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The Downside to the Upsell: Why Pushing Students from Courses to Programs May Be a Mistake

The EvoLLLution | The Downside to the Upsell: Why Pushing Students from Courses to Programs May Be a Mistake
Designing non-credit courses exclusively to upsell students into programs misses the main thrust behind the growth in the online education environment: just-in-time learning.

Simon Fraser University Continuing Studies in Vancouver, Canada has moved 80 percent of its Marketing and Communications programs from in-class to online. Since then we’ve noticed an interesting trend—as the number of registrations in individual courses increased significantly, the completion rate for the programs they are part of has dropped.

In our online editing program the completion rate is 30 percent. For Technical Communications it’s 22 percent and in Plain Language—admittedly, a new program—only 10 percent of students indicate they plan to complete the program.

So what’s wrong? Isn’t the goal to upsell single-course students to full-program students? Is it a marketing failure? Do we need to double our efforts? Do our learners doubt the value of our programs?

On the contrary, we believe the shift to open enrollment online programming has given our continuing studies students what they have always asked for: more choice, more flexibility and more control over their education.

Learners focused on growing their job skills are pragmatic. They know what they want from a course and, given a choice, will take only the courses or programs they need. Online courses, with their flexibility and “pay as you go” registration, are attractive to adult learners seeking specific training.

And these learners are flocking to online courses. The majority of them are looking for specific courses—not programs. The fact that a minority of these students is likely to complete full programs should not be viewed as a failure. The reality is that a majority of these learners possess neither the time nor interest to spend a year or more to complete a program unless doing so will provide a direct skills benefit.

We are adjusting to this new market by changing the way we structure and market our online programs and courses. We still leave the door open for single-course learners to be upsold to full programs by allowing them up to five years to complete a program. We have also structured the online programs so they can be completed, part time, in 14 months or less by the learner in a hurry.

We have also shifted our marketing strategy. Rather than chase a small minority of students interested in full programs our marketing efforts focus on the growing majority of learners looking for a course, or two, or three. Our marketing message is now “start with a course.”

Our website, viewbook and online ads focus on course details and dates. We have shifted our program information sessions from in-class in Vancouver to online via Go To Meeting.

The shift in offerings and marketing has turned the old expression “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” on its head. Registration in courses such as Plain Language Principals, Grammar and Copy Editing have skyrocketed by more than 60 percent while the completion rates for whole programs they are part of is now below 30 percent.

In a perfect world, continuing studies students would only sign up for programs. But the shift toward online learning has made it easier for learners and more complicated for institutions. The choice and flexibility of online learning means students can get the courses they want, where and when they want them, even if they don’t complete a full program.

We have to adapt to this new digital world of continuing education. Ignoring it means missing a growing market. Continuing Studies at SFU will soon offer more online courses than does the credit-bearing side the university. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. A decade ago online courses were viewed as poor substitutes for in-class courses. Today universities, from elite to regional, now embrace online lifelong learning. Institutions without online courses and programs risk becoming the rotary phones of a digital age.