October 11, 2021

The Evolution of Career and Technical Education – Interview with Mary Colleen Liburdi and Lauren Whalen

Technical Product Manager, Mary Colleen Liburdi, and Product Manager, Lauren Whalen, both of whom are focused on career and technical education (CTE), recently took over the Cengage Group LinkedIn to share insight into their own career paths, as well as how our digital learning solutions have evolved to better prepare students for jobs in the skilled trades.

Mary Colleen, who has been part of our technology group developing solutions for CTE for 19 years, says she loves working here because “we are forward thinking. Working in technology for Cengage Group allows you to touch lives in a way that is extremely personal – that’s something you can’t find everywhere.”

Lauren, an 11-year industry veteran, added “There are phenomenal people here who are super dedicated to making a difference in learning. There is so much excitement around how education is evolving, and we are the people responsible for making more engaging tools, inclusive materials, and providing students with an abundance of opportunities to succeed.”

Read on to hear more about the evolution of trade education and challenges students and instructors face. 

tech trade takeover 1.jpg 

How Trade Education Has Evolved

Lauren Whalen: “The pandemic has accelerated the transition to digital, but it has been a bit slower on the trade side, as instructors and students are used to print and engaging with things tactically in person. However, with students learning remotely, eBooks and online courseware are gaining popularity. We know that students entering these fields prefer hands-on learning to lengthy reading assignments. They’re increasingly looking at their education as a means to a career, and really desire materials that will help them be job-ready and stand out against other applicants. As a result, we have deeply invested in new ways to engage learners and build competency. We strive to make it really clear to students how our learning materials are tied to outcomes that will ultimately benefit their careers.”

Mary Colleen Liburdi: “We are constantly innovating and putting the end users, students, first. Over and over, students say they absorb content better when it is presented in concise, interactive formats. They live busy lives and being able to learn on the go is a priority. We value their feedback and have put a greater emphasis on simulations and tech solutions, like being able to access books and course materials on mobile anywhere, to set them on a path to success.”


The Impact of Our Digital Learning Solutions

Lauren Whalen: “Our goal in creating more complex digital offerings and simulations is to provide a comprehensive learning solution for students enrolled in vocational programs Each trade has their own accreditation and certification standards, and we build our MindTap course materials with this in mind, providing individual simulations and training videos for each career. Our simulations give students the opportunity to learn ‘hands-on’ skills online, in an immersive way, on their own time. When these students are being evaluated by their instructors and then ultimately out looking for a job, they feel more confident because they can emphasize their skills training beyond just reading a textbook. While digital solutions are not a replacement for on-the-job learning, they do help prepare students for the workforce.”

Mary Colleen Liburdi: “Most students understand the technical side of the program but lack proper training around safety and soft-skills. To address this, we partnered with well-known organizations, like SP/2 training, to provide our students with quality safety and environmental industry-specific training, ensuring our students and employees learn about workplace safety and compliance with OSHA and EPA—before they even step into the work area. These courses are typically used by professionals, but our instructors offer access to these programs to prepare students for what they will eventually be using in their careers. These partnerships are critical.”

For an example of our hands-on simulations, check out this video for students studying HVAC, where ‘challenge mode’ allows them to simulate service calls and practice diagnosing problems in life-like situations, just like they would experience in the field. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lylNmlnt70


Top Challenges Faced by Students in the Trades

Lauren Whalen: “A lot of students enrolled in trade programs have other responsibilities. They have families, part-time or full-time jobs, and some are in the midst of a career change, so they have a limited amount of time that they can dedicate to their schoolwork.”

Mary Colleen Liburdi: “Age diversity, varying comfort levels with technology, and accessibility were other challenges that we had to fully understand to create a truly inclusive platform and allow all of our students to succeed. Knowing this, we developed flexible learning features like a mobile app and read-speaker function to give students options in how and when they engage with the learning material.”

In addition to these challenges around accessibility, there is still a large stigma around trade education. Many students see higher ed as the only pathway to a job and aren’t aware of other options within career and technical education. To bring awareness to this, we recently hosted a LinkedIn Live event featuring CEO, Michael Hansen, and guests Jane Oates, President of Working Nation, and Eric Rubio, Heavy Duty Truck Instructor at Duncan Polytechnical High School. Take a deep dive into potential solves for the stigma in the full video here (starts at 5:00): https://bit.ly/3lMQ5Ok


Why Work in the Trade Education Space?

Mary Colleen Liburdi: “For me its emotional, I understand some of the roadblocks that these students face, and, in many cases, this is their opportunity to succeed and do something great with their life. I feel really committed to making sure that we are building the best tools possible to meet these learners needs and help them achieve their ‘American Dream’.”

Lauren Whalen: “I was really drawn to work in this space because these students have such a clear sense of what they want to achieve. Through this type of skills-based learning we can help them reach their very tangible goals. I like to remind people that they are not locked in, there is always a second chance, it’s okay to change your mind and pursue a career path that truly interests you no matter what stage of your life you are in. We have materials and a support system in place to help you through your transition.”

teach trade takeover 5.jpg