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Building a Foundation of Success: Lessons from Columbia College Chicago Online (Part 1)

The EvoLLLution | Building a Foundation of Success: Lessons from Columbia College Chicago Online (Part 1)
By working with forward-thinking faculty, instructional designers and best-of-breed vendors, Columbia College Chicago was able to develop a unique online curriculum that showcases the institution’s trademark creativity while meeting real-time industry needs.

Building out an online continuing education program can pose a challenge even to the largest higher education institutions. While many fledgling divisions turn to Online Program Management (OPM) vendors to ease their movement online, that pathway didn’t suit the ambitions or expectations of Columbia College Chicago and its new Columbia Online division. In the first of a two-part interview, Stanley Wearden and Robert Green discuss the lessons they learned in building out Columbia’s brand-new online program directed at lifelong learners, and point to how a best-of-breed infrastructure allowed them to exceed expectations and look to the future.  

Download this case study to learn more about how Columbia College Chicago leveraged Destiny One, the Customer Lifecycle Management system by Destiny Solutions, to help launch its Online Division.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): You started Columbia College Chicago Online essentially from the ground up. What were some of the most significant challenges that you had to overcome in developing an online presence that was going to appeal to learners?

Robert Green (RG): For me, the challenge was walking into a “blank slate” situation. Stan had the strategic vision of Columbia College Chicago Online as a major player in the online space, but we started from the ground up in every way imaginable. We had some coursework in an older version of an LMS, but nothing that properly represented Columbia from a product standpoint. That was our jumping off point: We needed to implement a new LMS, work with the amazing faculty to build unique programming, create a new website and enrollment system, and find marketing partners and vendors to work with.

We aspired to create a best-of-breed environment rather than going to one of the larger OPM vendors. This raised additional questions: what does best-of-breed look like? What do we want students to get out of an online educational experience that they can’t find in a classroom? We also had to justify our decision to go after the continuing education market rather than target traditional students. It was a significant amount of work, and we went from concept to launch in just over a year.

Stanley Wearden (SW):  The good thing about starting from the ground up is that it gives you a chance to reimagine the possibilities of a new system or platform in ways that directly fit your needs. To me, the biggest challenge lay in shifting the institutional culture around online education at Columbia.

As Rob said, Columbia had experimented with online education in the past. We had developed online courses with varying degrees of success, but we had no strategy for online education whatsoever. Quite simply, faculty members who were interested in offering online courses went ahead and did so. We had an open source LMS that wasn’t well supported and we had some people who trained faculty in the use of that LMS but they weren’t true instructional designers. We really had to gain faculty buy-in and revise preconceptions around what online education could achieve for our institution as a whole.

Evo: What led Columbia College Chicago to decide that non-traditional learners were a market worth pursuing?

RG: We took an analytical approach to determining our target market. As we know, higher education is evolving, and while the traditional path remains an amazing option for students, there is significant growth in the career advancement, career seekers and degree completers space.

SW: In the past, Columbia was behind in addressing the lifelong learning market in Chicago. We had previously experimented with continuing education, but it wasn’t considered a priority, nor was it particularly well promoted. We found that, even in a city like Chicago where you expect people to want to come and take courses on campus, prospective students were choosing to enroll with competitors who were offering courses online. That signalled a broader industry shift in terms of student preferences in continuing education, and we seriously lacked an understanding of just how much continuing education had moved into the online sphere. There’s a lot that we can offer, connected to our expertise in design and digital media, for which there is demand among both non-traditional learners and industry professionals.

Evo: How important was it to partner with faculty on the traditional campus to create this additional breadth of online offerings specifically designed for online learners?

SW: We worked with on-campus faculty who had showed an interest in building out online education, but we also brought in subject matter experts to help us direct our efforts more strategically. Our team didn’t yet have real deep expertise in augmented and virtual reality and data visualization, and we knew we wanted those areas to be part of our catalog, so it was important to find subject matter experts from outside our existing pool to help us develop those offerings. This process had faculty support, and helped us identify areas where we needed some quick faculty hires for the future.

RG: I think that’s always the case in a hybrid approach: working with existing resources but also looking to subject matter experts to get the best of both worlds.

Evo: What were some of the benefits of going with a best-of-breed approach in developing your online education infrastructure rather than going with a single service provider?

RG: We had a lot of internal discussion around whether to go with multiple vendors or with a single OPM, and what it came down to was not wanting to lock ourselves into a long-term agreement where a significant portion of our revenue was going to a single vendor. We weren’t able to hire a large team, so we had to be creative in our approach to building this out: because it was truly a greenfield undertaking, we decided to grow organically, own our core products and build out our catalogue from courses to certificates to degrees in a manner and on a timeline of our choosing. We also needed to network and establish agreements with key faculty members and SMEs to build out courses along with our instructional design team. We wanted to own our destiny and have the flexibility to make changes as we see fit, and the best-of-breed approach was the right way to accomplish those goals as we grow.

Stan and I have experienced both kinds of project build-outs. It was pretty enlightening when we ran a five-year PNL and looked what the outcomes would be with an OPM and what they would be if we controlled more of the components that an OPM would usually oversee.

SW: That was particularly enlightening for me as well. When Rob did the pro forma on that, it was clear that going with an OPM would be a costlier undertaking with lower margins.

Evo: How did the college develop its online offerings to serve the needs of the non-traditional demographic?

SW: Non-traditional learners can best be reached through non-traditional teaching modalities. Working adult learners have busy lives: It’s a challenge for them to find time to attend traditional bricks-and-mortar classes week after week. In putting together courses that an individual can take and use immediately without having to invest in a full degree program, we felt we would be able to address market demands more quickly and effectively. That’s not to say that there won’t be certificate and degree programs in the future, but we felt there was a clear market need that we wanted to address quickly.

Rob and I both have significant prior experience with online programs, and based on this experience, our market research, and some well informed intuition, we decided online offerings for adult learners were the way to go.

Evo: What were some of the aspects that most concerned you about developing Columbia College’s online education platform yourselves rather than partnering with a single provider?

SW: One of my early worries was that when you’re working with an OPM, at least in theory, you’ve got a partner who’s invested in the successful outcome of the project. They’re not just a vendor who gets paid regardless of whether you succeed or not.

On the other hand, many of the OPMs we talked to had an old-school view on the capabilities of an online environment. They were very focused on starting degree programs geared towards traditional learners. We had a different vision of where we wanted to go. We wanted to build a catalog of standalone courses and then package those courses into certificates based on demand. The OPMs didn’t understand that mindset.

RG: I agree. The OPMs were trying to fit us into their template, as opposed to coming up with a unique solution that was in line with our institutional goals.

OPMs are very valuable in many ways, but one of the things that was important to me was making sure that we really owned our curriculum. Columbia is a well respected arts institution, and we want to reflect our expertise in what we create. If we’d outsourced that, we may not have had the valuable input that our faculty and qualified instructional designers provided, which enabled us to develop that best-in-class standard.

Evo: What are some of the key differentiators that can help a college or university really stand out in the adult professional education market?

RG: For me, the key is developing a unique curriculum that meets current and future employment needs. We spent a lot of time looking at where employability in creative industries will be in the future, and that really helped to determine our curriculum. If we had just pulled together programs that are already well represented in the space, we would have gotten lost in the abundance of colleges offering similar programming.

That’s why we chose to go after AR/VR, data visualization and other new media areas that have a lot of growth potential. Focusing on these areas allows Columbia to put a stake in the ground as a leading creative institution.

Being flexible is another major advantage. Students find a lot of value in being able to cherry pick the courses that they need to advance their careers, start a business, or fulfill a passion. People who are busy in their day-to-day lives need to be able to access our programming and our online format allows them to do so.

Additionally, you must look at affordability in higher ed. We are going after a market where financial aid is not offered, and so an affordable pricing scheme is important in reaching our target market.

Finally, our courses need to be immediately applicable. The courses and programs that we’re building are meant to provide students with tangible skills that they can use with their employers or within their own entrepreneurial venture from the get-go.

SW: In addition to Rob’s list, I would have to say that having a concrete mission is key. What makes Columbia College Chicago stand out is its creative disciplines—design, web and app development, film and animation, music and composition, creative writing, and many other fields—with a heavy emphasis on learning the technologies relevant to those disciplines. It has been absolutely key to keep that mission top of mind while developing a curriculum that will stand head and shoulders above the competition.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. In the conclusion of this interview, Wearden and Green reflect on the importance of building a tailor-made infrastructure to ensure they could serve their students and scale.

Download this case study to learn more about how Columbia College Chicago leveraged Destiny One, the Customer Lifecycle Management system by Destiny Solutions, to help launch its Online Division.