward. I think a lot of good initiatives that were already in place and practices that were already in place, that to evolve how we offer, what we, what we offer in higher education. So online has been around, I remember launching some of my first online, uh, programming, uh, almost 15 years ago on a North American basis. And, and then more recently, you know, on a, a global basis. So I think in the last five years, there's been so much change that, you know, has been necessitated because of the, the pandemic and, and the desire and need for us to continue to serve, um, in the education that we're delivering. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But that being said, I, I think, you know, what has also been, you know, happening in the last five years is we've really started to even more so maybe hone in on, would be the appropriate way of saying how do we support our learners? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (01:54): You know, I, I remember, you know, back in the d the day, we won't we'll call it two decades ago, to be honest, um, when I was in post-secondary for my first time, and we had student supports in place, but they're not like we do today. So we really look at what kinds of, um, mental health supports are, uh, to be offered. What kind of, um, academic advising can be offered in higher education. How are we finding the right program fit for an individual learner? So I think in the last five years, we've seen more of that happening in higher education from a continuing education, uh, lens. I've enjoyed working in an adult education. I, I gained, you know, for 10 years in a national space prior to the role that I'm hosting, I'm privileged to be in now. And, and I think in the last five years, again, we've seen an even more honed in focus on what is the labor market mm-hmm. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (02:50): And how do we serve the labor market? And, and not just from, you know, an an individual employee or employer lens, but from a systemic lens and systematic approach. So I'm having great conversations with people now about how do, how do we scale the builds that we do? And, and we've seen, you know, the growth of organizations like e campus facilitating, you know, uh, that space. Um, so different work happening across, um, a variety of provinces, um, across the country, working really hard at what we can do in higher education to, to meet the learner and then meet the learner and the societal needs that we have to have in place for, for how, how we address things that are happening in the world around us. Um, and I could, I could go on, uh, for a lot that those are some personal and professional fashion topics. Um, the three Ps and answer to your question, there's some of those areas that stem outside of just pure program creation that we're looking beyond, um, uh, and even more so than we might have done so in the past. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (03:59): Yeah, absolutely. You know, what's it, it strikes me that we're really oriented around the, the learner and we're really oriented around ensuring that the post-secondary environment is, is designed for the learner. And, and, you know, flipping through your LinkedIn, um, you know, you're at Brock now, you've been there for about two years. For, for our American listeners, Brock University is, is, as the name suggests, university in, in southwest Ontario and St. Catherine's. But prior to that, um, you were at Conestoga College, uh, Centennial College. Hum College. How are you seeing the orientation towards student first dynamics changing the university space, and are you starting to see some of that sort of student first mentality that's common in the college space, making its way into the four year, uh, environment? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (04:44): Um, I, I would say Brock, um, in, and my short time that I've been here is, is continuing to teach me a lot about how student-centered looks in a university capacity. So, um, yes, my, my learner background, you know, stemmed from a college, and then for 10 years I was in executive education nationally and working internationally. So I think, you know, what, what we probably haven't done, or maybe it's it's my perspective is highlighted all of these services, um, at the university level, you know, Brock is number one. Um, and a number of things, um, that it does for student services, those are from rankings or from our own student feedback, um, services and supports. Uh, so we take that really, um, to heart and, and then talking with colleagues at other universities through the associations that exist, um, in Ontario, um, out west, um, as well as, as, uh, nationally. The learner is really almost that Venn diagram, that pivot point of, is this good for the learner? Then let's have a discussion about what we're to do differently. Um, if it's not, so, I, I would say I'm, I am privileged to be learning more about that space in, in the university, uh, four year degree. Um, but I'm, I'm excited by what I've seen so far. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (06:13): I am curious as well, just like reflecting back on, on your, your professional experience a little bit. As you think about adult education, delivery of adult learning in informal post-secondary environments, compared to your experience with the Canadian Management Center, compared with your experience at be o what are some of the best practices from the corporate training space that higher ed institutions should look to adopt? And by the same token, I mean, what are some of the true differentiators of the post-secondary space that make it an interesting spot for, for employers to look for a training partner? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (06:45): I think what, um, we'll say you, you cut your teeth in, in the, you know, private sector, like you, you are actively looking for how to be responsive to the learner, the customer at, at, um, at all instances. So when you're asking for sort of that comparison, um, that was a great learning ground for me to not only understand adult pedagogy, but what it means to listen to the learner, listen to the customer, but also know that customer sometimes doesn't know how to describe what they're looking for or how to achieve their goals. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and that's, that's where I, um, really enjoy working in higher ed because we're steeped in Lear knowing how to deliver learning and create learning and, and, um, meet outcomes in different ways. So, so that's, um, a piece where I, I feel, you know, bridging both worlds. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (07:44):There's a lot of I hate the, the buzzword synergies, but there's a lot of synergies that, um, that you see when you're, when you're focused on the learner for, um, the outcomes. And, and that was the case in, in, when I was in the private sector working on executive education and just always working at that, that level of how are you performing? What is the quality that you're delivering, how is it relevant and recent? Um, and then what is that, um, engagement element so that the learner is engaged and therefore able to, you know, uh, understand what they can do with that learning. Um, whether that learning's for research purposes or for, uh, workforce, um, development purposes, I, I see that both of those have bridged and, and, and learning from from each other. I, I tend to think of things as an ecosystem. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (08:42): You know, I've realized that as, as my career has progressed, as is that there's so much learning to be done in the world, um, that I, I view things from an expansive mindset, not a scarcity mindset. What I, what I do, what I do hope is one of the trends in the future is our focus on, um, all of the quality pieces that are put into place in higher ed. I led, um, a division for, uh, measuring quality at an institution for a number of years. And when you look at program development, program review and, and what that means, the quality systems and, and processes and practices that are in place, um, in colleges and universities are, are really helpful in understanding, again, from that criteria set of the learn learner and the outcome of that learning and what's the objectives. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (09:38): Absolutely. So, I mean, getting onto the topic of, of trends then, which in fairness is what I teed up, is the thing that we were gonna talk about today, <laugh>. Um, what are some of the trends that you're watching and that you think are gonna most significantly impact our space over the next sort of five to 10 years? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (09:57): Again, back to that ecosystem, things, I don't think we, uh, in higher ed, um, in education, it's, uh, self-teaching and learning can see ourselves in in a box mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, so one of the trends that, that I think is important for us to not only understand from the perspective of who is our, our demographic of learners, and that being different potentially for the cce, you know, continuing education, professional development, workforce development space, as opposed to the, um, what I call like the degree seeking, um, individuals. I think we really have to be mindful of things that are happening outside of the education sphere. So I think one of the trends that I'm watching is just the geopolitical factors, so locally and globally, what's happening in the world around us mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so as a trend, and I don't wanna call it a trend per se, but thankfully we're, we are gaining a heightened awareness of, of social inequities and how social inequities, um, and privilege and belonging, um, we really need to do something about. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (11:07): And so I think higher education as a trend has a role to play in that. So Brock is an exemplar on our accounting programs. We have an amazing list of, uh, humanities program game design. So we're, we're on trend for things that are needed in society, but we also have things that, um, I think from a higher ed space that I see other institutions doing very well is, uh, in addition to where I am at today, is those social programmings, those social inequities. So, uh, that's one of the things that, um, I think as a trend, we need to continue to remember, let's look outside, let's mm-hmm. <affirmative> keep externally scanning on what's needed. Um, and, and I, I've had some great with not only organizations, but leaders of associations, rep representing industry, representing social practice, and how things are moved forward that I think is important for us as well. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (12:07): Um, if, if I can Amrit, I would say another trend Yeah. Is, um, really looking at indigenization and decolonization our diversity equity inclusion. Like what supports are we putting in place? What, what are we doing in terms of strategic practice and, and not doing just as performative measures. I think that's a really good trend that we're seeing, um, more, more hirings of individuals with these skill sets. Um, this, this knowledge is experience looking to more trauma informed teaching, the universal design of learning, our accessibility. Uh, I think those are all a game. We we're putting this under trends, but I think I would say essentials. Yeah. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (12:54): These are responsibilities almost. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (12:56): Yes. Like, it's, it's within our mandate to serve. Right? Yeah. That's when I chat with folks about, um, what are the priorities, um, that we're looking at. It's, yes, we need to look at those foundational skill sets and core competencies to upskill and reskill and workforce development, but how are we moving, um, and capacity building as a society to solve some of the world's problems? And let, and let's keep looking at the uns sustainable development goals as well. The, the other one I think is that we, we touched on in the earlier questions is just that flexibility piece. Yeah. Uh, I think, you know, it's, there's some really great ways to connect with, um, a learning audience that we've, again, was a catalyst through the pandemic, but just creating more opportunities like that. So whether that's through pathways, whether that's through, um, hybrid, high flex, whatever you, you want to call it, that online and even more part-time offerings. You know, we we're seeing lots of, of trends on people with side hustles to make ends meet or out of passion, but, but again, meeting that learner where they are, how are we flexing to be able to create more, um, uh, access for people to acquire the education they want and need? 

Amrit Ahluwalia (14:16): What strikes me again is, you know, you're talking about as a, as a public post-secondary institution, and these are just some of the foundational ways that, that a post-secondary institution can support its community. Um, and what strikes me in, in, in the topics you're highlighting is they kind of, they really do revolve around, you know, student centricity in a very different light, right? So we're talking about access for underserved communities, we're talking about making education more relevant and, uh, and more accessible for folks that, that might not have, you know, the ability to do courses from nine to five Monday to Friday. We're talking about all these pieces that they live in the DNA of continuing ed. Yes. Like, we're, you know, that's really, really what we're talking about is foundationally, these are, this is sort of what sea units do, and, and we're seeing these responsibilities start to be adopted by what we would consider the, the traditional main campus. So within this dynamic, what role do you see sort of continuing in workforce ed divisions playing in, in creating this flexible, open, accessible post-secondary ecosystem? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (15:21): I'm honored to be part of the Provincial Association of Lifelong Learning for universities. And, um, at the executive conversation, we're talking about advocacy. So one of the trends that came up is like, let's be advocating for the things that we could bring to, to the table. And, and if I may, the survey that you're doing now with ku Yes. Uh, right, like scanning, what is the data that we could be bringing to the table to share that CE has been known for and has been doing for decades? Literally decades? And I love your analogy of the d n A, it's, it's, it is how we start our thinking of the programming. You know, it's, it is, that's the genesis of what, what can we do to serve and we'll meet the need? And, and then that's where, you know, we start to, to, uh, to focus our energies. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (16:18): So I think in terms of our role, I think it's advocacy. So getting that data out there, getting that knowledge out there, sharing, um, and, and looking for ways that, how, how we could, if I can bake into the system that already exists, uh, what we could do together. So, uh, when I had my quality hat on and, and, uh, looked at how do we develop programs, so where do we develop, you know, uh, undergrad, grad, that whole credit bearing, um, side of post, uh, secondary and higher ed to when we review them. So I think how do we bake in the CE practices, the CE knowledge part? Like, let's not do it at the end as an after consideration, you know, uh, not looking past the undergrad as a four year event to lifelong learning and creating those 40 year, 50 year learning plans for people that under that then helps them understand where their career is going in a clear line of sight. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (17:23): It's so important to get your, um, diplomas, uh, but be prepared to come back in five years for some advanced, uh, learning now that you have even more experience, um, outside of your co-op and experiential and workplace learning that you had in your program. So I think ce, the world of CE has a lot to offer in current practice around program development and program review. So let's bake it in, um, let's not add, you know, more work. And one of the love, uh, love things that I, I, um, I've had is being part of like little mini, uh, incubator hubs mm-hmm. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (18:04): So using as maybe as, uh, ce as the little speedboat that could try things out <laugh> Yeah. For the larger institution, because we, we are by the very nature of it, needing to be more nimble and responsive, uh, with, with, um, quality practice in place, but maybe we're the speedboat that we, you know, advance, see what's needed in, in the future, and then come back and, and look at how that fits into the core, uh, mandate of the larger, you know, steamship that is also necessary in carrying all the goods <laugh>. Right. It's just 

Amrit Ahluwalia (18:43): I like that. Yeah. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (18:44): It, because it's, yeah. People have o often also asked me, you know, uh, is shorter duration going to diminish the value of, of a degree of a diploma? And I sincerely hope we never change policy or practice to do that, that there is so much fundamentally that can be learned, um, in your programming, uh, to achieve, like I I myself having done, you know, college and university, uh, as an international student and as a domestic student, those learning experiences, um, just being in those programs, the content, the students, the in the faculty instructors is a, is an amazing foundation to participating in the workforce and how CE can be woven in to those ex those experiences for that longer lifelong learning journey would be, would be really helpful. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (19:43): Absolutely. What are the first steps? How does a leader, uh, in a continuing ed unit start to move their divisions and their respective institutions in, in this direction? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (19:56): I wish I had all of the answers to that. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (19:58): The million question, I suppose. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (20:00): Yeah. It's, it's, um, and, and I think one of the things I have learned after being, um, in the edu education world for over 20 years is you always need to keep learning and listening. Um, so what I would say is, is leaders really need to understand the culture of their institutions. And in some cases, those things can be like, you can actually organize around practical next step process changes. Um, in other cases, it's about collaboration internally with, with the folks that, um, have the interest in capacity and, and need to get alternative, um, programming options out there through ce. And then they can start to see where those opportunities to make, to integrate, uh, live, you know, and, and why I say like, there's, there's no one, um, one silver bullet or panacea effort is that you see large corporations doing those incubator hubs, right? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (21:00): Like when something's new, take it offsite, so it's not influenced directly by preexisting culture and practice. Yeah. And then, uh, and then others do from the very start, how, how do we start influencing change, um, to, to make those connections earlier or systematically, uh, through our processes. So I don't have a simple answer, but what I, what I would say is really looking at how we create less restrictions for each other, uh, like when, when we look at, um, when we talk about processes, um, and approvals and, and, uh, information sharing. So when you use example, like a racy chart, like who's advising who needs this for information, and then who's, who really is the core, um, that needs to move things forward and being thoughtful about those processes you put in pri place so that you're not creating more bureaucracy, which then takes away from the nimble, responsive, um, opportunities, uh, as well. So, sorry, Amit, not a one answer if fits all. No, 

Amrit Ahluwalia (22:12): It's an interesting point though. And, and I just, cause I, I want to step on this topic a little bit further, but, you know, we're talking those operational obstacles. The, the practice of, of continuing education, lifelong learning is, is foundationally different from the practice of, of traditional post-secondary education in the way it's delivered, the way it's organized, the way it's managed. But in so many cases, non-degree or continuing ed divisions have to use technology systems, tools, processes that are designed for a semester-based cohort oriented model. How do you navigate that gap between the operational needs of being successful in a flexible space and an operational infrastructure that is inflexible? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (22:59): I almost wanna pull the thread on saying in the operational infrastructure that's inflexible. I, like, I if I may, um, that's, that's where I see just taking the opportunity to question those old paradigmsand looking for, not, not in a naive way, but, but looking at the paradigm of saying semester driven. You know, you, I was an associate dean in a former life. Like I know withdrawal dates and academic penalty and transcript, man, like, I, you know, you need to give your faculty time, uh, to mark. Like there are reasons for academic calendars and lots of practices. That being said though, in, I was just recently having a conversation, uh, with a professor, and they were asking me, how could I take what I do and make it more available to other people? So I s like, I see more people, you know, pr um, asking the questions about h how do I make things available? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (24:02): So from an operational standpoint, one of the things that I, I think we look at, you know, in my background of, of process re-engineering or, or operational compete pieces, is looking at what are the time-based elements that cannot change? And then what are the deliverables that, you know, from our qual qualifications framework from the ministries, right? Like, what are those govern governance pieces that need to stay in place? But that being said, I, I do see there's opportunity to flex technology is potentially in service of us in this area. Uh, I don't think holistically changing everything is the answer, but looking at, you know, one, one of the things that we looked at recently, um, was literally time. So h how does time serve the learner and the institution and what we're trying to achieve from a, a process point of view. So when we look at time, how do we be less restrictive based on, um, the time we need to do things that the student needs to do, things that, uh, in order to achieve that learning. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (25:11): So again, I think it's stepping back and that's, you know, where I mentioned the incubator, like the hubs of Yeah. Getting some good minds, not keeping the old paradigms in place while respecting that change is not gonna happen next week. Like the, like these are, these are big questions. Yeah. Um, like big questions that when we look at decolonizing, um, institutions as well, right? Like that's where, again, asking ourselves, we have set these institution higher ed institutions up and essentially have told people they're not allowed in unless we approve them in. Yeah. And I love, you know, that there's reasons we want to set people up for success, right? We don't want someone coming into a program and then failing out in the first semester. That's not setting up a learner for success. But that being said, h how do we continue to look at old paradigms and understand what CE does to, to meet the learner where they are with quality practices and strong learning principles, and take that into the manageable pieces that we can change in higher ed. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (26:28): April Dawn, I, I so appreciate your time. Just as we close, obviously St. Catherine's is, is, uh, within the Niagara Peninsula, uh, southwestern Ontario. If someone finds themselves in your town, where do they need to go for dinner? 

April-Dawn Blackwell (26:41): There's so many great places. Uh, I am and, uh, because of like Niagara on the lake, but, but in the heart of St. Catherine's, I've had gain back to my quality and, and days working in hospitality when I was putting myself through school. Um, odd Bird has amazing service. The selection of food is, uh, some local and um, really, really well curated, uh, menu items. So had a great time there. Cozy picnic table. It even started to drizzle. It was great. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (27:14): It's hard not to love that. April Dawn, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. 

April-Dawn Blackwell (27:18):Thanks, Amrit. I appreciate this opportunity. Honored to be here today. 

Voiceover: This podcast is made possible by a partnership between Modern Campus and The EvoLLLution. The Modern Campus engagement platform, powered solutions for non-traditional student management, web content management, catalog and curriculum management, student engagement and development, conversational text messaging, career pathways, and campus maps and virtual tours. The result innovative institutions can create learner to earner life cycle that engages modern learners for life, while providing modern administrators with the tools needed to streamline workflows and drive high efficiency. To learn more and to find out how to modernize your campus, visit That's