Getting to the Next Level: How Your Team Can Deliver the Experience Today’s Learners Expect
Increasingly, colleges and universities are committing to lifelong learning and serving learners across their lifespan. Various motivations exist for institutional leaders, such as the desire to develop new revenue streams, but equally important is the recognition that lifelong learning benefits all involved, from the individual to the entire society. Lifelong learners live longer, healthier and happier lives. As a result, our communities are better places to live.
Educational offerings today go far beyond undergraduate degrees for traditional-age students. In fact, we are more likely to find non-traditional or post-traditional students engaged in all types of educational offerings—degree programs (including degree completion at the undergraduate level and graduate degrees of all stripes), non-credit certificate programs, personal academic enrichment programs (such as those affiliated with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes), career development and upskilling programs and retraining and retooling for career changers. The portfolio of educational opportunities is as complex as the audiences served.
So, what are the challenges that this approach presents?
To begin, an organization must be nimble and efficient, cost-effective and customer-oriented. The audiences that we serve approach education in in ways similar to the ways in which they approach engagement with other services in their lives. We need to remember that our students, especially adult students, have many overlapping and complicated roles that they play and the role of student is one more in the mix. Usually, being a student is not their most important role. One challenge for providers is to acknowledge this personal life complexity and competing demands and make engagement with our program as easy, seamless and painless as possible.
Addressing this challenge begins by hiring and properly supporting the best people—people who understand the environment, the challenge, and are dedicated to superior customer service and academic excellence. Finding the right team members is a challenge in itself and dedicated effort is required to build a qualified and diverse team that reflects the diversity of the audiences that we serve. Having multi-lingual proficiency on staff is also extremely important as we quickly become a Minority-Majority nation. Supporting this team of professionals likewise requires a variety of strategies. Their compensation and benefits package needs to be fair and competitive. They need to be affirmed for their work and commitment. Adequate and appropriate communications and transparency are a must. Our team members need to know what we are doing and why, where are we going and why and how will we get there. Our staff members also need to continually update their knowledge and skills. For my division, this translates to two mandatory professional development days each year, other professional development opportunities that are supported by each business unit in my division, and an internal grant program for those who seek specialized training or certification. Having the right team members with the right attitude and the right preparation for the task is a good start. That is necessary but not sufficient.
Our staff members need the right tools to carry out their job responsibilities. In the past, this was rather simple: hire someone, provide them with an internet-connected computer, an email account and access to a registration system and away we go. Today, not so much. Having a computer, internet access, email and a registration system is the equivalent of having indoor plumbing, electricity and basic phone service.
In today’s highly competitive and highly demanding environment, we need to know how to find our learners, how to find out what they are interested in learning and what they need to know. To serve those in career-related education, we need to engage with employers across industry sectors to know what jobs are currently in demand and those that are rising in demand and what preparation is needed for them. We need multiple ways to solicit feedback from our students and know how to use that feedback to shape a better learning experience. We must engage our potential, current and past learners in multiple modalities, appropriate to the audience. This includes print, email and websites, for sure, but also social media like Twitter and Facebook. The additional challenge for us is knowing not only how to use these tools, but also how to use them effectively. What should we communicate to whom, when, with what frequency, for what purpose? If we have pulled together the right team, collaboration by many in answering these questions is a creative, even fun, endeavor.
Market research is a critically important tool in addressing the challenge of what to include in our educational offering portfolio. There are myriad ways to address market research. We can hire and develop the talent in-house. We can engage with a market research firm through an annual license or membership program. We could hire a market research firm or market research expert on a per project basis. Professional associations may also provide a research service to the membership, either as a core or add-on benefit. We can also create a mix of tactics from this list, for example, we may join a research collaborative and supplement that with market intelligence work by our staff, including secret shopper activity. We may use surveys and focus groups to learn from prospective, current and prior program attendees. This is also a useful strategy for engaging employers. For my Division, we engage in all of the above.
Once we found the learners, developed the educational offerings and have begun trying to recruit and engage learners, other challenges exist. A cloud-based registration system that is accessible by staff in our various units is a must. Adopting a CRM (customer relationship management) system, especially one that is a cloud-based system and easily accessible, is a potential game-changer. If our goal is to engage learners across the lifespan, we are best served by a tool that can track learners across the years and various programs as they engage with us. Our staff members who work with different audiences can access and contribute to the profile and data on our learners. We can keep track of the interactions of learners with our staff, with detail, the efforts made to engage, the different programs learners have participated in and preferences that they have expressed. And we can do this across the organization as different units engage with learners at different points in their life, including formal academic offerings for a credential as well as informal learning for personal enrichment.
Having an organization-wide CRM can be transformational for our staff and for the learners. Just as our students expect to be remembered and respected for their participation and preferences in other areas of their lives, demonstrating a similar level of service as an educational provider shows our proficiencies, currency, and true caring for our learners. This pays wonderful dividends, not the least of which is in fostering lifelong loyal customers. But it is also a transformational experience for our staff as they feel supported and more fully informed as they interact with potential, current and prior students. A CRM tool breaks down barriers and reinforces the team spirit among staff who may be geographically and programmatically separated. Other benefits accrue as well. We can improve retention and satisfaction of our learners and reduce frustration and embarrassment for our staff. And, if implemented correctly, we can dramatically improve our return on investment.
The final piece of the puzzle to include in our toolbox is creatively using all of the data that are available to us. Big data analysis and predictive analytics enable us to bring together, or mash up, miscellaneous data sources to create composite pictures, learner personas, identify trends, monitor course selection behavior and more. Moving data analysis to the next level of predictive analytics can help us serve our learners proactively, sometimes with offerings that they did not know that they needed. New positions are being developed and incorporated by CE operations, such as data analyst, data engineer and business intelligence architect, to help develop the use of data to improve our efficiency and serve our learners better.
There are indeed many complexities and challenges in serving lifelong learners across the lifespan within a single CE operation. And what is the impact of implementing systems that help us address the challenges? The potential exists to benefit everyone involved.