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• MARCH 12, 2021 • Midlands Business Journal

• Higher Education

Technology platforms elevate access to career, professional development by Michelle Leach

The pandemic has “shaken up the fundamentals,” opening doors to career- and quality of life-boosting training. “We are the ‘original entrepreneurs,’” said Anne Hindery, CEO of the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands, whose membership spans nonprofits in all 93 Nebraska counties and southwest Iowa. “So many nonprofits are first-responders … they have led the way in

being innovative.” Hindery noted how, pre-pandemic, virtual programming was limited to HR and CEO listervs for info-sharing. “We did some online webinars, but most of our major training was all in person,” she said. That changed within days of moving into a new space in the Mastercraft in March. “We didn’t hold anything in person,” she said. “We moved as much as we could to Zoom.”

They evaluated training content; for instance, topics explored fundraising in a crisis and work-from-home strategies to support engagement. Some changes are here to stay. “We were able to have people from the panhandle participate,” Hindery said. “Even for people who live in Lincoln, it’s so much easier to hop on Zoom and interact that way.” Aligned with its “mission of access,” University of Nebraska at Omaha’s first online program, public administration, dates to the late-1990s. “Since then, we have grown to offer 12 undergraduate programs and seven graduate programs fully Hindery online that enroll Nebraskans, regional learners, and even students from across the country,” said Dr. Jaci Lindburg, director of digital learning. “Online is also a part of the fabric of the UNO campus, with the vast majority of students taking at least one online class before they graduate, even if they live right on campus or in the local area.” Future workplaces demand strong digital competencies. “So, the experience they have with online learning at UNO helps build transferrable skills for their future careers,” she said. Lindburg noted the likes of its established infrastructure positioned the college well to move to remote learning at the pandemic’s onset. “Our biggest need as the pandemic began was to scale our effective practices to all faculty and students, and make resources and support available 24-7,” she said. “We did not need to introduce a lot of new tools to navigate the move to remote learning.” Rather, UNO extended efforts in other ways; for instance, expanding its laptop and MiFi portable Internet device checkout programs. Its work with Open Educational Resources, free or reduced-cost digital course materials in lieu of standard textbooks, takes on the high cost of traditional course books.

“By working with instructors to adopt OER and integrate it right into the learning management system, we save students money but also increase their ability to be successful,” she said, noting students have saved more than $6 million over the past few years due to its OER and eBooks efforts. Omaha STEM Ecosystem worked with partners Cox and Facebook to identify “holes in the Internet,” the first step to addressing inequities in technology access that open doors to lifelong learning in conjunction with the development of the STEM Community Platform, which launched recently. “The Omaha STEM Ecosystem is going into our fifth Sigmon year,” said Director Julie Sigmon. “Our research was showing that there are a lot of awesome STEM programs for students in the Omaha area. But they’re all operating in silos. They weren’t connecting. And random acts of STEM doesn’t build a STEM workforce.” The ecosystem and the AIM Institute partnered to build new programs as normal programs were put on hold due to the pandemic. The first phase of the platform emerged, focused on preschool through college-aged offerings as a “hub” for STEM opportunities. What started as 350 posted opportunities rapidly grew to almost 550 at the time of this writing. Second-phase opportunities will focus on “connectors for business,” potential internship opportunities without duplicating what Intern Omaha has accomplished. Lastly, Sigmon noted back-end analytics and metrics to trace trends that drive actionable change; for instance, to determine where to shore up career pathways to increase the likelihood of launching careers faster. Over the nearer-term, Sigmon said the organization is deploying a “STEM-approved assessment” to vet platform opportunities. If one Continued on next page.