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A look at lifelong learning

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Season 1, Episode 4


The sudden emergence of COVID-19 has forced higher education institutions around the world to reevaluate how they will teach their students by looking into the best ways to deliver education online.

In this episode, Amanda Cupido speaks with Gary Hepburn, Dean of Ryerson’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, about the challenges brought on by the global pandemic and how online learning can provide a more accessible and flexible learning environment for students.

AMANDA: This is the Forefront — a Ryerson podcast about big problems and smart solutions.

I’m Amanda Cupido.

So here’s the problem: COVID-19 has forced higher education institutions around the world to reevaluate how they will teach their students. It’s brought to the forefront a conversation about the best ways to deliver education online.

GARY: “Suddenly we were closing the campus and, um, and going completely online”

AMANDA: That’s Gary Hepburn. He’s the Dean of the Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.

GARY: “we cover continuing education and online learning for Ryerson.”

AMANDA: With more than 400 online courses and an annual enrolment of 70,000 students, The Chang School is Canada’s largest and most successful continuing education program. And it’s already a leader in the field of online education. 

But earlier this year, when COVID-19 emerged, Gary and his team faced a big challenge. They had to figure out how to bring all of their Spring - Summer courses completely online. Typically, 28,000 students register for the Spring - Summer semester at the Chang School, and only 40% of them are online learners. If the school didn’t transition everyone online, they risked losing 60% of their revenue. So how did they manage it?

GARY: “we really had two main strategies… there may have been some courses that we weren't planning to offer that we brought back online for the spring summer. Also, we added sections to courses just to open up more places for students.

We took many of our classroom courses and began to virtualize them. So this isn't the same as developing an online course. It's a very quick conversion process, mainly led by faculty members themselves…and you know what  I must really get the huge shout out to faculty here and their instructors…

The end result of all of this was not only did we make up all of the enrolments and get back to 28,000 after losing 60%, we actually exceeded it. And I think our final numbers ended up in the area of about 32,000. So we actually ended up setting in a moment record during that time.

AMANDA: Now, for the first time in the Chang school's 20-year history, all courses are being delivered exclusively online. Impressively, Fall enrolment is up by 51%. So what can other postsecondary institutions learn from the Chang School’s success?

GARY: Online learning is having a moment. Um, it's not the way any of us who worked in online learning ever imagined we’d have our moment where we had to do a frantic rush to put everything online , but one way or another. . students and faculty have gotten rapid exposure to this method of delivery.

AMANDA: And this exposure over the last 8 months is driving the Chang School to rethink how they design online courses. Here’s Gary:

GARY: The technology matured just in time for COVID and was really ready to be deployed at that time. And now we're beginning to rethink the online learning experience where we have tended to avoid live elements of it in the past, or mostly avoid them, w e're beginning to think that they may be a major part of the course — supplementing in some zoom sessions used in a thoughtful way to support student learning, we think is a major component and probably something that is going to stick with us all as we go forward.

AMANDA: But even though video conferencing software has been key to transitioning learning online, Gary also champions a broader rethinking of how students access instruction and materials. This includes things like asynchronous delivery of video resources, incorporating interactive elements like discussion groups, and exploring more diverse assessment activities.

GARY: “Exams are just really one way to assess learning.”

AMANDA: This type of flexibility is essential for working students and those who are tuning in from different time zones, like Nilima Chopra, a communications specialist with an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto, Scarborough

NILIMA: My name is Nilima Chopra. I am currently with the Chang school for a certificate in public relations. I started the certificate in March of 2018 and hopefully, this next semester, finishing in December, 2020, I will be done.

AMANDA: Like 78% of Chang school students, Nilima is working full-time while completing her certificate. The difference is, she’s doing it from Dubai, where she is 8 hours ahead of most of her classmates. 

NILIMA: It is demanding. , you do need to dedicate time. You do need to dedicate effort. There's lots of group collaborative work. They're trying to make as interactive as possible, but they also realize like, Oh, okay, you're across the world. And maybe you're not going to do it at the same time as everybody else. There's obviously advantages and disadvantages, but I truly feel as an international student, there are way more advantages than disadvantages.

AMANDA: A competitive job market and desire to hone her skills and find her career path brought Nilima to the Chang School.

NILIMA: My business writing has definitely improved. Tasks like memos and presentations and I think Ryerson  gives you great hands on experience. Stuff like communication plans, and budgeting, and this has been skills that I've learned over the last two or three years where it's like in my role now I am at that next level and it's thanks to the the certificate. And actually my managers and my supervisors have acknowledged that it's due to the learning.


AMANDA: Delivering the postsecondary experience online also requires considering student life beyond the classroom.  

GARY: We’re just hitting the time now where a lot of universities are beginning to think about how they serve a student that prefers to be almost entirely online…a lot of the services that go along to compliment courses…They tend to be associated with the campus. So while technically they are available to online students, we haven't thought a great deal about how to make them appropriately available to online students. Registrarial services, how the bookstore works, student advising, mental health counseling, many of the activities, athletic facilities, this all looks a little bit different to the online student, of course, because  they're either unable or, or chose not to come to campus.

So those services which are largely campus based to support them, um, you know, I think there's a real sense that those services weren't made for them. 

AMANDA: Gary says this needs to change, especially as the school doesn’t anticipate returning to in-person learning for another year.

It’s also important for students like Taimur Khan, who come to the school in order to expand their skills AND their professional network. 

TAIMUR: My name is Taimur Khan and I am a part-time student at Ryerson. I am studying for my strategic marketing certificate. I started  back in may of this year. 

I moved to this country about, just about two and a half, coming up to three years now.

And, uh, even though I came here with lots of experience, I realized that if I was to move forward, I'll have to brush up my skills again and when I spoke to a few people around me, they recommended, I probably need to get some local education on my resume.

AMANDA: Before moving to Canada, Taimur worked in advertising in Karachi, as a flight Stewart for Emirates Airlines, and owned his own e-commerce business. A Chang School academic counsellor helped him find the right program to round out his skillset. 

TAIMUR: Because I had been away from studies for more than 10 years, things have changed. So it's giving me a fresh perspective to the whole consumer behavior…Our professor has actually emphasize more on how things have, , panned out during the pandemic and  moving forward?  how we think things will look. So it's an interesting perspective to being studying at the moment.

AMANDA: But that pandemic also posed a potential road block to Taimur’s goal of building a network in Canada.

TAIMUR: I think I'm slowly and gradually meeting interesting people, which was one of my intentions.

Actually you know, I don't have  any social circle or any circle in this country? I have my aunt and uncle. They don't have any kids. Uh, they live in the same building where we live. If I were to look into my cell phone, uh, I probably can count the contacts I have in Toronto. Canada have to be very honest.

So meeting with people was one of the main agendas for going back to school.And I think it's happening slowly and gradually so I'm pretty happy.

AMANDA: For Nilima too, the connections she’s made have been a key part of the experience. 

NILIMA: I think I made the right decision with Chang school, I’ve made great connections in terms of just fellow students and colleagues. And, you know, I think, especially in my field, the job markets are hard. It's all about networking. And I think Chang school really does that for its students. 

AMANDA: So what does the future of learning look like in a post-pandemic world?

If we look to the examples from the Chang School, it looks like technology that makes a live learning experience possible. It looks like a flexible approach to how students access of materials and instruction. And it looks like a framework and culture that serves students beyond the classroom.

Here’s Gary again: 


GARY: I anticipate that one of the big changes is going to be probably courses that are more hybrid in nature. Yes, they're classroom courses, but part of the contact hours will be taken care of with online learning.

What we think really separates Ryerson from everybody else is we are providing the same quality learning that students receive when they're doing their degrees. What students receive from the Chang school. Is every bit as good as what they receive in the university in general, but it is also delivered in a way that is thinking of them. If they require flexibility or particular modes of delivery, then we have a lot of variety for them. And that comes out of a strong background collaboration between the Chang school and the faculties we work with.

AMANDA: And that’s all for this episode of the Forefront.

This podcast was created for alumni and friends by University Advancement at Ryerson.

Special thanks to our guests on today’s episode: Taimur Khan, Nilima Chopra, and Gary Hepburn.

I’m your host, and proud Ryerson grad, Amanda Cupido.

For more information about the Chang School of Continuing Education, and more episodes of this podcast and others, visit, opens in new window.

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