Leveraging Your Infrastructure: Effective Scaling in the Continuing Education EnvironmentJeffrey S. Russell | Dean of Continuing Studies and Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Working adults are enrolling in higher education programs—both credit-bearing and non-credit—in greater numbers than ever before as the changing labor market demands employees to continue learning over the course of their careers. With specific goals in mind and unique needs to be met, scaling to serve this growing demographic presents specific and significant challenges for institutional and continuing education leaders. In this interview, Jeffrey Russell shares his thoughts on the critical importance of scaling, some of the roadblocks standing in its way and the role technology plays in these efforts.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it imperative for continuing education divisions to strive to serve greater numbers of students?
Jeffrey Russell (JR): Changing demographics, economic and social needs are causing us to be much more serious about all of us being lifelong learners. In that context, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for continuing education divisions to really focus on need, think about where they can have an impact and how to organize and structure themselves so they can actually scale to meet the needs and have the greatest impact.
Evo: Should CE divisions focus on building their own programming and content or instead focus on working with campus partners to respond to this growing demand?
JR: I think it’s all of the above. I wouldn’t argue that CE should be isolated and in siloes from other disciplinary experts on campus and I wouldn’t even limit it to just campus—I would also say professional and industry consortiums, organizations and non-profits should work collaboratively with them through the whole needs assessment and need identification process. The needs can come from anywhere: It could be in a private sector, it could be in a non-profit, or it could be in a governmental organization. The ability to design the appropriate education and learning can be supported from a number of disciplinary units on campus as well as internally from the continuing education unit.
Evo: What are some of the core challenges in creating access for greater numbers of non-credit students?
JR: There are a number of challenges. We clearly have a culture of being needs-based and learner-centered, but I think that’s becoming even more nuanced around the infrastructure and the tools that you need around tracking and understanding the marketplace. The rate of change is so fast that it’s critical to have systems and technologies in place—like an LMS, marketing automation and a number of broader tools—that provide more feedback and engagement to the learner.
Some organizations clearly have learner engagement better integrated than others, but I think offering a seamless and high-quality learner experience has to be a priority for universities and especially for continuing education. The marketplace is becoming so much more competitive and nuanced, so using infrastructure to keep up with this change is really front and center for a lot of us.
Evo: What about the customer side? How does an institution deal with a student today who is used to banking and shopping online and taking care of all these processes quickly and easily?
JR: It’s going to vary by institution in terms of how they think about that. What we think about here is finding the real value proposition for the learner and where, from a marketplace perspective, we are differentiating ourselves.
I’m not going to go as far to say that we treat the learner as a customer in a commodity sense, but I do think that people are looking for a way to engage and have meaningful learning experiences. I think that’s the tension between how we do this in a way that we can scale, so that we can give more students the opportunity for learning, while on the flip side retain the elements that are intimate, that are really important and unique and fulfilling to the student.
Evo: How can CE leaders scale in such a way that the academic quality and student experience being delivered remain the same—or better?
JR: One important piece is that there has to be more clarity and focus around areas that you’re going to pick to actually scale. It’s one thing to be a boutique in a small group in a given particular domain, but you have to find the market opportunity and the need, then ask what you’re going to focus on to make it happen. The other part that’s important relative to the quality of the learning is the continual refinement in testing against the learner, the learning objectives and whether we are designing and delivering learning in the most meaningful and impactful way. The third piece is a question of technology, which is where we are today. If we’re not thinking about the role of technology in higher education, it’s going to be more difficult to have the scale and the impact that we would like.
People are behaving more like customers today, whether it’s online shopping or how they consume news or how they maintain a network of friends, and it’s clear that technology plays an important part in that. So it’s critical to get the right infrastructure in place to support students at scale at the quality level they want.
There’s no easy answer to that and there are a lot of interdependent elements, but I think it’s an exciting space that many units across the country are navigating through.
Evo: What are some of the roadblocks to effective scaling, especially at a public institution?
JR: We have had very talented, committed and capable folks working to deliver these high-quality learning experiences, and I think the challenge going forward is how to better manage our portfolios and our cost structures and revenue streams as things evolve. The other element is that it’s not easy to amass the breadth and depth of resources needed to build the infrastructure and to compete. There’s that old saying “the chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and I think that, given the cycle time that it takes for us to develop some of our courses and then deliver them and then get feedback on them, we’re not as nimble as we could be. Most of us in this business don’t swing for the fences and hit a grand slam the first time, so usually there’s some refinement that we have to go through.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to build the infrastructure at scale that today’s students need to succeed in both degree-seeking non-credit settings?
JR: What I would call hard lines between non-credit and credit, and degree-seeking and non-degree-seeking students, are starting to melt. Some of the unique things we do around curriculum design are important things we can bring to help the campus better serve their degree-seeking students. What I see happening here is that we’re not convincing everyone but we’re getting people to think more about broader audiences and who they might be. We’re seeing who’s interested in quality learning experiences, and they’re not just resident, degree-seeking students and I think there’s a lot of synergy and opportunity that we can take advantage of on the infrastructure side because we have similar issues with scale. There are some exciting opportunities to continue to work collaboratively with our colleagues on campus to advance learning and advance the pedagogical design, the whole learning science, the whole delivery and evaluation phase in addition to the research side.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Administrator