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How the Rise of Online Learning is Impacting the Role of Continuing Education Divisions (Part 1)

The EvoLLLution | How the Rise of Online Learning is Impacting the Role of Continuing Education Divisions (Part 1)
As demand for online programing grows, colleges and universities are increasingly turning to their CE divisions to grow their online presence—and experiencing a mindset shift as a result.

As more students continue to register for and enroll in online courses every year, increasing numbers of colleges and universities are dedicating more resources to building out their online capacity. Of course, serving online learners requires a different focus and approach than the traditional, 18- 22-year-old residential student most colleges and universities still specialize in serving. To adapt to shifting demographics and expectations, many institutions are turning to their continuing education (CE) divisions to lead the charge on developing and supporting online education. In this interview, the first of two parts, Geraldine de Berly reflects on why CE units are finding themselves in this position and shares her thoughts on the impact this shift is having on the CE profession more broadly.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): At increasing numbers of colleges and universities, CE divisions are taking on the responsibility of launching and managing online offerings for the rest of the institution—why is this the case?

Geraldine de Berly (GdB): Many CE units are already standalone operations. They have in-house resources and expertise. They have internal bursars, registration, admissions, advising, financial aid, program coordination, eLearning teams, LMS, instructional design and marketing.

They have all the pieces that are required to actually develop a program and roll it out, whether it’s with their own faculty or with faculty partners across campus. They’re able to provide all the logistical support in one shop. In short, it is a package approach.

Having the one-stop shop for all of these logistical, administrative and technical elements that are required for online delivery make it attractive to use the CE unit as the online hub for the rest of the institution.

Evo: What role does CE play in driving the shift to online education?

GdB: Higher education institutions are increasing their online presence by expanded offerings both in number of courses and degrees. Data is needed to determine whether an existing face-to-face program should be converted to online. It’s critical to consider in the decision-making process the key factors that cause students to enroll in a program (prestige, price, access, flexible scheduling, options). Is there a market? What are current enrollments? Who else is in that space and how much are competitors charging? Is your institutional prestige/brand sufficient to attract students? Is the brand recognition applicable to all programs? These are not considerations most academic units make when developing a new program, but these are all top-of-mind considerations for CE.

The need for data and analytics in support of decision making will increase and so will the need for units to have their in-house data analysts. While many CE units use vendors for market research, the quick turnaround time required necessitates building in-house capabilities, which many CE units have done.

Additionally, one of the challenges in succeeding online is the ability to provide a nearly instant response to inquiries. Today’s students—and in fact consumers in any industry in the digital age—expect immediate response and immediate resolutions to problems. CE units have built that into their technical support—and they also have advising, coaching and career services, many using vendors for some of these services.

CE units offer a place for people to ask questions and to get resolution and it’s not just students who have questions—it’s faculty, too. When faculty are looking at program development, they often come to the CE unit to get a better sense of the market need for their planned offering. Independent academic units don’t have their own market research areas, whereas a CE unit tends to have marketers and they tend to have market research. I don’t know of any institutions that have a central marketing research department whose responsibility is to look at program trends and to develop and bring new ideas to the campus. For the most part, it’s CE units doing that work.

Understanding the market and mapping market trends is critical work when it comes to online delivery. It’s important to do the market research to make sure that there’s actually some scope and demand for programs that are being rolled out, and not just a “gut feeling.”

Evo: How do CE divisions benefit from housing online program development for the rest of the institution?

GdB: The upside is the service to the rest of the institution. The view of CE has evolved considerably since these divisions were seen as second-class citizens within the institution—or simply seen as the cash cows. There has been a change in this perception which is reflected in the titles of CE divisions such as “Continuing Professional Education” or “School of Professional Studies”—as opposed to just continuing ed.

It’s also seen in the outcomes —increased enrollment and revenue—that CE-sponsored market research has created. The broad recognition for the importance of data-backed decision making, and the wide shift away from spending thousands of dollars on a new offering without any supporting research, shows the positive impact CE has had on the way institutions run.

We are in a data-driven climate and if you don’t have the data then you cannot make a case for a new program.

Evo: As CE divisions begin to take on the responsibility of managing online learning for their respective universities, how is the role of the CE division changing?

GdB: CE units must be extremely professional in that so many are self-sustaining enterprises and, as such, must manage their operations efficiently and be conscious of a breadth of factors to maintain their equilibrium.

CE leaders must be judicious in how funds are allocated—noting that payroll is the major expense. They must decide upon marketing strategies and allotments, hopefully with their marketing team on hand! After all, while best practice is to allot 5-10 percent of revenue to marketing expenses, this isn’t always feasible. Broadly, CE leaders are always under pressure to grow revenues and manage costs. This is why data has always been critical to the successful operation of a CE division.

This culture of market research—especially when considering new programs or revising existing offerings—is much discussed within CE circles but traditionally, academic units have not considered market research as a determiner for offerings. Rather, academic departments look at the expertise on hand and then offer programs on that basis. This may or may not result in enrollments sufficient to maintain the departments.

Infusing that culture into the rest of the institution is a slow process. Since academic units enjoy central administrative support, unless financial exigency is at the door, few are under any compunction to consider market forces when determining or developing curricula. This tends to breed some of the tension between the theoretical and applied disciplines when engaged in workforce development discussions.

Because the investment in developing and managing an online program is substantial, the role of CE is critical in developing a business plan and providing a true picture of what the costs and needed revenue to cover those costs should be. Further, as discussed earlier, CE provides the necessary infrastructure for program delivery.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is the first installment in a two-part interview with de Berly on this topic. In the second part, de Berly turns her attention to the future of online education and its long-term impact on the role of CE.

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