Quality and Scalability: Key Drivers to the Success of Open SUNY
The national focus on degree and certificate attainment—driven by the importance of these credentials to labor market success and, in turn, to economic strength—has put pressure on colleges and universities to increase postsecondary access and success. In New York, the SUNY system is made up of 64 separate campuses all offering high-quality online programming, but until recently this array of online options was largely untapped outside each campus’s unique geographic area. Open SUNY is changing that. In this interview, Kim Scalzo reflects on the successes of Open SUNY since its launch and shares her thoughts on some of the most significant challenges the online provider must overcome in order to deliver on its mission.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did SUNY launch Open SUNY?
Kim Scalzo (KS): In 2010, SUNY announced a strategic plan called The Power of SUNY, which framed SUNY as the economic driver for the revitalization of New York state.
Open SUNY was one of the major initiatives of that strategic plan. We focused on creating a next-level strategy for online learning for SUNY to support the workforce development needs of the state and, in essence, to provide online degree and certificate programs for SUNY audiences primarily in support of some of the high-needs areas for our workforce. There was also an intentional focus on serving particular audiences that either didn’t have a college degree or who had a college degree but were looking for a more advanced credential that would either support their growth in their industry or help them move into a new industry.
It was really about bringing some strategy to what we’re doing in online learning statewide, and to have it be focused on the workforce development needs of New York.
Evo: How are stackable credentials being built into the Open SUNY model?
KS: We talk about these in terms of degree ladder options.
We know that the largest providers of online programs today are the community colleges with two-year programs, so we have created opportunities for “bachelor’s completion programs” (aimed at completers of associate’s degrees) and also for master’s degrees. Those are the two areas we’re targeting.
We’re also talking about the concept of stackable credentials in terms of micro-credentialing; offering more certificate-type programs that can lead to degrees. We’re looking at what our campuses are doing in non-credit professional development and how that can build toward credit-based options.
Evo: What differentiates Open SUNY from other online initiatives run by institutions across New York State?
KS: SUNY and many campuses across New York state have been offering online degree programs for many years. In fact, the SUNY Learning Network recently passed its 20-year anniversary.
Open SUNY was really about raising the bar for online education in terms of quality and scalability. When we look at the needs of our state, there are 10 million potential people in need of either their first or second degree, and most of those are non-traditional students.
The Chancellor set a target of 100,000 new students at SUNY by 2020 and we’re aiming to bring those students in primarily through online programs.
We also now have a Completion Agenda in place, which is about increasing the number of students who graduate with SUNY degrees or certificates from the current number of 93,000 to 150,000. It’s not just about granting those degrees, but also about helping students when they come into SUNY to complete on time and in areas that are relevant for where they want to go—whether that be to another degree or to the workforce.
It is important to achieve those targets and to have a focus for Open SUNY on quality. We have identified seven signature elements for Open SUNY Plus programs. The “Plus” is a designation of quality at the program level that includes things like personalized student support, a robust technological infrastructure, a financial model that supports scalability and a commitment to quality assurance, among others.
As we launched Open SUNY, the key differentiator was this focus on quality and scalability.
Evo: How challenging is it to maintain a distinct brand identity for Open SUNY while creating access to programming offered by institutions across the SUNY system?
KS: It is our 64 campuses who are offering the degree and certificate programs. Open SUNY, from a marketing or recruitment standpoint, is serving as a front-end in trying to provide access to all those offerings across SUNY so students can see what’s available to them and make the best choices for themselves.
We have actually had some conversations and done some testing of branding between SUNY, Open SUNY and our campuses. It’s clear that the Open SUNY brand and SUNY brand resonate more strongly, especially since we’re looking to attract students outside of each college’s unique geographic region.
The campuses see value in having their programs listed on the Open SUNY website and being promoted by Open SUNY because we can help drive more traffic and potential students to all the campuses.
Evo: What have been a few of the most significant challenges you and your colleagues have faced in getting Open SUNY off the ground?
KS: The diversity of our system is both a unique strength and represents some of our challenges.
From the student user-interface perspective we’re not like Penn State World Campus, where you come in and students have a strong front-end experience and access to a separate, unique set of degrees. We are not degree-granting at Open SUNY.
Once we get students in the door, it is a challenge to create a seamless experience as they begin interacting with each unique campus. We have a lot of students who transfer between campuses—who might be at a home campus taking courses from other SUNY campuses, or who may start out on one campus and transfer to another.
Within our system, our campuses have quite a lot of autonomy. We don’t tell them what LMS they have to use or how they have to be organized or how they have to provide services. We set standards for quality that we hold the campuses to, but how they achieve those standards and how they implement the services and supports on their campuses can vary.
One of the challenges that we’re always trying to work through is creating a student experience that is as high-quality and supportive as possible, so that they don’t run into some of the challenges going from campus to campus.
Another challenge that we have is keeping to the scalability goals we have set. SUNY is a huge system but we are looking at achieving significant increases in terms of where we are today and where we want to be. Scaling what we’re doing to the numbers we’re trying to achieve is a challenge. We’re working really hard on preparing faculty to teach online and we’re collaborating with our campus administrations to understand what it takes to ensure quality and what it takes to scale.
That’s where we’ve focused a lot of our efforts in these early years to try and address those challenges around creating a seamless experience for students and scaling efforts to grow.
Evo: How do you hope to see Open SUNY continue to grow over its third year?
KS: We had a new provost come in at the system level and he has really been driving a lot of the elements of our completion agenda forward. He’s helping us to determine how Open SUNY fits into and supports that agenda.
As we look to the immediate future for Open SUNY, it’s really in focusing our efforts on the things that will have the greatest impact in supporting that completion agenda. That work includes bringing new students into the system as well as helping students who are currently enrolled to complete their programs on time and find pathways into their chosen next step, whether that is an advanced degree program or the labor market.
This means emphasizing our concierge model, which is one of the elements of our student support effort. It provides access for online students to the services and supports they need to complete their programs. It’s also about continuing concrete efforts in faculty support and online course redesign. We have shared a tool called the <OSCAR rubric>, which is Open SUNY’s quality review rubric. We’re also asking all of our campuses to participate in an ongoing cycle to refresh their online courses.
Those are two big focuses that we hope are going to have a huge effect on completion.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the success of the Open SUNY model?
KS: One of Open SUNY’s big successes has been that we have provided a forum and a mechanism for our campuses to collaborate with each other. This collaboration is around both developing new models for online teaching and learning—from the teaching perspective and from the support perspective—and also starting conversations around curricular collaboration at the degree and certificate levels.
As we look to the future, we’re hoping to facilitate those collaborations in even greater ways.
Author Perspective: Administrator