Published on 2013/08/02

The Ins and Outs of Building a Continuing Education Unit

AUDIO | The Ins and Outs of Building a Continuing Education Unit
As a start-up continuing education unit, understanding how to serve the very different needs and expectations of the adult student population and building relationships both on and off campus can be among the most significant challenges.

The following interview is with Chris LaBelle, director of professional and non-credit education at Oregon State University (OSU). LaBelle presented at the UPCEA national conference in April on his experience in setting up OSU’s non-credit continuing education (CE) unit from scratch. In this interview, he discusses the strategies his unit has put in place to meet the varying needs of their non-traditional student population, and some of the challenges the unit is facing as it continues to evolve.

1. Why did OSU decide to develop a CE unit?

There had been several attempts to start a continuing education unit. And so, in fact, in many ways we really resuscitated or jump-started a very small portfolio of courses and expanded that. [We] shifted the focus of continuing education across the campus. …

The efforts stem from an interest in a few things. One is our campus has grown their focus around outreach and engagement. At Oregon State University, a new division formed several years ago around outreach and engagement and as a part of the University’s desire to meet more public good, since we’re a land grant university, and also to just remain relevant as the educational terrain changes.

There was a desire amongst administrators to focus more on continuing education and on a non-traditional audience, which also gives our colleges an opportunity to generate new revenue streams but also just to help expand their reach for promotion. I would also say just to help bring more students into the degree programs as well.

2. What were the challenges you encountered at the early stages of this process?

Like a lot of things in life, when you’ve tried something several times and the attempt wasn’t as successful as you hoped, there’s a residue after you’ve gone through the attempt and it didn’t yield the outcome you were hoping for. I think that was, in many respects, one of the most difficult parts of the process … simply that there had been eight directors over a period of about eight years, and so it felt like a revolving door and an opportunity that didn’t sound very appealing to me. So it took some time to convince me … that there would be enough support so that the effort would be set up for success, or at least have a marginal opportunity for success.

And, in fact, it really has been this time. There were some changes made in terms of the amount of budget that was appropriated to the effort and that translated into staff and into having dedicated, differentiated staffing and infrastructure as we really tried to resuscitate, jumpstart, the interest across campus to focus more resources towards the development of continuing education courses and programs. … And, when you look at Eduventures and various reports that have surfaced recently about the types of units that are having success with continuing education, one of the things that struck me is that reference for the need to be differentiated in staff and approach and infrastructure. Some of that is simply because the educational market space for continuing education has tightened up. It’s still very big, but it’s become much more competitive. And, that space, you can’t simply take your for-credit staffing and infrastructure and business model and map that directly into a plan that’s going to work for this very different audience. …

We needed to find people who are entrepreneurial, who are willing to think outside of the margin of the kind of typical academic conventions that have served a lot of the universities as well but has become a hazard of sorts once you start to chase training contracts and you’re dealing with different types of deadlines and expectations vis-à-vis private industry. So, those are some of the things that stand out. There are many more — some that even we’re still dealing with — but I think those are the primary obstacles.

3.  You mentioned a number of different needs that students looking for continuing education and non-credit programming had, as compared to those who are in for-credit programs, and that this created difficulty in directly mapping what you’re doing in for-credit education with what was happening in non-credit. Could you expand a little bit on those differences in needs that you had to meet with different approaches to programming?

I would say the first — that need that we really tackled early on over the last two years, so, probably over the first six months — was the need to provide the potential online student with an e-commerce-friendly transaction and, so, here on campus, we use Banner, which works fine within the context of a matriculated student and a lot of the funding and privacy requirements that exist in such a large enterprise. However, we wanted to really move the user experience to something closer to, compared to the for-credit student’s experience here at OSU, where one finds the code for a class and enters that into a rather archaic web form and then waits for a period of time and then a bill hopefully arrives and then there’s some reconciliation and it kind of goes on and on.

And the challenge is that what students in the open market are expecting is an e-commerce experience where they can pay very quickly, they can gain access to the course immediately and they have the kind of information about the course that’s relevant to their specific workforce needs. … So, really making sure that the value proposition of our courses is very clear … to students as it relates to their work-related needs.

We do serve a lot of hobbyists. I tend to refer to them as “advanced hobbyist;” they’re very passionate and very proficient, but the same type of value proposition exists for them as well. And that sounds trivial but it’s really not. It’s something that, after a year, we were still refining and still working on now. And that manifests itself through the e-commerce enrollment payment system but it also is connected to our web presence and how we think about the users’ — I say “user” loosely, so, student user — preferences.

For a lot of our online, I guess you’d say, dialogue with students, we’re very careful to use a lot of video and to ensure that the content is relevant for them, which is a different narrative. It’s a different set of needs than [for] matriculated on-campus students. So, beyond that, I guess in terms of needs, there’s the obvious connection to things like ongoing occupational continuing education, so various occupations have requirements about how many hours an employee needs to log per year to maintain, kind of, a certification or status. So, making sure that that information is clear and also so that we can deliver on providing a record of that student’s experience and a very clear reference to the CEUs [continuing education units] or the hours logged so a transaction is easily ported to meeting the requirements vis-à-vis the employer or the professional agency who tracks them on that.

It’s just a very different experience for our users which encompasses a very different set of needs.

4. Now that the unit is up and running, what are the most significant challenges you are facing today?

I think one of the first things that comes to mind is how fast our world changes on the continuing education side and, so, it’s very hard to keep up on all levels in terms of what’s happening in the larger market. One thing that I have heard at one of the last UPCEA conferences was a very seasoned, wise CE administrator mentioned that he was continuously changing his business models to adjust to the changing markets. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that from what I’m seeing, in that we’re in the kind of business where complacency will undo us. So, that’s one issue, is the rate of change and the need to adjust for all kinds of different reasons. And that can be difficult in a university environment. … We deal with, on a very regular basis, a lot of institutional rules and expectations that make it difficult for us to be nimble.

Beyond that I would also say that it can be difficult to, in terms of what I would call a new continuing education unit, to meet the expectations of the rest of the university during this infancy period because so much of what we’re doing is really in the startup mode, which requires a lot of capital expenditure, a lot of patience. And there’s a lot of relationship building that is occurring now for us and, so, we’re slowly winning the trust of departments and colleges, and not every project generates the kind of revenue that an established continuing education unit generates.

We also just deal with a number of geographic challenges. We are a part of a large university but we are geographically very isolated and that’s difficult for continuing education. It’s a challenge for us to offer on-site programs and to assume that we can offer those for more than a year without exhausting our audience.

And, so, in all of that I guess what I would say is it’s tempting to compare yourself to other peer universities, and that can be difficult relative to the expectations those around you have in terms of the rate of growth, the amount of revenue generated, based on a timeline. So, when looking at peer universities, I think that the biggest challenge is to remind ourselves that there are many universities who have been at this for many decades and have various advantages and disadvantages compared to our university.

So, to sum up, I think back to the question of what are some of the continuing ed challenges; I think it’s to embrace a realistic set of expectations about what continuing education means to the university and that really has to be owned by the core leadership of the university for the endeavor to work.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add in regards to the creation of a continuing education unit or a non-credit unit and making that unit successful?

I guess what I should mention as well is, we have the right leadership in place right now to have made this happen. So, the individuals above me really took some risks and are still taking some level of risk in pursuing this, and I think we had some wins and enough wins to hopefully justify the continued effort, but I want to acknowledge that as well.

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Readers Comments

Lisa C 2013/08/02 at 9:43 am

This interview illustrates why CE units have to be flexible and able to respond quickly to changes. It’s interesting that once enrollment opens, the CE unit really has no idea what type of student will sign up for courses. LaBelle notes that his unit has seen a lot of “advanced hobbyists,” and I could see the value propositions for them being quite different from that of credit-seeking students.

CE units have to be able to respond effectively to these different groups in order to be successful.

Dan Jones 2013/08/05 at 4:44 pm

The point about importance of creating a top-of-the-line online shopping experience for students really shouldn’t be overshadowed here.

A lot of universities operate extremely rudimentary systems for registrations and student tracking. At some schools, students are only allowed to register for courses during a three-hour window on a specific day! Goodness help you if your internet goes out or you can’t get to a computer.

It may seem like an afterthought, but creating a shopping experience that closely mirrors what students are used to from other industries can make all the different when it comes to retention and encouraging future enrollments.

Kendra Willis 2013/08/12 at 9:32 am

One of the key challenges is getting the main institution to understand the reality of CE unit operations. Many institutions, I feel, head into this endeavor with the unrealistic expectation of achieving immediate success. They compare their start-up CE units with for-profit providers, and wonder why the former aren’t able to turn around profits like the latter can. The CE unit has to be prepared to manage expectations.

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