Leveraging Technology and Partnerships to Achieve Scale
Achieving scale is a goal for college and university leaders across North America, a priority whose importance grows as funding for higher education continues to drop and student demographics and demands continue to evolve. Though the importance of scale is widely understood, pathways and roadblocks to achieveing scale can be more difficult to define. In this interview, Carolyn Young reflects on her own department’s experience scaling and shares her thoughts on the opportunities scaling creates and the challenges that can stand in the way of change.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is scaling so important for colleges and universities today?
Carolyn Young (CY): Let me begin by defining what scaling means to me, specifically in the context of continuing education: scaling is a department’s ability to accommodate growth in programs and enrollment in proportion to its operations, including its registration system, space and employees. In other words, it’s a business’s ability to do more with less.
More than ever before, there are multiple, even urgent, reasons why scaling is so important in continuing education. From the impact of online learning to the reality of limited government funding, scaling has significant implications for making decisions, especially investments, about space, program development, delivery options, system and budget. Ultimately, it is an organization’s ability to respond to the vast and diverse opportunities of the marketplace and realize its full potential in lifelong learning.
At Western Continuing Studies (WCS), our institution, the community and the region are key stakeholders in what we do. As a result of growth in lifelong learning, especially in professional development and diploma programs, students come to our location in downtown London and we are pleased to see full classrooms every day of the week. Nevertheless, there are limits to the number of classes we can hold in our current space; our strategy to focus on online learning has expanded the opportunities for learners to engage in the Western experience in multiple certificates and diplomas. More than 30 percent of our students now learn online. We are no longer limited by our geography to engage learners in the Western educational experience. An organization’s ability to be scalable in an era of globalization is not only imperative for business growth, but essential in meeting the ever evolving market demands of the future.
Aside from reducing the pressure on our space while we grow enrolment, there are numerous benefits in online delivery as a way to accommodate our growth, including the ability to offer our successful face-to-face programs like Management and Occupational Health and Safety to a global audience. Another example is our partnership with Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), Canada’s leading art school, to offer online courses in graphic design. OCAD’s courses, developed and taught by their instructors, are promoted and open for registration through WCS.
Evo: What are some of the most common roadblocks to scaling that leaders can run into?
CY: Common roadblocks to scaling for leaders in continuing education range from tangible issues, such as resources, to the intangible reasons, such as attitude or point of view.
Tangible issues, such as decreased government funding, are a reality of higher education in our province. Department leaders are struggling with growing demand and minimal funding to invest in opportunities that support scaling, such as technology. Scalability is contingent on technology advancement and the adoption and alignment of technology and resources.
Several years ago, when WCS purchased a new software registration system, we sought out campus partners to share the cost and benefit from the functionality of a leading system in North America. Although there was interest, the other departments were not able to participate due to timing and the costs. Since then, WCS has formed a partnership with the Faculty of Education to provide registration services for online courses in Advanced Certificates in Teaching, which is beneficial to both stakeholders and an excellent opportunity for professionals in education to gain knowledge and skills in Educational Leadership, Early Childhood Education, eLearning and more. Compared to WCS’s previous system, the new system has the capacity and features to promote the courses, serve a high volume of students and provide strong reporting tools for making decisions.
There are a variety of intangible reasons that leaders may be resistant to scaling, including negative experiences in previous collaborations, dealing with ambiguity, fear of failure, and protective about the traditional way of doing their work.
Evo: In your experience, how do staff and faculty typically react to changes—either to technology or to process—that are made in the interest of scaling?
CY: Reaction to change varies. Certain departments are in a constant place of change, others less so. In university continuing education, change is a reality and employees who work in these departments are generally more progressive.
At WCS, our vision is “innovative leadership in lifelong learning” and we do our best to demonstrate our commitment to new approaches that will enable us to make a difference and expand lifelong learning at our institution, in our community and beyond. However, we are a small team and our business model is cost recovery, therefore, in meeting the expectations of our stakeholders and the growing demand in adult learning, we need to be strategic about our decisions.
In our interactions with faculty, we generally find there are deans and department chairs who are open to collaboration on initiatives that are made in the interest of scaling. The challenge for all of us pertains to resources, specifically having the people who can participate in new projects and invest their budget, while looking after everything else on the go. You can only ask people so many times to take the short-term pain for long-term gain.
Evo: What can leaders do to overcome these obstacles?
CY: To overcome these obstacles, I have a few recommendations:
1. Stay informed: Take time to find out about scaling projects at your institution and in continuing education. What are the benefits? Lessons learned? As a member of the Canadian Association of University Continuing Education (CAUCE), I get the benefit of listening and learning from my colleagues at industry functions and through webinars.
2. Enroll in project management courses: The knowledge and skills gained from project management courses are particularly relevant to the concept of scaling. Skills acquired through planning, communication, setting budgets and managing project risk are strong assets in all projects and enable collaboration.
3. Develop partnerships: In continuing education, the most successful examples of scaling are achieved through collaboration, including academic and business relationships. WCS has joined forces with institutional partners, internal and external, to maximize its resources and accommodate growth.
Evo: What advice would you share with other higher education administrators looking to scale operations at their own institutions?
CY: Beyond my recommendations in the previous question, my advice for administrators is to foster and support a culture of constant change in your team. Take time to celebrate small wins in order to build an organization that is receptive to change.
Author Perspective: Administrator