How the U is helping Utahns reskill and upskill in the pandemic

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


The University of Utah will play a major role in Utah's economic recovery and revitalization following the coronavirus pandemic. In this episode of U Rising, Deborah Keyek-Franssen, associate vice president and dean of Continuing and Online Education, talks about the short-term programs her office has launched to help Utahns reskill and upskill. There is even a new program to help parents improve their digital skills so they are better prepared to help their children with online education. Recorded on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast where you have the opportunity to meet some of the wonderful people who are helping the U achieve great things. I'm Ruth Watkins, the president of the university and my guest today is Deborah Keyek-Franssen. Deb is the associate vice president and dean of Continuing and Online Education. Deb, warmest welcome!

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Thank you, Ruth, great to be here.

President Watkins: We're so glad to have you on the podcast. You're fairly new to the University of Utah community. I think it'd be helpful for our listeners if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and about the new role that you've taken on here at the U.

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Yeah, I'd love to do that. And I have to say it's wonderful to be here at the U. I have been warmly welcomed by everybody I've met. And even though it's not a normal semester, I'm still as I've been every year since kindergarten—I'm so excited by the energy of the beginning of the school year! My parents were teachers and I grew up with the privilege of being excited about education, of knowing its importance to me and to society. And I suppose that's why my career has been in education all along and I suppose that's why I still feel that flutter of excitement on the first day of classes. And it's probably why I have such a strong commitment to ensuring that people have access to the amazing learning opportunities that the U provides.

I began my academic career as a humanist. My Ph.D is in German literature. I did enjoy teaching for decades. I began as a substitute teacher when I was still an undergraduate, although I've taught primarily at the postsecondary level since then. But the majority of my career has been in higher education technology and digital education. And I'm arriving at the U after over 21 years at the University of Colorado in a variety of academic technology positions, including at the CU system where I led initiatives for massive open online courses, open educational resources and scaling student success practices.

Here at the U, I'm privileged. I'm privileged to work with excellent teams in Teaching and Learning with Technology, Online and Continuing Education and Community Engagement. And I'm sure you knew this, Ruth, but I didn't. Even though fully online education might be new, Continuing Education and Community Engagement has existed at the University of Utah in one form or another for over 100 years, so it's great to be part of that history here.

And together these teams and I, we're forming a service organization that will connect academic departments with students and learners from around the globe and around the state and support them as they innovate with and experiment with different teaching modalities and tools with new types of credentials. And at the same time, we're beginning outreach to employers across the state to try to figure out how to meet their needs for professional development and learning for their existing employees, and to help them and the state build the workforce that we all need in the near and long-term future.

President Watkins: We're so fortunate to have both this great history and the timing of your arrival at the University of Utah. Thank you for joining us, we're delighted. I'd like to focus our conversation today around how a unit like the one you're leading and all of us at the University of Utah can work together to help Utah's economy through this phase of rescue and recovery as we respond to the pandemic. Certainly, the pandemic has really disrupted many aspects of our life, education and work at the forefront of those areas, with about 150,000 Utahns currently unemployed or underemployed.

I know a big part of what your unit will focus on—is focusing on now and will in the immediate future—is addressing that need. It would be wonderful if you could tell our listeners a little bit about what you're doing and how you see the University of Utah and Continuing Education really taking a leading role in helping Utah's economy recover through this period.

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Thank you for focusing on that, Ruth. I think it's really important. My heart goes out to the many, many Utahns who are un- or underemployed or have been furloughed or are in positions that might be vulnerable to disruption in the future. These are hard and uncertain times for sure and we at the U and especially in Online and Continuing Education we're doing everything we can to help people. All across the country, learners and employers and postsecondary institutions are looking at smaller chunks of learning. It's skills-based learning to try to give people a leg up and finding new work as quickly as possible.

Now we all know the value of degrees. They're very important to our economy, they're very important to our society, they're very important to our students and communities. But right now, we need to give people the skills they need as quickly as possible so that they can rejoin the workforce, so that then they have the financial stability to be able to pursue the degrees and better paying career paths that are out there.

One of our projects is working with the folks at SkillUpUtah to link people to smaller-than-a degree opportunities in high-demand areas such as data, coding and health care. What this does is it allows people who complete these courses or groups of courses to get to marketable credentials, which can help them be competitive in any field, get a promotion, get a new job. And some of the learning opportunities offered by the U are also credit-bearing certificates that can also lead to degree completion at the same time.

President Watkins: I think that many of our listeners may be a little bit surprised that the U is so active in this area. We have long focused on our role as both the bachelor's degree as an entry credential and in master's and professional education beyond that. But what you're laying out is a really strong, lifelong learning vision that we at the University of Utah play a vital role in particular aspects of much shorter-term credentialing, some of them academic credit-bearing, and some of them not, but many, many ways to help.

And, of course, in this period, individuals who need quickly to get back to work as well as our industries that need workforce and talent will be thrilled to hear more about these programs. I know we've received some funding from the CARES Act through the state's Learn and Work in Utah grant program. Please tell us a little bit about what programs are going to be available, are already available and will be in the months ahead.

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Yeah, we are so pleased that we've been able to secure these funds. And I have to say a huge shout out to USHE, the Utah System of Higher Education, and the governor's office for making these funds available. Because what it really lets us do is take a step back and say, ‘What can we do in the short-term, but also how can we use this funding to jumpstart us for the long-term?’ It's allowing us to do several things simultaneously. First, to reach out to underserved and marginalized communities, to invite them to participate in some topical areas that we have free of charge. People can take bootcamps, they can participate in asynchronous short courses.

Second, and more important for the long-term, it's allowing us to strengthen the U's relationships with these communities. We are working with university neighborhood partners, veterans’ services, the U's many connections to tribal communities, to learn better what the communities need. Hopefully, we're able to meet some of the needs through these courses that we're offering already, but we want to engage in longer dialogue and understand what is really needed in the local communities, and especially with employment that is available or could be available for them close to home.

We're also working with Salt Lake City School District, Horizonte High School, and other people to reach out to African refugee and immigrant communities. We're trying to figure out how to get those deeper connections into rural communities, especially through St. George, we have a site there.

And what we're able to offer in the short-term are, for instance, we're working on a course for basic web skills for parents. For parents who don't have high levels of digital skills, this is a bit of a problem because they are being required now in the time of COVID to really engage even more than ever with digital platforms. And so, we're contextualizing some basic web and digital skills in the K-12 IT environment, so that parents can better help their children and better prepare them for different jobs.

We've got asynchronous training in data, project management, we've got bootcamps in technical fields. We've got bootcamps in medical fields for medical coding, pharm tech, for instance. And what we're doing, again—this is for the long-term but also for the short-term—is we're piloting a way to offer asynchronous courses which are usually less expensive, but piloting them in a way that allows the ability for these students who can take these asynchronous courses on their own schedule whenever they want to have a learning facilitator as a success coach with them right in the course, and also help them explore pathways to work and pathways to the U.

Courses are opening for enrollment in the next couple of weeks. I've never experienced such speed in all of this development and launch. And we're happy for our relationships with partners, such as CareerStep, Pluralsight, Adobe, Trilogy, DevPoint Labs for helping us provide these courses, this content, these abilities to rescale and upskill to Utahns all across the state.

President Watkins: It's exciting what you're doing to connect with industry's needs in a very nimble way. I think generally in postsecondary ed and higher ed we're not very good at that. We're just not very nimble in our programs and our curriculum. You offer us a way to do that. What's your best method for developing these kinds of links to industry and really understanding what their workforce needs are?

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: It's just outreach. It's finding where we already have the connections and the U is very well-connected. We have Silicon Slopes right next door. We're using some of these employers, they're our vendors, they are our partners already. We just have to establish those deeper relationships, those regular conversations to say, ‘What are those needs out there?’ For instance, is there a different skill set that we need to get more people into the many call centers that are in Utah and what could those skills be? Are they typing skills? Are they writing skills? Are they grammar skills? Are they customer service and interaction skills? So really working closely with the HR and the learning and development units within these corporations, I think, over the long-term will really prove to be valuable. It will be a way for us to understand what do we offer, is it enough and if it's not enough, where do we develop new?

President Watkins: I think that outreach and those connections that you're building and have built will mean that our programs are very relevant and the students and participants who complete them will meet industry needs and will find their path to work, so my compliments on that. I know we're going to stimulate a lot of interest in your programs. Where can people go to learn more?

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: For the no-cost to participants for un- and underemployed learners around the state, they can go to learnwork.utah.edu. For the broader list of certificates and graduate certificates that are available they can go to certificates.utah.edu. And over time, as we integrate these many units that I'm overseeing right now, we'll have straighter pathways into this information but for right now I would send people to learnwork.utah.edu.

President Watkins: That's great. It's simple, learnwork.utah.edu. I am so grateful for your innovation and your creativity and most of all that you have joined us at the University of Utah to lead such an important initiative.

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Well, I'm thrilled to be here. Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you and let's keep on doing great things!

President Watkins: Listeners, we hope you'll look at the site, learnwork.utah.edu and tell your friends and neighbors about these opportunities here at the University of Utah. I hope also that you'll join me for the next edition of U Rising Podcast.