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How the Rise of Online Learning is Impacting the Role of Continuing Education Divisions (Part 2)

The EvoLLLution | How the Rise of Online Learning is Impacting the Role of Continuing Education Divisions (Part 2)
As CE divisions are tasked with leading the charge on developing and growing the online presence of their institutions, they will move closer to the center of institutional operations and help to introduce aspects of their culture—like data-mindedness and student service—into the broader mindset.

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- to 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 second of two parts, Geraldine de Berly reflects on the changing responsibilities of CE units and shares her thoughts on how the role of CE units will continue to evolve as they move closer to the institutional core.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Are we starting to see a change in the responsibility and role of CE, from owning programs and serving the outreach/accessibility arm of the university to one of helping traditional colleges and faculties serve new demographics better?

Geraldine de Berly (GdB): In practice, this is dependent on the organizational structure of the CE unit and how it is integrated into the home institution, but yes CE units are asked to assist traditional faculties to:

  1. Recognize that there are new demographics
  2. Learn how to better serve them.

For the most part, professional schools are way ahead because they are cognizant of the importance of a clear link between programming and employability. But when you’re dealing with the more traditional programs—like those in the humanities or the fine arts—those faculties are not usually accustomed to thinking about the employability or next steps for their students once they leave the program.

CE units have really been able to provide information and data to help those more traditional faculties think more about their students’ futures, and then adjust to improve access or outcomes. For example, our management school is offering a summer bridge program to students who are coming with a liberal arts degree from UMass, providing them math and analytics courses so that they have the requisites needed to enroll and pursue their MBA in the following year.

At many colleges and universities, CE units are charged with helping non-professional schools develop programs that will meet the needs of the workforce and still meet the needs or the expectations of the academics. This can be quite a challenge.

Evo: What impact does this shift have on the role of CE more broadly?

GdB: Many of my colleagues are enjoying recognition from central leadership as to the importance that CE plays given its agility, flexibility and its ear to the ground in terms of market needs and student expectations. Whether it is able to meet those needs depends greatly on how CE is structured within an institution. In institutions where CE has its own faculty, it is more readily able to create and deliver programs speedily. Where CE has a largely administrative function, program development is managed through academic departments and is greatly dependent on identifying faculty champions and players. CE units work across campus—that in itself is not a role change—but with the rise of online offerings, CE units have a greater role to play within the academic program.

Finally, many CE leaders report to the provost, are on par with academic deans (or higher if reporting to the chancellor/president) and are recognized within the senior leadership. I think CE is less and less on the periphery. I see it in the titles held by my colleagues as well as through promotions received. Here at UMass, for example, I’m the Vice Provost for Professional Continuing Education reporting to the provost. My predecessor was an Executive Director reporting to a Vice Provost for Undergraduate and Continuing Education. This was an elevation of the position and the role of CE, as perceived by the provost’s office and the president’s office. That organizational restructuring is indicative of the change we’re seeing in CE.

I believe too that the perception of CE within institutions is no longer one of a “second cousin” or merely a “cash cow”—but a serious player in the delivery of academic and professional programs.

Evo: CE divisions have traditionally existed on the institutional margins or periphery, arguably providing more space to experiment and innovate. As CE shifts more towards the center of the institution, what does that mean for its culture of innovation?

GdB: First of all, I’m not sure that CE units ever had free license to fail or to experiment. There has always been—and there certainly is today—a very measured calculation before making any decision; they are not just entrepreneurial whims. CE leaders’ decisions are based on data, environmental scans, and broadly based on multiple checks as to what’s happening. They’re also based on existing capacity and expertise within the institution. Nevertheless, CE units are more prone to be risk takers.

So much of innovation is understanding what’s happening in the trending markets as well as recognizing potential in niche markets. But because we monitor our CE colleagues/competitors’ activities, we know that we can lead with something for a year but realize that within the next year, other will step into that space. As such, unless you’ve managed to identify an area with a high degree of specialization and a team of unique faculty who can deliver those programs, you really can only lead for a very short period before you meet competition.

The online space is highly competitive and will continue to be as we see more and more students— (traditional and non-traditional)—taking courses. The flexibility of online programming clearly meets a need. Consequently, CE divisions must direct their market research and data to a space where competition occurs even more quickly but where the student pool is even broader.

Evo: What do you see the future of online education being in terms of its prevalence and, by the same token, how do you see the role of CE divisions continuing to evolve?

GdB: The proliferation of online education will continue. I don’t see it decreasing at all.

First of all, online education’s adoption will increase given the demographic changes. A February 2017 UPCEA report by Jim Fong, Jay Halfond, and Ray Schroeder noted that demographic and technological drivers will impact educational needs and expectations including short term programs (certificates and badges versus pursuit of degrees. Using Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, the authors commented that “The age distribution, educational attainment, and skills of the workforce will not only change considerably but perhaps be further out of alignment with the needs of the American workplace.” (p 5).

Secondly, people’s expectations and their desire to be able to enroll in courses without having to physically be on campus will continue. We see residential undergraduate students enrolling in online courses. Why? Perhaps for convenience’s sake or they were closed out of face-to-face offerings but it’s also possible that they simply prefer to learn in a more comfortable environment. We’re no longer in a situation where the face-to-face option is the preferred modality for residential student. They want to be able to have options available to choose the modality that suits them best.

As to what this means for CE? It goes back to the organizational structure and whether continuing education organizations are standalone or offshoots of a more centralized structure. This is the perpetual conversation of centralization versus decentralization, an across-the-board organizational issue —not just for online education but also for administration in general—and much of it depends on who’s doing what.

When it comes to online, what CE brings to the table is to help academic units understand that current offerings will not always be what students want or need. CE helps to drive the conversation around balancing what it means to be educated and what it means to be prepared for the workforce, especially in more traditional faculties.

I don’t think that CE units are going away. If anything, they’ve come much more into their own with the recognition of the dynamics of the workplace and the increasing numbers of people seeking postsecondary options that differ from a residential campus experience. After all, declining enrollments are happening in residential, campus-based programs. CE-type operation will continue to provide types of educational pathways and/or alternatives to those for whom face-to face- delivery is not possible.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how this shift towards owning online education is changing the role of CE divisions?

GdB: For academic units lacking a culture of market data when considering program development, a major strength of CE units is its resources. Academic departments have a culture of research within their own discipline, but they haven’t thought about marketing or program delivery with the same critical lens. They do think about curriculum and course sequencing, but when it comes to the actual delivery and promotion of a program, it is believed that if they put a course/program out into the market, the students will simply come—and may be surprised when that doesn’t happen.

Understanding all the other logistical dynamics of having a program that works—when it should be offered, what the options are, whether it has rolling admissions, what the response rate is to an inquiry, using different channels to provide critical information—these are all logistical aspects that CE units do as part of their own marketing and engagement efforts. But they’re not what many traditional divisions do—at least not at not-for-profit institutions. However, for-profit institutions do this very well and there’s something to be learned from that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This is the second installment of a two-part interview. To see the first installment, please click here.

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