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Intra-Institutional Collaboration to Improve Adult Accessibility

The EvoLLLution | Intra-Institutional Collaboration to Improve Adult Accessibility
The Advance Your Career portal helps working adults quickly and easily find courses and programs designed for non-traditional students offered across the university.

In February, the University of Wisconsin-Madison launched Advance Your Career, a one-stop portal that provides working adults with information about flexible and online for-credit programs and courses offered across the campus. A project requiring a significant amount of collaboration and commitment to innovation, the portal has been hugely successful since launching and is creating postsecondary accessibility for working professionals. In this interview, Jeffrey Russell discusses the impetus behind creating Advance Your Career, outlines the process and challenges of taking the portal from concept to reality, and shares his thoughts on what the future holds for the portal.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did UW-Madison decide to launch the Advance Your Career portal?

Jeffrey Russell (JR): We have over 40 programs across the university that are adult-serving and there was no single point of entry where they were aggregated.

We wanted to make the university more accessible and friendly to the adult learner through the portal. Adult learners want more flexibility and are looking for different types of modalities than a residential, face-to-face program.

Evo: Was this a response to a stated issue from students or more a recognition that, as an institution that has a focus on the adult market, more needed to be done to make education accessible to that group?

JR: We weren’t responding to any external requirements. The mission of the Division of Continuing Studies is to serve the adult learner and so although we’re a division—not a degree-granting entity—our mission is to provide high-quality learning experiences for the lifelong learner.

Part of offering high-quality learning opportunities is to serve those that want either a capstone credential or even a master’s or terminal doctoral degree. We want to better serve that audience, we want to help implement our mission, we want to help those on campus wanting to better-serve the audience of adult students by taking the lead and bringing everything together in the form of a portal.

Evo: What were the most significant challenges to taking the portal from concept to reality?

JR: We’ve got a very strong tradition of shared governance in Wisconsin in what I would call a highly decentralized system. The primary challenge was working with and communicating with those diverse programs on what we were proposing to do, why we were proposing to do it and how we were going to do it. Through that process, we made adjustments, we held a number of town hall meetings and there were a number of one-on-one consultations with the programs to make sure we addressed their concerns and integrated their good ideas.

Another element of that was the notion of the portal being external-facing, not internal-facing. When you’re external-facing, from a program point of view, how somebody considers different programs and the language that you use to encourage somebody to think about your program can be different than how you internally look at all of the attributes and unique features of the program. As we were putting together text that would describe the programs, there was a lot of give and take. Historically for academic programs we tend to really focus on the academic elements of it—pedagogy, structure, rankings of the program, expertise of the institutional faculty and staff—but when you look at the portal, what we’re trying to do is make a strong case for each program and demonstrate what students are able to pursue with it and what employers say about it.

Evo: As the student demographic becomes more non-traditional, will continuing education units have to play a larger role in helping their colleagues express the benefits of their programs in these new labor market-relevant terms?

JR: The mission of our division is to help reach more students with high-quality programs. That’s something that we’re hoping we can bring to the table— from a workflow and process and expertise perspective—to help these programs, because it is a different audience. How we message and the language that we use is important. At the end of the day, it’s being able to articulate what is unique and different around the learning experiences; that’s a key part of dealing with adult learners. People are there because they’re trying to build their skills and knowledge to help with their practice.

Success to us is not use of the web portal; it’s not driving up the number of applications such that we don’t make good decisions around who these programs are designed and suitable for. Success for us is making more students aware of the opportunities here and considering whether it makes sense, in terms of their career goals and or learning goals, to apply here. Our hope is there will be more students that will have opportunities to take advantage of our experience.

Evo: In six years, what do you hope the portal will look like and how do you think it’ll work?

JR: Since we’ve launched this, we’ve had thousands of people go on the site. Success is that we continue to grow the number of people that are on the site and actually request additional information. More eyeballs leading to requests for information translates to success because that means our portal is achieving our goal of increasing access by offering a organized and systematic pathway to institutional programming.

Evo: Is there anything you’d’ like to add about what you’re hoping the Advance Your Career portal will achieve in the future and what it took to actually build it?

JR: It took a tremendous amount of collaboration on the front end to launch the portal. Where we’re going next is to continue to enhance the functionality of the portal, and to include a section in that will highlight our non-credit offerings. We’re in the credit world so the currency is credit leading to the certificate, a credential and/or a master’s degree. However, we want to build out the portal to include some of the non-credit offerings that have a way to help those in the workforce that might want to come in for a stand-alone course. For us, going forward, we want to continue to try to add to the portal as we’re building programs on campus.

This interview has been edited for length.

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