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Curricular Support: How to Leverage the Value of Vendors in the Non-Traditional Space

The EvoLLLution | Curricular Support: How to Leverage the Value of Vendors in the Non-Traditional Space
By leveraging the expertise and focus of vendor partnerships, and by designing internal processes to maintain oversight and quality control, institutions can significantly expand their reach and capacity to serve students.

As the labor market begins to change more rapidly and more significantly than ever before, employees are being pushed harder and harder to keep up. This means an increasing demand for continuing and professional education, which translates to more pressure than ever on college and university administrators to ensure their program offerings are responsive to, and align with, the needs of the workforce. And here is where many institutions run into trouble. To compete against the growing array of other education providers—ranging from other postsecondary institutions to standalone training providers, bootcamps and more—institutions need to find ways to get new and high-quality offerings out faster. In this interview, Vicki Brannock reflects on the role vendors can play in supporting these efforts.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role do vendors and service partners play in today’s postsecondary environment when it comes to helping institutions compete?

Vicki Brannock (VB): It’s important to first frame the conversation by defining what we mean when we say vendors and service partners, because that’s an important distinction. For the purpose of this conversation, I would define vendors and service partners as people who provide or deliver curriculum for institutions.

There’s a big, competitive market for delivering and developing curriculum for postsecondary institutions because of the changing technology possibilities and evolving subject matter demands. As these continue to change at such a fast pace, I believe this going to be an emerging, essential component of extended and continuing education units. There’s absolutely no way the university can develop curriculum fast enough to meet the rapidly changing conditions of the labor market.

Service providers are going to play—now and more importantly over the next five years—a very important role in helping institutions stay competitive. Right now, universities are not only competing for students against other universities and community colleges, but they’re also competing against an emerging market of training providers, webinars and independent contractors who go out and perform services to develop competencies within a corporate environment.

It’s essential that higher education leaders begin to think about and establish these relationships with service providers.

Evo: What does it mean for an institution to be truly competitive in today’s marketplace?

VB: For a college or university to be truly competitive in today’s marketplace, they must be able to offer relevant and compelling content in relevant and compelling ways. Nowadays, it’s not good enough just to offer a course or program. You have to really be able to connect it back to how it’s going to help somebody in the job market—why they need to have this knowledge—and then be able to deliver the content in a way that’s going to be effective. Ultimately, the content delivery has to be very engaging, it has to be very practical and it has to be fast-paced, because people really don’t have the luxury of time to be able to spend multiple weeks in a traditional setting.

Evo: Would it be possible for colleges and universities today to deliver the level of service students expect without vendors?

VB: I don’t believe that it is possible for colleges or universities to deliver all of those things that we just discussed without the support of vendors. Institutions might be able to deliver certain components—maybe they have someone on staff who is a subject matter expert that can develop excellent programs, but what about the delivery modality and methodology? Are institutions going to be able to do those bite size pieces alone? Are they going to be able to really effectively break that content down into bootcamps and other alternative delivery methods? And are they going be able to really do it at a cost-effective way?

I personally don’t think, at this point, that a college or university can do all of the things that they really want to do without the assistance of the vendor.

Evo: Why is there so much trepidation around the role of vendors in higher education?

VB: There are a couple of reasons that drive the trepidation some institutions have about the role of vendors and chief among them is loss of oversight. Universities traditionally have always developed their own courses in-house. They have faculty oversight. In a traditional university setting the courses are usually delivered on a campus. Even if the course is delivered online, the delivery environment is typically a closed LMS where everything is closely monitored. The entire process of course and program development and delivery has a lot of oversight. When you bring vendors into the process you do not have that same level of oversight. That concern is prevalent because institutional leaders and faculty want to make sure that the rigor is there, that what is being delivered is as promised, and that the student is getting an experience worthy of their university. So oversight is one of the biggest causes for concern within most universities.

Evo: What does it take to overcome that fear?

VB: At Brandman University, where I was the Director of the School of Extended Education until January 2016, we developed a system of oversight to be able to overcome that. We set up the system to ensure that all courses would have to be approved through our school. We designed templates for course approvals and the course approval template basically mirrors what we ask of our academic courses, which is to identify learning outcomes, provide syllabi, to outline the agenda and to provide a rubric. Then we would assess the offering against those standards to determine whether the course has the rigor and integrity to be delivered on behalf of the university.

Then you have to monitor the courses and make sure that student satisfaction and course rigor is high. We assessed this by sending out a student satisfaction survey to every student who took a course that was delivered through a partner. The survey not only asks students about their experience with the course but about the rigor of the content. We would also go into every course and actually spend a little time going through the course ourselves—whether it’s a self-paced online course or an in-person workshop or bootcamp—to try to get some perspective on what the student experience is like.

Finally, once you’re satisfied with the initial roll out of a course and you move into a situation where you’re able to offer credit for that course, the second phase of this partnership emerges, which is maintaining the relationship and making sure that the vendor actually provides you with updates. We required that the course be re-approved every three years if no updates were made. In the event where updates were made to a course, the vendor was be required at that point to submit a new course proposal and then that would go through the course approval process.

There are a lot of steps, but once you get the system in place you’re able to really take an objective look at the course curriculum and it provides that level of oversight that can be comfortable for the university.

Evo: How do you expect to see the role of vendors evolve over the next decade?

VB: Vendors are going to play a bigger role and that’s because of the changing needs of businesses and of professionals today. Especially within the technology market, which is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. and across the world, there’s always new jobs emerging, the skills needed for existing jobs are evolving and everyone is expected to have some level of comfort with technology. With systems changing so quickly, there’s no way that a university can even navigate the approval processes that stand in the way of the approval of self-developed programs. In those kinds of fast-changing areas, the speed that comes with the vendor process is going to become more and more important.

Vendor partnerships are also going to be especially important to small institutions that want to be able to provide to their communities a more comprehensive portfolio of educational offerings and products. If you’re institution is in a smaller or a rural area—or even if you’re in a large area but you’re a small institution with a specific segment identified as your target audience—you’ll want to be sure that your portfolio meets the needs of that demographic.

The way to leverage vendor partnerships is by working with companies that have high integrity and good reputation and the proven ability to either help you design and develop—or for them to design, develop and in most cases deliver—the content that would be valuable to your students.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the impact that vendors can have on the competitiveness of an institution?

VB: I would encourage most universities to think about themselves more as curators of content rather than actual developers of content, especially when you’re talking about training and continuing education.

The university has a great opportunity in today’s environment to evaluate and provide a portfolio of high-quality products that employers can leverage while feeling comfortable knowing that a university put its stamp of approval on the offerings. From the employer’s perspective, this means they don’t have to go out and call people and try to figure out who can come in to provide needed training, they can just go to the university.

If universities start thinking in that way, they can stay top-of-mind with businesses and, from that, be able to create these pathways into degree programs for working professionals as they are exposed to the university and they see the type of content that can be delivered.

If university leaders feel like they’ve got issues with trying to make a vendor relationship successful, they need to think more about how they can overcome these obstacles rather than just dismissing these partnerships. Otherwise, in today’s market, they’re going to lose their competitive edge.

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