UPCEA 2022 Key Takeaways: Lessons From a Pandemic and How PCO Remains Relevant

UPCEA’s 2022 Annual Conference gathered the professional, continuing, and online education (PCO) community for the first time in two years. As the pandemic shifted education in unprecedented ways, experts across the industry shared strategies, solutions, and experiences to remain relevant in a post-pandemic world. Below are three key trends that can help higher education institutions better serve learners, and successfully support working adults to access upward mobility.

1. Digital Badging, Micro-Courses, and Micro-Credentials

Short-form learning continues to serve as a strategy to maintain relevance for PCO post-pandemic. Building upon micro-courses and micro-credentials, some universities – such as UNC Chapel Hill and UC Irvine – are creating digital badging programs to support lifelong learning for nontraditional students, both academically and professionally.

“If you’re not doing it [digital badging], then you’re going to be left behind.” – UPCEA Attendee from UC Irvine

As 44% of U.S. adults without a college degree consider enrolling in an education program, digital badging can attract a larger audience. Guild noticed a sharp increase in applications for certificate programs just a few months into the onset of the pandemic (1). Similar to short-form certificate programs, the length and format of digital badging programs can accommodate the lives of working adults. Digital badging allows working adults to see a tangible skill that can be applied to their careers, making education more relevant to the workforce. More high-quality short-form learning programs have the potential to open up opportunities for working adult learners. This opportunity is magnified if short-form learning can build toward a degree whilst maintaining the flexibility of a shorter program.

2. Inclusive Online Learning Programs for Students With Disabilities

Institutions committed to supporting students of various backgrounds understand the importance of access, inclusion, and equity. To promote these ideals, universities are taking data-driven approaches to make online learning programs more equitable. Focusing on students with disabilities, 39% of Oregon State University’s eCampus courses (a Guild partner institution) have at least one student with disability-related accommodations. OSU’s assistant director of disability, Earlee Kerekes-Mishra, said, “Access is the bare minimum. We want to highlight inclusion.” 

As we revisit previous ideas of educational equity, accessibility is no longer enough. Making education accessible and inclusive for students with disabilities, especially for nontraditional students like working adult learners, requires additional work that is intentionally designed for the success of all students. OSU centers inclusion at different stages of each student’s journey, from student recruitment (e.g. closed caption on university marketing videos) to graduation (e.g. Bridges to Success). 

As higher education focuses on creating an inclusive online learning environment, employers are also prioritizing disability inclusion. Fortune 500 companies — such as JPMorgan Chase and Microsoft — are integrating neurodiverse people into the workplace to meet talent needs. This combination of support in higher education and the workforce creates a more supportive ecosystem to increase opportunity for nontraditional students with disabilities.

3. Promoting Equity Through Education

In UPCEA 2022’s opening session, Aimée Eubanks Davis, founder and CEO of Braven, agreed that education and career mobility serve as the key to promoting equity within our society. To accomplish this, Davis claims you must pride yourself on understanding the context of the student. Student experiences must inform equity initiatives in education. Similarly, in designing for the working adult learner, student context is especially important.

UCF observed the displacement of local workers during COVID-19 and launched ChargeUP! This free skills-based program aims to “make education more accessible and affordable, and create a sustainable and aligned model for upskilling the workforce across the country.” Through its program, UCF not only allowed workers to upskill, but sought to uplift its local community during a time of uncertainty.

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted higher education. PCO is taking initiative and leveraging what they have learned from the pandemic’s emergency online learning to innovate programs that effectively meet students’ evolving needs. Many universities are building permanent online learning programs, cementing these programs as a formal extension of universities’ academic initiatives and excellence.

Most universities provided online learning programs in some capacity, however PCO attempts to make these programs sustainable. By focusing on DE&I and short-form learning strategies, PCO is helping engage and support nontraditional students. This educational access promotes inclusivity and equity, allowing students to attain education to achieve their desired next steps and ultimate goals.


(1) Guild’s internal data comparing applications submitted pre-COVID from 06.01.19 to 03.01.20 and applications submitted during COVID from 03.01.20 to 12.01.20). During the onset of COVID-19, Guild experienced a 149% increase in applications for certificate programs.


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Written by Natasha Nguyen

Partnerships & Events Marketing, Guild Learning Marketplace

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