Saint Leo opened the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs during the summer in a digital space housed on the university website. The center aspires to be an educational provider of choice, focused on addressing the continuing education needs of the current workforce. While the center offers programs unlike those found in a traditional university experience, it was started in the same spirit that motivated the founders of the university more than a century ago: to fulfill the needs of prospective learners.
What makes the center distinct is its speed and flexibility. It operates apart from the academic colleges that each create degree programs that require longer periods of committed study, and it pivots more easily to meet marketplace needs. The center also helps individuals meet challenges that will arise at certain points in their careers.
People who have completed some level of formal education or workplace training still find, on a regular basis, that they need to learn new techniques, business processes, or programs, or revisit material, explained Dr. Cindy Lee, director of the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs. This happens because applied practices and knowledge for work environments now become outdated quickly, in as little as four years, Lee said. Additionally, disruptions in the economy can force people to look for new work requiring new skill sets, as the recession created by the novel coronavirus has done.
“Naturally, we didn’t expect the pandemic and resulting economic damage when we started the center,” Lee said. “But we hope any alumni who find they could use new skills will turn to our programs to see if we might meet their needs.”
Those looking for new work, those trying to advance in their careers, and adults who are simply interested in new areas of knowledge are all candidates who should consider “upskilling” through the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs, according to Lee.
The array of course offerings available through the center is already broad. Instruction in so-called soft skills—such as effective writing, public speaking, or overall workplace communications skills—is available because so many business owners and executives complain that those capabilities are often lacking in employees and potential new hires.
Hard skills are offered as well, such as statistical process control and various computer programs and robotics. Data analytics and data visualization are among the more analytically-oriented skills that businesses want more employees to possess, Lee added.
Both hard and soft skills are desired in industry sectors across the contemporary economy. As prospective learners look through the center’s website, they will see next to the course information on the amount of time in hours or weeks courses are expected to take. The cost of each course is also clearly visible. Some courses offer certificates upon completion. Pricing is set on a course-by-course basis.
An area of special interest to some learners will be the tier of center courses developed for those with some prior career experience or developed aptitude. These courses are more personalized to career fields, and the center awards micro-credentials to those who complete them.
Some of the micro-credentials courses that fit this category are cognitive behavioral therapy skills for counselors; basic security management for law enforcement and military personnel who want to move into the private sector; and a suite of artificial intelligence (AI) training courses. A micro-credential offering is being developed for educators who want to become more adept at teaching reading in K-12 settings, and that draws upon the expertise of Saint Leo’s Graduate Education Department faculty.
When learners have completed their micro-credential, they are eligible to receive a digital “badge” from the university. Badges validate to employers and other interested parties the learners’ accomplishments. Since digital badges can be incorporated into online résumés and social media platforms, such as LinkedIn profiles, they can help the badge-earners set themselves apart in the workforce.
Brittany Hahn ’15 completed her Master of Social Work degree with Saint Leo University recently, yet still was happy to find the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs was up and running. Hahn completed a micro-credential course on a therapy technique—cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) —that social workers and other types of counselors employ. CBT is described in professional literature as a form of talk therapy that helps a client change harmful thinking patterns and bad habits over time, and gradually become able to do so independently, without a therapist being present. Hahn respected the potential benefits and was eager to receive formal training in the approach.
“CBT is a well-established, evidenced-based therapy and considered a best practice for many disorders,” Hahn explained. So if she could find good training, she was confident she would become even more proficient as a social worker in a specialized hospital in suburban Tampa.
The six-week course required 90-minute, weekly online class meetings, and the content met her expectations. “I benefited from the small class size and felt like I received personalized instruction,” she said. Upon completion, she said she was “instantly able to implement the skills I learned from the course.”
Similarly, Jennifer Tillery said she found immediate benefit from the micro-credential she earned, though hers is from a beginning-level course in grantsmanship. She works in family support services for the Head Start agency in her area of north Florida, a position that entails working with other collaborative agencies that are often looking for new sources of funding. Coincidentally, Tillery has always loved to write and thought she could expand her skill set by learning grant writing, but specifically did not want to have to enroll in a degree program.
The five-week grantsmanship micro-credential, with weekly classes three hours long, fit the bill. Tillery said the instructor was very skilled at breaking down each concept so that the students attain a thorough understanding of the material, and also was available outside course hours. Tillery said she is motivated to take continuing grantsmanship courses if the center offers them. “I actually have three agencies that would like me to help get the process started of looking for grants,” she said.
Even though new courses are under development, Lee said the center is looking for more ideas. She hopes alumni will recommend subject areas the center should be exploring.
The center will also deliver course instruction to particular workplaces or organizations, Lee noted, whether online or in-person, as conditions permit. In fact, the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs can create customized courses, Lee said, so that workplaces or work-related groups can be assured that the material presented meets the clients’ needs.
The center has already responded to changing, emergent conditions. Earlier this year, when people began to shelter in place as COVID-19 overtook the economy, University President Jeffrey Senese asked faculty to create some free, online enrichment courses to provide people with diversion and entertainment. A new spot was created on the center website for the mini-catalog of free courses, and people who were interested in offerings such as backyard birding or budget baking signed up using the center’s online registration capabilities.
None of that was in the initial plan for the center, but it does serve as proof of the center’s adaptability, said Dr. Mary Spoto, vice president of Academic Affairs. The center falls under her areas of responsibility.
The center also serves as an example of another theme that Saint Leo emphasizes: Learning should not stop after graduates earn their degrees, Spoto said.
“In the future, the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs will represent a much larger part of the institution,” she predicted. “We will have short-term instruction that can be very quick in responding to market needs and can be delivered on a one-course basis, or through short-term but sequential courses. Our new offerings for K-12 educators who want reading instruction is one example, and our credentials on cognitive behavior therapy for counselors is another. Our longer-term, academic degree programs will continue, of course, with the result that Saint Leo will be an institution that offers multiple ‘doors’ for people to enter and find the educational solution that best fits. We have always said that we want our students to be lifelong learners, and with a quickly evolving workforce of today, the need is greater than ever. Through the center, we are helping more people become true lifelong learners.”
The Center for Alternative Pathway Programs is actively enrolling students. Saint Leo University alumni may also take advantage of a special 10 percent discount. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit saintleo.edu/micro-credentials.